Cut and Dried: Five Denver Salumi Makers Bringing Back Old-World Traditions

Watching mold grow is the epitome of a boredom-inducing activity — unless your passion is making dry-cured meats. Then you notice every new speck of fuzz on your coppa, lonza, guanciale and sopressata. You catalogue with fascination the daily creep of white film over sausage casings and whole pork cuts hanging for months to achieve the perfect moisture level and funky flavor. And you inspect every millimeter of your creations to ensure that none of the mold is black — the color of disaster when curing meat. To a small but dedicated band of chefs, mold is the most exciting thing spreading through the Denver craft-food scene.

Today, charcuterie (the French tradition of butchering and preserving meats, mostly pork) and salumi (the Italian equivalent, which comprises a wide array of dry-cured meats and sausages) are common elements on this city’s restaurant menus. French-inspired pâtés, rillettes, terrines and mousses share space on boards or platters with fresh sausage and meats that have been preserved through fermentation or long drying times.

Dry-curing meat with salt, seasonings and the slow action of beneficial mold and bacteria is a craft that takes knowledge, dedication, care and, most of all, patience. But a growing number of butchers and chefs are willing to make the effort, including Justin Brunson, Frank Bonanno, Bill Miner and Hosea Rosenberg. One Denver chef and butcher, Mark DeNittis, probably knows more about traditional salumi techniques than anyone else in Colorado — and his adherence to those traditional methods eventually led to the closure of Il Mondo Vecchio, the wholesale salumi company he owned and operated from 2009 to 2012.
DeNittis is now a corporate chef and product specialist in meat, seafood and poultry for Sysco, but he was previously a teacher at Johnson & Wales University and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat. He began making cured meats professionally in 2005, before he opened Il Mondo Vecchio, with the goal of bringing old-world salumi to town, making it without nitrates or nitrites (common preservatives in processed meats) and without adding acidulating agents (like lactic-acid-producing bacteria) that most modern producers use to quickly bring the pH level of raw sausage to safe levels.

But despite DeNittis’s insistence on the most sanitary practices and high-quality ingredients, how the United States Department of Agriculture — the agency responsible for monitoring wholesale meat-processing plants, no matter how big or small — chose to interpret and enforce its own regulations changed over the time that he was making salumi professionally. In the introduction to Biting the Hand That Feeds Us, a book about artisan businesses forced to deal with regulations designed for much larger food manufacturers, author Baylen Linneken uses Il Mondo Vecchio as an example of how inflexible government regulations eventually caused a company to close. “Il Mondo Vecchio had done everything right,” Linneken notes. “It used artisanal methods and sourced ingredients from sustainable sources...It followed government rules and passed every government inspection.”

Even so, the USDA decided that Il Mondo Vecchio could no longer make dry-cured meats without adding nitrates, nitrites or lactic-acid-producing bacteria, all of which help protect against botulism and other food-borne pathogens. But DeNittis did not want to compromise the traditional methods he’d been using safely for nearly four years and could not spend money on a lengthy challenge that might not have been enough to sway the USDA in his favor — so he closed up shop rather than change his methods.
After several years to reflect, though, DeNittis recognizes that his difficulties were not entirely in vain. “It raised a larger awareness, and it incited some passion in some individuals,” he explains.
After closing Il Mondo Vecchio, DeNittis started working with other Colorado chefs interested in dry-cured meats. “I was fortunate enough to be involved in putting together HACCP plans with Justin, Il Porcellino and Hosea,” he notes. That HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) plan is what government health and safety agencies require for businesses using processes that could prove unsafe if exact steps aren’t followed. “What I appreciate seeing is the mindfulness, diligence and tactfulness of working with agencies — understanding the seriousness of food-safety issues,” he adds.

Chef/restaurateur Bonanno is very familiar with how government agencies handle food-safety matters, especially when it comes to salumi. In 2008 he was dinged by the Denver Department of Environmental Health for making dry-cured meats without an HACCP plan, and in 2012 he was forced to throw out several hundred pounds of meat that the department discovered in a curing room in his offices above his restaurants, Bones and Luca. At the time, Bonanno claimed that the salumi was a hobby and was never sold in any of his restaurants, but agency officials weren’t comfortable with an uninspected, potentially hazardous production facility so close to restaurant kitchens.

Bonanno was one of the first Denver chefs to attempt to make salumi, and in those early days — funny as that sounds, considering it was less than ten years ago — the DEH didn’t have much institutional knowledge of or guidelines for regulating salumi production in a restaurant. (Wholesale facilities like Il Mondo Vecchio are regulated by the USDA, but restaurant and retail sales fall under the watch of city and state agencies.) Many dry-cured meats are never cooked and hang for weeks or months at temperature and humidity levels that would cause any meat to spoil quickly if not properly handled. “They could not get their head around the idea of a piece of raw pork sitting in a room at 73 degrees Fahrenheit,” Bonanno recalls.

But since those contentious days (which involved fines and courtroom battles), Bonanno has become a model for how chefs should build a salumi plan and maintain clean and safe conditions; he’s worked closely with Danica Lee, the DEH’s director of public health inspections, to create one of the city’s four approved HACCP plans. “Danica was beyond helpful, beyond courteous,” Bonanno says. “I would not be doing this if it wasn’t for her.”

Today the chef maintains a basement salumi kitchen and curing room at his deli, Salt & Grinder, which supplies cured meats for the deli, Luca and Osteria Marco downtown. It took Bonanno three months to write his HACCP plan (instead of paying a consultant thousands of dollars) and another three months to get it approved. “We just started having good, honest discussions about it,” he says of the approval process, adding that the department was learning at the same time he was.

