Trendy meat with staying power: Italian mortadella having culinary renaissance

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LOS ANGELES – Rounds of sliced-thin, pink, white-speckled mortadella are popping up on sandwiches, on charcuterie plates and even in the occasional cocktail, but it’s hard to view any food item depicted in ancient Roman carvings as a flash in the pan. The Italian deli meat that traces its roots to Bologna and as far back as the Etruscans isn’t new, but of late it’s been gaining the kind of star power that salami and prosciutto have hogged for too long.

At Grandmaster Recorders in Hollywood, mortadella comes plated with cacio e pepe-seasoned zeppole and pecorino.(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Mortadella —  a popular cold cut throughout Italy for centuries —  is making meaty waves in the U.S., where a maligned derivative, bologna, lacks the nuance in texture and flavor of its inspiration.

A blend of pork cuts and fat, originally ground together in a mortar in the Emilia-Romagna region, mortadella is essentially a large cooked pork sausage spiced with myrtle, garlic and pepper. In 1998, it received its own Protected Geographical Indication —  meaning its ingredients and methods must adhere to a strict set of criteria to be considered authentically regional.

While some skew traditionalist, mortadella’s variances have been embraced across continents, giving the meat even more audience as it made its way into a range of cultures.

Late 19th century Italian immigrants in Brazil made mortadella a staple for pockets of South America, later proving a childhood mainstay of restaurateur John Borghetti, co-owner of Los Feliz’s Nossa Caipirinha Bar. Last summer Borghetti informed chef-partner Rory Cameron that he regularly ate mortadella sandwiches when growing up in Brazil, and Cameron knew he wanted to add one to the new bar’s menu.

Cameron tasted four or five varieties of mortadella, ordering whole, deli-sized tubes at a time, and landed on maker Fra’Mani in Berkeley. It’s served on a locally made, toasted Homeboy Industries bun and gets topped with burrata. Biquinho peppers and their juice are incorporated into mayo that’s slicked over the bun, while chopped guindilla peppers form a kind of slaw for crunch.

That cross-cultural appeal is a benefit for Travis Hayden, one of the few chefs in Los Angeles making his own mortadella.

“You find it in Brazil, or Portugal has a version of it, or France or throughout Italy,” he says, “which is nice because it gives me some leeway.”

“People have started talking about mortadella,” Hayden says. “It’s like the tinned fish of charcuterie.” Some nights nearly every table orders the mortadella, despite multiple other varieties of house charcuterie also being available.

It takes Hayden about eight hours to prepare mortadella: He weighs out and either grinds or slices pork shoulder and fatback. He blanches the pistachios, then peels them from their casing by hand, which takes about an hour and a half. He measures out the wine and dry components, readying his station and finally setting his high-powered mixer in motion.

He begins by emulsifying the pork meat, adding the garlic and wine. Then come the aromatics and spices, the milk powder and the fat. He pauses occasionally to take its temperature, ensuring his emulsification won’t break. The more the blades spin, the hotter it gets; he adds ice, little by little, as the temperature climbs. As it spins, the emulsification turns from a bright pink to a creamy white and forms a kind of paste; it’s emptied into a large metal bowl, where he folds in the fat cubes and blanched pistachios.

Hayden unveils a large metal contraption to compress the sausage into the casing, where an airlock at one end pushes the air out, while an attached tube at the other extrudes the meat into the synthetic casing.. Without use of a full kitchen, he cooks the mortadella in a water-filled catering pan atop portable electric burners, slowly bringing the temperature up, then hangs it in the refrigerator for three days before it’s ready for the wine bar’s customers.

“As our regional Italian-food culture has become much more robust and more thoughtful, it’s that desire to be able to introduce people to something that might be unfamiliar,” L.A. restaurant owner Leah Ferrazzani says. “It’s a combination, to me, of: A bunch of East Coasters moved here in COVID, and then you have these chefs wanting to push the limit —  it’s not particularly expensive so it’s not something that’s a huge risk financially, but it offers a lot in complexity and flavor and texture that you can play around with.”

As with any trend, no one can predict where the growing ubiquity of mortadella will lead.

Wherever it does, call it a phase with 1,000 years of global staying power, call it a flash in the pan or call it “mortadellacore” —  just so long as you don’t call it bologna.

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