How Mortadella Went From Cold Cut to Hot Item

By the standards of Bologna, Simona Scapin is a mortadella upstart. That’s not only because she’s young and the sole local producer of certified organic mortadella. Nor is it just because her family has been making mortadella for a mere four decades in the city where the recipe was ordained by papal authority in 1661.

“People think that a girl can’t be a butcher,” she said. “But I was born to do this.”

In the streets around the Piazza Maggiore, it can seem as if Bologna produces nothing else, with window after window filled with cylinders of mortadella showing off their patterns of pink meat, bright white fat and sometimes a constellation of pistachios, olives or truffles. Some mortadellas are as big around as a beach ball, and watching workers armed with giant blades carve off thin, silky slices for sandwiches is hypnotic.

“The mosaic of the mortadella is a beautiful thing,” said Evan Funke, who lived and studied in Bologna before opening his Los Angeles restaurants Felix and Mother Wolf.

Simona Scapin checks on mortadellas during the 24- to 48-hour cooking process.Credit…Federico Borella for The New York Times
Mortadella is synonymous with the city of Bologna; Simoni is a favorite local producer.Credit…Federico Borella for The New York Times

Mr. Funke is one of the chefs who have led the recent resurgence of mortadella in the United States, moving it from the low end of the deli case to the center of salumi boards and beyond. His version of mortazza, the Roman lunch of mortadella folded into pizza bianca, shows off the transcendently simple combination as the fat in the sausage melts into the hot bread, perfuming each bite.

But the trip from Renaissance Italy to modern American tables has taken some work.

Traditional mortadella, a fine emulsion of fresh pork with the prized white fat from the back and throat of the pig, is an unusually finicky and labor-intensive product even for expert salumiere to make. But as Italian food production was industrialized in the early 20th century, mortadella became mechanized, canned and cheap. And American consumers have long associated it with bologna and other unfashionable cold cuts like olive loaf and head cheese — mysterious meats of dubious appeal to modern tastes.

It didn’t help that Italian mortadella, along with other cured meats, was banned from import by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1967 until 2000, out of an abundance — many called it an excess — of caution in response to persistent outbreaks of swine flu, a virus transmitted by contact with pigs, not through food.

The mortazza at Funke in Los Angeles is based on a traditional Roman street food — with an American-size helping of mortadella.Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times

But top-quality imported mortadella has returned, and the nose-to-tail movement has deepened Americans’ curiosity about cured meats like French charcuterie and Italian salumi. Some chefs are even making it themselves. With help from the European Union’s labeling laws and the rise of Instagram and TikTok (and their endless charcuterie boards), mortadella is getting a second act in America.

Recipe: Mortadella Mousse

Exports of mortadella to the United States have spiked, rising to 1,200 tons in 2022 from 786 in 2019, according to data from Assica, the trade organization of Italian meat producers.

Tony Fiasche of Tempesta Artisan Salumi, a fifth-generation butcher in Chicago, said that when he was growing up, the Sunday after-church snack consisted of bread still warm from the oven and a pound or two of mortadella from the best deli in the neighborhood. “A match made in heaven,” he said, and the inspiration for the premium product he now makes for Whole Foods Market and upscale pizzerias around the country.

Joe Paisch, the butcher at Rolo’s restaurant in Brooklyn, makes mortadella twice a week, to be served with the restaurant’s softly charred polenta bread and milky stracciatella. (He said mortadella’s substantial girth stems from the size of the pig’s colon — “bung” in butcher speak — that was the traditional casing.)

Mr. Paisch treats meat with a respect that borders on the reverential, and glowed with pride as he pushed chunks of meat and fat through the grinder three times, adding ice to prevent the emulsion from breaking.

The mortadella katsu sando at Katana Kitten in Greenwich Village is filled with a breaded “cutlet” of mortadella.Credit…Scott Semler for The New York Times

Because mortadella is cooked rather than cured, it needn’t be as aggressively salted as prosciutto, salami, and other salumi; nutmeg and white pepper give it a delicate perfume. On salumi plates at restaurants like Lodi in Rockefeller Center, mortadella balances out the saltier, drier and darker meats like prosciutto and culatello with its silky texture and pastel color scheme.

