Il Mondo Vecchio's Mark DeNittis on fat sausages, scrawny chicken feet and breasts
Il Mondo Vecchio
1174 South Cherokee Street
I dig this job, and I'm having a blast," says Mark DeNittis, knocking back another swig from a bottle of Peroni, his beer of choice. In front of him is a plate of salumi, pulled from the meats he handcrafts and dry-cures at Il Mondo Vecchio, his pristinely clean Denver salumeria and Colorado's only USDA-inspected facility. DeNittis, who runs the production facility with fellow salumi geeks Adam Sacks and Gennaro DeSantis, is giddy about all of the meats, which swing from wire racks in a temperature-controlled back room. "I don't discount my roots or where I am from," says the former chef and current instructor at Johnson & Wales University, "but this is far better than any job I've ever had, and watching this place grow into a sustainable, multi-faceted global food manufacturing company has been incredibly rewarding."
The Massachusetts-born, first-generation Italian-American, who began teaching at Johnson & Wales in 2000 and opened the Il Mondo Vecchio plant last year, comes from a family of salumi addicts. "I grew up on the stuff -- that's what we ate in my neighborhood -- and a lot of the recipes for my salumi are family recipes," he says. Three years into teaching at JWU, DeNittis began sharing that obsession with his students, introducing the "hungry and passionate individuals seeking culinary excellence" to the process of dry-curing. But he was later asked to kill the class because it wasn't part of the university's standard curriculum -- and that's how the underground "meat club" came to fruition.
"We couldn't do it at the university any longer, so some of the students started a meat club, and with a little bit of coaching, we started curing our own meats and playing with our food," confides DeNittis. Not long after, DeNittis began producing peppered veal bacon and duck breast prosciutto, which eventually inspired him to open the plant. "We were outsourcing the veal and bacon, but it was cost-prohibitive," he explains, "and we realized that no one else was producing what we were, so we opened the space and starting making salumi."
Remarkable, flavor-bombed salumi that includes the best pepperoni you've ever had. "It's good, isn't it," deadpans DeNittis, as he takes another bite before returning to reminiscing about his upbringing, recalling the night he cooked for a former president and clucking at the mere thought of eating chicken feet.
Six words to describe your food: Ancestral, clean, simple, profound, insightful and true.
Ten words to describe you: Intense, short (physically), mindful, candid, honest, genuine, buoyant, resilient, certain and bold.
Favorite ingredient: Wine. It's flavorful and adds richness and depth to a multitude of things, most notably cured meats, plus I just love cooking with it, especially with braises and stews done slow and low. Most important, there's always some that ends up in my glass.
Best recent food find: Calise & Sons Bulkie rolls. I was back in Massachusetts in February and found them on a supermarket shelf. It's the bread that you're supposed to use when making a meatball or sausage sandwich. Unfortunately, they're only available on the East Coast. Fortunately, I have a personal stash of them.
Most overrated ingredient: I absolutely hate chicken breasts -- loathe chicken breasts. Chicken breasts suck. They're flavorless, fatless, dry and way overplayed. I'm not completely anti-chicken though. I'm a thigh guy for sure -- a fan of big, bold, rich and sexy thighs simmered slowly in wine. By the way, the chickens from the Mennonites in north central Nebraska are friggin' awesome -- even the breasts.
Most underrated ingredient: Red wine vinegar. I love the stuff on just about anything, but mostly on arugula and/or dandelion green salads. It's a simple and clean ingredient, and it reminds me of home and eating with my family.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Colorado's Best Beef from Boulder -- specifically the 14-to-21-day, dry-aged, all-natural Charolais breed. I get it directly from the owners, who respect the land, the environment and their livestock and are sincere in their efforts, energies and practices. I love the eye of round cut or the sirloin tips, which we use for our Gold Edition bresaola del oro. I'm also a huge fan of their flat iron steaks. I was a rib-eye fan for years until I had a flat iron.
One food you detest: Chicken feet. I detest them. Just the thought of those scaly, dirty things makes me cringe. They're good for one thing: strapping razor blades to their feet. Not that I condone or support the underground practice of cock fighting in any way, shape or form. I do, however, love pickled or braised pig's feet.
