Italy’s Great Salami Smackdown
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes a hunk of pork is more than a hunk of pork.
Italy can easily boast about its stunning castles, Roman catacombs, Renaissance art and lovely beaches. Yet what are two neighboring regions in central Italy battling over? Meat. More specifically, the origin of Italy’s most expensive salami, ventricina, which is claimed by both Molise and Abruzzo. Both also vehemently insist, of course, that theirs is the tastiest.
At the center of this great salami brouhaha: a 26-pound bundle of cured pork, stuffed with chili peppers and ground pepperoni, flavored delicately with fennel. But as delicious as it might sound, it looks awful. The first time I tried ventricina in Molise, I thought, “No way, that ain’t going down my food pipe.” It was the color of blood, with big chunks of white lard sticking out. Gross. But after a few bites of it, stuffed inside a panino and accompanied by a glass of white wine, I quickly understood why any region would want to claim the little-known delicacy as their own. Ventricina is delicate and melts in your mouth, the sweetness of the fat counterbalanced by the pungency of chili. A sandwich will set you back about $5 to $8 — depending on how much meat is piled on — which is well above the cost of a regular salami panino.
When visiting either of the contesting regions, prepare for protein overload. And for much chest-pounding and stories from locals about the ventricina battle. You’ll find butchers circulating their own salami propaganda — with leaflets, handouts and free samples at food fairs. Confession: I enjoyed the pageantry almost as much as the mouthwatering meat. “Ventricina was born in Abruzzo,” insists Gianni Rospi, head of a local committee of residents dedicated to winning the “origin” title. There’s even an academy here that maintains ventricina standards with strict regulations and protections at the European level, Rospi adds. Maria Pia Santi, who chairs the opposing committee in Molise, says no way — they “invented this salami way back in the 1700s … Abruzzo stole it.”
Molise salami-makers add more pepperoni, while in Abruzzo it’s more chili peppers.
But whatever. There are indeed differences between the two products, mainly how they’re made and with what ingredients. Molise salami-makers add more pepperoni, while in Abruzzo it’s more chili peppers — and be warned, they are hot. The meat starts out the color of pomegranate, becoming redder with more seasoning.
Which one is truly the best? Can you really taste a difference in pork that comes from a radius of a few miles? “It’s impossible” to tell where it was made, says Paolo del Bene, a gourmet-salami expert (yes, there is such a thing) based in Rome, a city that’s about as impartial as you can get when it comes to these bickering regions that are “so close.” Sure, there are tiny differences, he confirms, but “both variants are delicious.”
The salami smackdown speaks much of Italy’s so-called “provincialism” and local pride about food. After wine, of course. But once your belly is stuffed with ventricina, who cares about its birthplace? Here’s a thought: Maybe both — or neither! — created the great salami, and this battle is more about generating tourism than ownership of a big chunk of seasoned pork.