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.
Farther afield, you can find it stuffed into pasta at San Francisco's Flour + Water, and layered into many a Tartine Bakery panini. In Boston, restaurateurs Charles Sillari and Sebastian Fricia have even opened up a restaurant called Mortadella Head with a menu that makes heavy use of—well, you already know.
What is mortadella, exactly?
"Mortadella" is a catchall term to describe a cold cut made from pork scraps and pieces of 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 explains, 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: Making bologna involves a much simpler process, resulting in a less silky, nuanced texture than mortadella, plus it can be produced with other meats ground together with the pork, like beef.
What to do with Mortadella
These days, chefs seem harder pressed to think of dishes that wouldn’t be improved by mortadella. (Looking at you, grilled cheese.)
Charles Sillari, who developed the menu for Mortadella Head in Boston, 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 rethinking how home cooks use mortadella between two slices of bread: "Get a chunk of it, 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.
This Genius-approved pimento cheese is creamy, savory, just the slightest bit sweet (thanks, pimentos), and oh so cheesy, making it the ultimate sandwich spread. Parker & Otis in Durham, N.C., use it on a grilled cheese with crispy bacon, but we think it'd be even better with a few slices of mortadella.
A classic margherita pizza calls for little more than tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil in the way of toppings, but every once in a while we like to mix things up a little. Thick hunks of mortadella would make the perfect meaty plus-one to your next pie—either added on top after baking, or added beforehand to crisp up the edges.
Like Sillari mentioned, mortadella is an A+ addition to your standard meatball recipe. This one from iconic New York City restaurant Rao's is one of our all-time favorites (and when you think about it, it's really anything but standard).
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 oven 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, Either
What are your favorite ways to use mortadella? Let us know in the comments.
Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist 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.
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