One food you can't live without: Smooth peanut butter, strawberry jelly, Nutella and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches. It's simple, quick and sustaining.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I was working in a restaurant and had to make a hollandaise sauce, which I never did in the two years I was in culinary school. I threw all the components -- clarified butter, egg yolks and everything else -- into the stainless steel bowl and started whisking like a madman. The chef and sous watched me for about fifteen minutes, giving me time to sweat through one of those paper chef hats, before finally coming over and calling me out. I knew all of the damn components, but I'd never gone through the physical process of making a hollandaise sauce until then. Lesson learned: Know and understand cooking methods and procedures.
What's never in your kitchen? Slackers -- hate 'em -- and, more important, bad pathogens or microbes. Pathogens and bacteria are a very real concern associated with dry-cured treats prepared in my kitchen. Sure, charcuterie and salumi are very hip, trendy and cool, but you've got to be really mindful of the things lurking around that you can't see. To put it bluntly, there is no coolness factor, cookbook, restaurant or embroidery on a chef's coat that will protect consumers, chefs or restaurant owners against the potential pathogens and microbes associated with dry-cured, uncooked meats. There are no chicken feet in my kitchen, either.
What's always in your kitchen? At the Il Mondo Vecchio plant, there's always music, and of course, the banter that goes along with handling large amounts of meat and sausages. In my kitchen/meat lab at Johnson & Wales, there's a very serious and structured yet jovial learning environment. Not everyone is going to become a butcher, or a chef -- or even remain in the industry, for that matter -- but everyone will walk away from my kitchen taking something meaningful with them, whether it's an authentic hatred for standing in a cold room for six hours of lecturing and production, an ignited passion, a newfound respect for our food supply and sustainability, or the importance of clean and sanitary practices.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I am a very process- and production-motivated matrix, which drives people crazy -- but it is what it is. I insist on organized, effortless motions and movements in the kitchen and a team that's as efficient, clean and sanitary as possible. I train my team to think about their actions and steps during a shift. How many kitchen tiles are you going to cross to accomplish how many tasks? Can you cross 100 tiles and get five things done? Ten things? Fifty things? The culinary world is not just about food and food costs; it's about efficiency and labor, which I can't stress enough. Oh, yeah...and please wash your hands. Frequently.
Favorite music to cook by: Metal and rock from the '80s, old-school rap, newer hip-hop, classical music, blues and bluegrass, and sometimes I throw on the Latino/Mexican radio station.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More chefs walking the walk and not just talking the talk regarding the true local/sustainable movement. In part, this is not all their fault. Chefs have to be so mindful of getting product through the door and food costs, and at the end of the day, it's not always efficient or cost-effective to source micro-locally, but the fact of the matter is that some of what's hyped as "sustainable" and "local" on restaurant menus really isn't. Still, I trust that there can, and will be, more collaborative efforts on the part of us all to improve. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day. I'd also like to see more national recognition for Denver's culinary talent. Our local talent is really stepping up to the plate, and they deserve more kudos for what they're doing.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Imported lamb, in particular from New Zealand, at retail outlets like Whole Foods. And there's a tremendous amount of menu repetition here; I absolutely hate that.
What's the best food or kitchen-related gift you've been given? An engraved ten-inch Henckels French knife from the culinary department of the Houstonian and Shadow Hawk Gold Clubs. My team gave it to me around my first anniversary, which coincided with the birth of our daughter. My exec sous, Miguelito Rodriguez, gave the knife to me, and I remember thinking, hey, cool, I can use it to cut the kid's umbilical cord. My wife is going to scream when she reads this and throw all my things on the lawn. Needless to say, she didn't like the idea, so that didn't happen. Still, it was a really heartfelt gift from one of those people I'll never forget.
Weirdest customer request: While I was working at a guest ranch resort, just north of Granby, a guest complained that the staff was eating better food than the guests. So we gave her Sysco's famous out-of-the-box, pre-battered "Honey Stung" deep-fried chicken with blanched frozen green beans and mashed 'taters. She was happier than a New England quahog. Go figure.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A fish eyeball, by accident in 1982, when I was ten years old. We were visiting family in Reggio Calabria, and my cousin and I would go spear fishing in the morning. Whatever we caught was then cooked with olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and served with pasta for lunch. I bit into a semi-hard whitish object that I thought was a piece of garlic, spit it out into my hand and looked at my dad, who quipped, "That's a fish eyeball, shithead!"
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