If there's anyone in this city who's become synonymous with salumi and sausages, it's Mark DeNittis, the co-founder of Il Mondo Vecchio, a Denver salumeria and production plant that opened in 2009 in a bare-bones industrial building on South Cherokee Street. DeNittis and his partner, Gennaro DeSantis, quickly generated local and national accolades for their fresh sausages and dry-cured artisan salumi products, many of which are sold at local markets and restaurants run by big-name chefs who have uniformly waxed rhapsodic about DeNittis's handiwork.
It was a success story that made headlines: a scruffy, first-generation Italian-American street-smart kid from Massachusetts who came to Denver and opened the state's first -- and only -- USDA-inspected facility producing dry-cured salumi. And his old-world sausages became the talk of Denver; his pepperoni, especially, exalted to transcendent sticks of pig gold that made even skeptics weep with joy.
DeNittis, it seemed, was destined for global salumi domination.
And then, in August of this year, his livelihood became a focal point for the USDA.
"In late August, the USDA came to the plant to discuss our current inventory and how it related to salmonella testing, which is something that we test for anyway -- and have tested for since day one -- and they determined that our production process didn't show proof that the pathogens for salmonella were being properly addressed, that we weren't addressing the steps to kill the pathogens," he explains.
And while he insists that his relationship with the USDA is amicable, even now, he points out that in the three years he's been making salumi, he's never been hit with a violation -- not once. And, he notes, because the products in question are, in fact, dried, the pathogens can't survive.
"We test for pathogens before we ever sell our products, and my records are available for review," he says. "All of our batches are tested by a certified, independent lab, and in the three years of production, there has never been a food-safely violation, issue or complaint. We've always been cleared when it comes to testing."
All of which prompt the question: What the fuck happened? "To our knowledge, we were following regulations and processes, we were making salumi that's fit and wholesome for human consumption, and it was all extensively tested for safety," says DeNittis, adding that the local USDA officials were in agreement with that.
But in August, when his inspector, accompanied by the regional USDA director, dropped in, DeNittis was told that his inventory would be put on retention until further testing could be completed. "They wanted us to do further intensive salmonella testing if we wanted to continue in the same fashion, plus a challenge study that would have included testing for temperature, water levels, listeria, toxins, E. coli -- you name it," says DeNittis. It was either that, he continues, or completely compromise his products. "We had to make a choice to either to do further testing, or add chemical nitrates or nitrites to the products."
DeNittis says neither option was feasible. "Had we done the 'challenge study,' it would have been prohibitively expensive -- thousands of dollars -- and it takes at least thirty days to test every batch, which means that we couldn't sell or produce any dry-cured products during those thirty-day periods," he says. And there was no way he was going to add nitrates, nitrites or acids -- or anything else that degraded his sausages. "Look, I'm not going to compromise my name, or the quality of my products. Yes, I could have acquiesced, but then I'd have a product that I wouldn't be proud of, and I've built my reputation on making artisan sausages using only sea salt -- and I am proud of that."
And while DeNittis could have continued to churn out -- and sell -- his fresh sausages, which aren't bound by the same guidelines as the dry-cured sausages, he says it doesn't make sense in the grand scheme of things. "It's the dry-cured salumi that's in question, and that's significant, because it makes up 85 percent of our business," he notes.
Left with two choices, neither of which was acceptable, DeNittis and DeSantis made the decision to close the plant, which will cease production as of November 30, the same day that Il Mondo Vecchio's lease expires.
DeNittis, not surprisingly, is devastated but resilient. "It hurts and it sucks, but it's been an amazing journey," he allows, revealing that he has several projects in the works to take his mind off the end of Il Mondo Vecchio. He's partnering with Ian Chisholm, the owner-chef of Amerigo, for example, to host butchery classes -- a collaboration he's looking forward to. "It gives me the opportunity to reconnect with a former student of mine," says DeNittis, a former instructor at Johnson & Wales University. "You'll definitely see me doing some other industry-related, meat-centric things, too, and I'd like to get my foot back into the education sector."
In the meantime, Il Mondo Vecchio will continue to sell its salumi during Loading Dock Fridays, from 1 to 6 p.m., which gives consumers the opportunity to purchase DeNittis's artisan salumi. And on the last Friday of this month -- the final Loading Dock hurrah -- DeNittis promises a bash. "It'll definitely be a big celebration to kick off the future," he says.
Save me some pepperoni.
P.S.: This is how DeNittis sums up his feelings:
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.