Sausage is not something that can be rushed. Even freshly ground and stuffed links take time and patience, often involving overnight meat marinades and carefully considered recipes to get the salt, fat and moisture content just right. And when it comes to cured meats, a couple of weeks of aging is the bare minimum; some whole-muscle salumi — prosciutto, lonza and coppa, for example — can take months, if not more than a year. So when Denver chefs Bill Miner and Brian Albano started tinkering with formulas several years ago, they weren’t in a hurry to rush a product to market. In fact, the effort that will culminate with the opening of Il Porcellino, their salumeria and deli scheduled to open this summer in the Berkeley neighborhood, began as more of a hobby and a way to extend their cooking skills into whole-animal butchery and naturally fermented products than as a meaty business plan.
Albano had already been exploring home brewing; his curiosity about traditional methods of food production was a natural extension of his job as a professional cook. He was also certain that he could figure out how to create products he was having a hard time locating. “I couldn’t find any good andouille,” he confides, “and I was interested in the more natural way of preserving food.”
“We’re messing around with microbacteria — the good stuff,” adds Miner.
The two met several years ago through Relish Catering and Events, where Miner was — and still is — the executive chef and Albano was working while attending college to get a finance degree. After working in restaurants for years, Albano was feeling burned out — and a little burned, having been laid off from a good gig at the Three Forks Ranch near Steamboat Springs — but he needed a job to get him through to graduation. He’d worked with Alex Seidel back when the chef-owner of Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provision was still at Mizuna, and he was at Adega when the acclaimed restaurant closed suddenly ten years ago. “Working on the line takes its toll,” Albano explains. “It’s a young man’s game.” He was laying the groundwork for a new career when his interest in salumi rekindled his passion for cooking.
“He found his calling, I swear to God,” remarks Miner.
Miner and Albano realized they had similar interests: Miner had been teaching himself to break down whole animals — “It’s just something that’s not taught in culinary schools,” he notes — while Albano had been learning about beer, cured meats, pickled vegetables and other fermented foods that rely on the action of microbes for altering flavors and extending shelf life. They began testing recipes and feeding friends the results, and when those friends could not stop talking about their coppa, they realized they might be able to make a go of it professionally.
So they began putting together a plan for a retail shop specializing in house-cured meats, adjusting their goals along the way to expand the concept into a full deli serving sandwiches, salads and soups. “There was nobody local doing it,” Miner says of the market for cured meats. “Nobody was setting up a retail shop, only in-house at restaurants.” Nor was wholesale the way they wanted to go after witnessing butcher and salumi expert Mark DeNittis’s daily struggles with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as he tried to convince the government agency that there was a safe and natural way of curing meats without relying on chemical preservatives or industrial practices.
The retail niche was empty, but Miner saw demand: “The interest in food in this town has changed dramatically in the last five years — for beer, cheese, bread…and anything cured.”
Now, with only a couple of months to go before Il Porcellino opens to the public, Miner and Albano are busy building out the store and planning the menu. Because they won’t be able to stock any salumi that predates the final inspection and licensing, everything they’re making now is just for practice; they’ll have to start from scratch once the kitchen has been approved by the city. Varying curing times means they’ll be rolling out different products throughout 2015 and into next year.
“We’ll be bringing in whole animals and breaking them down,” Miner explains. “All of our animals will come from Colorado.”
“We’re bringing things back to the way they used to be,” adds Albano. They’ll be working with heritage-breed hogs, bison, goat, lamb and duck to create an initial inventory that will include several kinds of ham, pastrami (beef and bison), summer sausage, pepperoni, bacon and tesa (Italian-style pork belly that’s cured flat instead of rolled like pancetta).
Later in the summer or in early fall, they’ll add braeseola, duck mortadella, coppa, guanciale and several other dry-cured sausages. Instead of prosciutto, they’ll break down the hams and cure them as boneless fioccho, which takes four months, and culatello, which takes twelve. If they can source the right hogs with the proper amount of back fat, they’ll also start curing their own lardo. And they’ll eventually sell a Southern-style country ham; those take at least a year to cure, too.
The two also plan seasonal specials and fun experiments — they just made a duck-and-rabbit mortadella to celebrate Easter and are considering a green-chile headcheese — as well as year-round signature items, like smoked cacciatore (hunter sausage) made with Duroc pork from McDonald Family Farm in Brush. A market section will sell pickled vegetables, jams and other preserved foods; Miner says they want to start making some of their own products down the road.
For the deli, Il Porcellino will source bread from Grateful Bread Company, some of its produce from City Gal Farm, and other vegetables from local farms wherever possible. “We’re going to have a big map of Colorado on the wall showing where everything comes from,” Miner promises. And some day, he hopes to have a pin on that map indicating Il Porcellino’s own hog farm, where he and Albano will have ultimate control over how the meat that ends up in their sausage is raised and slaughtered.
Miner’s dad has carved a wooden sign in the shape of a piglet that will serve as Il Porcellino’s mascot, directing neighbors and others seeking handmade salumi into the small deli (with only about fifteen seats inside), where they’ll have a view through a picture window into the curing room. While they don’t want to be considered just a local butcher shop, Miner says he wouldn’t mind filling the occasional request for hard-to-find cuts of meat or specialty items, and regulars should feel comfortable placing custom orders.
For his part, Albano is looking forward to the more measured pace of a neighborhood salumeria, where time is measured in the weeks and months it takes to produce the perfect sausage, and not in the frenetic seconds and minutes of turning out plate after plate on the line.