Italian

The Italian Cold Cut That’s Currently Rocking Restaurant Kitchens

August 21, 2018
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Mortadella is having a moment.

As a cured meat obsessive, I’ve always vaguely known about it—mainly as an element of certain sandwiches, like the muffuletta. But it wasn’t until recently that I started encountering it almost every time I went out to eat.

Mortadella is an Italian cold cut made of pork and often studded with pistachios. It's seasoned with a mixture of peppers, caraway, and garlic, and has a disarmingly silky texture, thanks to a healthy dose of pork fat. Its existence dates back to the Roman empire, and a cool 2,000 years later, mortadella is spreading like, well, whipped mortadella through the food scene in New York and beyond.

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There's a whole herd of New York restaurants joining in on the fun. Mortadella's the star of a delicate, open-faced amuse bouche at Tribeca’s Frenchette, and rears its pink-and-white head as a pizza topping at both Emmy Squared and Ops. You can get it on grilled focaccia at Coco Pazzo, or sliced thick and fried like a cutlet at Katana Kitten. And over at Black Seed, they're pairing it with mustard butter, a fried egg, and a pretzel bagel for a limited edition sandwich.

Further afield, you can find it stuffed into pasta at San Francisco's Flour + Water, and layered into many a Tartine Bakery panini. In Boston, restauranteurs Charles Sillari and Sebastian Fricia are even opening up a new restaurant called Mortadella Head with a menu that makes heavy use of—well, you already know.


What is mortadella, exactly?

"Mortadella" is a catch-all term to describe a cold cut made from pork scraps and pork fat, which gets added to the mixture in cubes and gives mortadella its telltale white polka dots when sliced. If you want to be more specific, “true” mortadella would be Mortadella Bologna, a protected geographical indication (PGI) product made in select Italian regions.

The selection of Italian-produced mortadella in the U.S. is somewhat limited due to restrictive production requirements from the FDA, according to Dino Borri, Vice President of Purchasing for Eataly. All imported mortadella from Italy in the U.S. is in the “classica” style, Borri says—“You don’t see the biodiversity in the United States of mortadella that you do in Italy.” In Italy, he says, there are tons of varieties of mortadella with differing production methods, proportions of meat to fat, and mix-ins.


Hang on, did you say “Bologna”?

Sure did. What we call “baloney” or “bologna” in the U.S. is a distant relative of mortadella, thought to have made its way to America through German immigration. The main differences between bologna and mortadella are twofold: Bologna has a much simpler process to make it—resulting in a less silky, nuanced texture than mortadella—and it can be produced with other meats ground together with pork, like beef.

At Katana Kitten in NYC, the chef fries a thick slab of mortadella like a cutlet. Photo by Noah Fecks

What to do with it

These days, chefs seem harder pressed to think of dishes that wouldn’t be improved by mortadella. (Looking at you, grilled cheese.)

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Top Comment:
“Suggest: paper thin slices of mortadella (with pistachio), ribboned on a base of mayonnaise and your favorite bread, topped with a sprinkle of alfalfa sprouts. This sandwich is known as an open face Californian.”
— Michelle S.
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Charles Sillari, who’s developing the menu for Mortadella Head in Boston (opening next month), has experimented with mortadella meatballs. “When I was a little kid, my grandfather had a friend who owned a pizza shop, and people went crazy for his meatballs. Everyone wanted to know why they were so good, and he wouldn’t tell anyone,” Sillari says. The chef’s secret? “He would grind the heel of mortadella down and add it."

Matt Hyland of Emmy Squared recommends re-thinking how home cooks use mortadella between two slices of bread: "Get a chunk of it and cut it into pieces, and brown them—it’s a different way to make a sandwich.” It’s also excellent with pizza, either thinly shaved atop warm slices, or the way it’s used at Emmy Squared, cut into little batons that crisp up in the oven.

In pasta, mortadella can be used in place of another cured meat like bacon (in other words, cut into rods and crisped into oblivion) or as a a filling for stuffed noodle shapes.


Where can I get mortadella?

Your best bet for sourcing mortadella is your local Italian specialty grocer, but you can find it at some deli counters within larger grocery stores, or through certain delivery services.

“Flavor and texture are the most important things,” says Mike Fadem, who mans the pizza at Ops. “Everything in balance. The flavor should be unmistakably mortadella, none of the spices jumping out ahead of the others. And the flavor of the pork should be at the forefront.”


You won't regret piling it on top of warm focaccia

What are your favorite ways to use mortadella? Let us know in the comments.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dnavarro
    Dnavarro
  • kgw
    kgw
  • QwertyJuan
    QwertyJuan
  • Michelle Slatalla
    Michelle Slatalla
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

8 Comments

Dnavarro May 19, 2019
I found the BoarsHead brand Mortadella at my local deli and pile into my sandwich it adds great flavor.
 
kgw August 24, 2018
QJ,
Sorry you missed out on the good stuff! Check out pp. 18-19 in Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking."
 
QwertyJuan August 24, 2018
It's nothing special... it's just Italian bologna. I used to eat it 30-35 years ago as a kid in school. It NEVER had pistachios in it though... only peppercorns. Are pistachios a new thing??

I'm pretty sure any Italian would laugh at the idea of suggesting mortadella was some sorta delicacy. It's no sopressata, capicola or prosciutto, I can tell you that! :)
 
Michelle S. August 22, 2018
Suggest: paper thin slices of mortadella (with pistachio), ribboned on a base of mayonnaise and your favorite bread, topped with a sprinkle of alfalfa sprouts. This sandwich is known as an open face Californian.
 
Nate August 21, 2018
This was interesting
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. August 24, 2018
Thanks, Nate!
 
kgw August 21, 2018
I love the stuff! In my wanderings, I have heard that the larger the sausage, the longer it is in the smokehouse, and so the flavors are deepened to perfection! So buy the big ones!
 
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Ella Q. August 22, 2018
Hi kgw,

That's an interesting tip! Thanks for sharing.

Ella