“We talk to them [chefs] about what we’re looking for,” Lee explains. “We’ve dealt with enforcement, and it’s still an onerous process, but we’re all on the same page about what the risks are.”

Bonanno monitors the salumi-making process and maintains a detailed log book to record critical steps in accordance with his HACCP plan. He has invested several thousand dollars in devices to monitor pH levels and water activity (the cellular water level must drop below a certain level before the meat can be safely served) in the meats, as well as in equipment that maintains constant temperature and humidity levels in his fermenting and curing rooms. He inoculates ground pork with bacterial cultures that create lactic acid to quickly drop the pH to safe levels and uses another commercial mold culture to kick-start the protective white coating on all of the salumi. A peek inside his locked curing room reveals hanging coppa, finocchiona, lonza, bresaola, culatello, guanciale and spalla, an uncommon salumi made by cold-smoking slabs of pork shoulder that are rubbed in lard before curing.

At one point, Bonanno had a dedicated salumi chef, Spencer Whitaker, who “really took it to the next level,” he says, but that proved cost-prohibitive. So now Bonanno handles the meat curing himself, though that means he has less time for labor-intensive sausages, so his focus is mostly on whole-muscle products.

Walk into Old Major and you’ll see glass cases filled with curing meats; chef/owner Justin Brunson has one of Denver’s three other approved HACCP plans. He’s maintained the program for the past several years and not only uses the meats at Old Major, but also at his new cheese-and-meat shop, Culture, inside Denver Central Market. A look at the daily artisan meat board there reveals a selection that Brunson has chosen from top producers around the country, plus the likes of coppa and saucisson sec from his own curing room.

“We hunted a lot when I was a kid,” says Brunson, explaining the origins of his interest. “The curiosity came from hunting and fishing and making sausage and smoked fish with my family.” When he opened Masterpiece Deli, he began making corned beef, pastrami and bacon, all of which can be done without an HACCP plan. But Brunson wanted to get more ambitious with Old Major, so he filed a plan with the city nearly a year before the restaurant was slated to open. Even so, the glass cases were empty for several months after the kitchen started serving. But soon Old Major started producing more than 400 pounds of cured meats a week, ramping up to 600 pounds when Culture opened.

At Blackbelly Butcher in Boulder, chef/owner Hosea Rosenberg and his head butcher, Nate Singer, have been experimenting with salumi since the two were running Blackbelly as a catering business, before the restaurant opened. “It’s such an ancient tradition,” Rosenberg says, “so my whole take on it was that it can’t be too hard. But there’s also a big risk factor.”

That’s one of the reasons that Singer has immersed himself in the process. He grew up in Wyoming, the son of a butcher, and has since studied under some of the best in the business. “I got started with Mark DeNittis,” Singer notes. He’s also taken classes from Brian Polcyn (chef and co-author of two essential books, Charcuterie and Salumi) and worked under Jarrod Spangler at Maine Meat in Kittery, Maine, for a year.

Blackbelly Butcher makes anywhere from 80 to 250 pounds of cured meats a week from regionally sourced whole animals, but right now it’s only approved to produce fermented, ground-meat products: Spanish chorizo, nduja, salami and other Italian and Mediterranean-style sausages. That’s because neither state nor Boulder officials have yet approved Blackbelly’s HACCP plan for whole-muscle products, despite the company’s having submitted the forms months ago. “The tricky part is that the rules aren’t all the same,” Rosenberg notes. So you may see pancetta, lonza, prosciutto or other whole cuts hanging in the cases, but they’re test batches that can’t be sold to the public.
Two more local salumi producers have sprung up in the past year outside of the restaurant world: Il Porcellino Salumeria and Elevation Charcuterie. Bill Miner and Brian Albano opened Il Porcellino last fall in the Berkeley neighborhood, where they sell all manner of processed products made with locally sourced pork, beef, lamb and other meats. Because of the groundwork laid by DeNittis and others, Miner says, working with the DEH has been relatively easy. “The biggest issue they have with anything we do is with our crème fraîche,” he says. “We started talking to them a couple of years before we opened.”

Because of that, Il Porcellino was able to begin making dry-cured meats the day after it opened for business. For the first several weeks, Miner and his team made money by selling fresh sausage and cooked products like head cheese, terrines, pâtés and smoked bacon. Today the shop’s curing room is filled with meats in various stages of aging, including a culatello (cured pork similar to prosciutto) that was made on that first day of production and aged for an entire year. The one meat Miner has been unable to source? Duck, which he says is not being raised for meat that meets his standards anywhere in Colorado: “We like to keep the money in state,” he notes. “It’s pretty important to us.”

Elevation Charcuterie is a wholesale operation that began production this summer and held its salumi product launch the last week of October. Founders Chad Nelan and Alex Windes have been professional butchers for a number of years and had been honing their salumi recipes in a home kitchen. They initially hoped to open their own operation in 2015, but the licensing and inspection process pushed plans back more than a year. Since Elevation is a wholesale operation (like Il Mondo Vecchio before it), the USDA must approve its HACCP plan and also requires that a USDA inspector be at the facility during production hours, which means that Elevation must pay an inspector as though he were a full-time employee.

The Preservery in RiNo was the site of Elevation’s product launch, and customers lined up to sample traditional and creative offerings, from fennel salami and spicy Calabrese to Mexican mole salami and a cured sausage flavored with sour beer from Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs. The Preservery is now selling Elevation’s products from its deli case and on in-house charcuterie boards for lunch and dinner; Elevation’s salumi is also being sold at Culture, alongside Justin Brunson’s own products.

A chef patient enough to watch mold grow can persevere through the arduous inspection and approval process needed to make cured meats. It’s a good thing Denver has a few of them around — especially for those of us impatient for Colorado-made salumi that can compete with the world’s finest.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation