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Finally, A Cure for Fatty Thighs

February 23, 2013 | Frank Bonanno

Andrew Boyer is in the Luca kitchen doing really beautiful work with a pig. He’s celebrating, in his quiet way, a cautious victory, the way all good cooks celebrate—with their hands, their knives, their skills, lovingly recreating their happiness and sharing it with you.

Let me backtrack.

For over a decade, once a week and often twice, a whole eviscerated Berkshire hog arrived at the delivery entrance to Luca d’Italia. For years, when a Luca chef addressed a pig, it was to utilize every part of her. Copa de teste from the head and guanciale from the jowls; hind legs trussed into fine prosciutto, the shoulders turned to copa. After boning out the entire pig, we turned the remaining meat—tenderloin, pork loin, belly—into a farce, rolled it into the skin for a luscious porcetta to be thickly sliced and crisped up for dinner. Using some pork to cook, some to cure, paddling the lard, saving the skin—these were all part of philosophy that, since Luca’s inception, has called for a return to old fashioned form and art, part of a program that included (and still does) making our own breads, cheeses, pastas—even cellos and sodas.

More and more restaurants fell into this movement, and in recent years began ordering pigs of their own–butchering them, curing their own salumi, rendering lard, rolling porcetta–and the Health Department cracked down. Cultivating bacteria, hanging uncooked meats in unrefrigerated areas, and holding cured meats at room temperature just didn’t jibe with food safety guidelines whose framework was constructed in the 1950’s.  I tackled the paperwork to keep our program afloat, submitted my first plan some three years ago now, but ultimately lost that battle, along with roughly 350 pounds of meat when the Health Department demanded we Cease and Desist. Finocetta, prosciutto, suppresata, bresaola–even cheeses, bleu, tallegio, Fontina, gouda–deemed suspect, illegal. Critical. It was heartbreaking. Every week the pigs arrived, and we still utilized every part of the animal. We were serving a lot of sausage, though.

That was a year ago, the shut down, nearly to the day, and finally, just this month Luca d’Italia got The Nod. We are the first restaurant in Denver to have city approval to cure meats and offer them to our guests. We worked hard for it—I went to meat court and cheese court and fought the good fight; Andrew reworked processes and charts and facilities, and after months of give and take, the curing room is humming again, the offices above Bones filling again with the heady perfume of charcuterie.

So this morning, after the guys at Tender Belly delivered the Berkshire to Andrew in the cool and nearly empty morning kitchen, he set to doing something a little more elegant with her thighs. Culatello.

A traditional culatello is deeply flavorful and decadent, cured from the culo—butt—of a pig. It’s made in the manner of prociutto, but culatello’s luscious profile comes from two essential differences. One: prosciutto calls for the whole leg, while culatello uses only the choicest piece of muscle (roughly the small of the ass to the bottom of the thigh). Two: while prosciutto cures simply in open air, culatello calls for curing by hanging within a bladder that’s been knotted at the ends. Also (so I guess this is three), while Parma Prosciutto has been legally making its way to the States for some years now, Culatella di Zibello is still banned as the product of a process US regulations have yet to figure out. Even in the San Danielle region, culatello is an expensive delicacy. So, our first attempt at a Colorado culatello is a true adventure–to potentially serve cullatello made in our own Luca prep kitchen? Well that’s exciting.   Here’s how the day began:

Andrew tackled the Berkshire’s hind quarters, removing the rump, then curving his knife down to preserve the most precious muscle of the thigh, leaving it intact along the bone.

He then gently sliced away the skin and its underlying layer of fat as a whole sheet, but with a loose attachment to what will become his cullatello. Instead of curing the meat in a bladder, then, Andrew pulls the fatty skin back around the cut of muscle, salting and trussing it to hang and dry.

The end result? In about five months I’ll let you know (the cooks always take the first bites of our meats).

Better yet, come down to 7th and Grant and try for yourself. Enjoy a celebratory Culatella di Luca. Try a bite of happiness.