And some mortadella is being put to more untraditional use. Win Son Bakery, a creative Taiwanese American diner in Brooklyn, makes a scallion pancake sandwich stuffed with mortadella, egg, melted cheese and pickled peppers. At Katana Kitten, a West Village take on a Japanese izakaya, the most popular sandwich is a thick slice of mortadella, coated and crisped with panko, scraped with mustard and layered on milk bread.

Recipe: Mortadella Sandwich With Ricotta and Pistachio Pesto

Last week, at a sold-out pop-up at A & C Super in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the pizza expert Anthony Falco was thoughtfully draping mortadella on a round of his sesame-sprinkled “grandma focaccia.” His version of a New Orleans muffuletta is primarily mortadella, covered with fresh mozzarella, homemade olive giardiniera, pistachio powder, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and pickled red onions.

Then he added slices of capicolla, soppressata and salami rosa, all from the California salumi expert Paul Bertolli, who started making mortadella decades ago at his Berkeley workshop, Fra’ Mani.

“There was some residual snobbery” when he began, Mr. Bertolli said, because consumers associated mortadella with bologna and liverwurst. “It was a lot harder to sell a meat paste” back then, he said. Now, mortadella, salami rosa (a similar, even more ancient product) and ’nduja, a fermented paste of dried chiles and pork from Calabria, are all popular.

Mortadellas in Bologna can be so large that skilled workers need a coltellina, a sawlike knife, to cut them. Credit…Federico Borella for The New York Times

In Italy, mortadella’s prestige peaked during the Renaissance, when ingredients like peppercorns from East Asia and pistachios from the Mediterranean were fabulously expensive, and artful food became a medium of conspicuous consumption for families like the Medici and the Borgias.

Mortadella evolved into an everyday luxury, eaten in cubes with Lambrusco as an aperitivo, ground into the filling for tortellini in brodo and added to zuppa imperiale, a classic soup for Christmas.

But the Industrial Revolution was not kind to mortadella, which was adapted for canning in the 19th century and, like Spam, shipped all over the world; Brazil and Puerto Rico have strong mortadella fan bases. Industrial mortadella could be made from trim and offal, making it ever cheaper.

The modernist chef Massimo Bottura had to prod local butchers to return to traditional methods for Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, one of the dishes that made a global destination of his restaurant Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. Modena, Ferrara, and a few other cities in Emilia-Romagna are also considered acceptable locations for mortadella production by purists.

In the late 20th century, when the European Union began regulating and labeling “traditional specialties,” mortadella was one of the first Italian foods in line. “Mortadella Bologna” received protected status in 1998.

In 2001, large producers formed the Consorzio Italiano Tutela Mortadella Bologna to promote the “regina rosa” — pink queen — around the world.

Mortadella has a distinctive pastel color scheme — pink, green and white — that has helped make it popular on Instagram and TikTok.Credit…Scott Semler for The New York Times

But some producers feel the consortium doesn’t do enough to protect mortadella’s integrity. Although her products meet its standards, Ms. Scapin — Bologna’s mortadella upstart — refuses to accept the consortium’s stamp of authenticity. She has also declined the coveted European Union label, saying the designation wasn’t sufficiently strict.

“We are proud to not be part of it,” she said of her family’s company, Artigianquality.

That’s because approved “mortadella Bologna” does not have to be made in Bologna, or even in Emilia-Romagna, but can come from nearly anywhere in Northern Italy. (Like “New York-style” pizza, which can be made anywhere, the basic recipe doesn’t tell the whole story.) It can also be made with off-cuts like tripe, sugar, milk powder and other ingredients that she scorns.

A lingering source of controversy is the use of pistachios. Purists reject them as a Sicilian addition. Most U.S. producers leave them out anyway, to avoid the headaches of possible allergens.

But the combination of pale pink and mint green helped make mortadella a social media star, so crushed pistachios and pistachio crema have become ubiquitous as garnishes. The viral Paradiso sandwich from the Florentine chain All’Antico Vinaio — open now in Manhattan, Los Angeles and soon in Las Vegas — owes at least part of its success to its millennial-friendly color scheme.

Ms. Scapin sometimes uses pistachios, but rejects most encroachments on tradition.

“Mortadella is the highest expression of the pig and the land,” she said. “And it deserves the highest respect.”

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