Photography by Becky Reams
Start by donning an oversized white jacket and weightless hairnet, then dip into a squeaky clean room where natural-raised pork gets spiced, flavored, then meticulously chopped and ground and stuffed into sausage tubes. And that’s only the first part of the rabbit hole of Pete Balistreri’s artisanal salumi production.
Tender Greens owners Erik Oberholzter, Matt Lyman and David Dressler met while working in Santa Monica’s Shutters at the Beach before realizing a vision of affordable, market-fresh food for the masses. But in order to retain talented chefs like Balistreri, they knew the menu had to offer more than just arugula.
It was in this context that Balistreri was encouraged to begin making his own salumi to supply the restaurants. And before long, production outgrew the restaurant spaces. Cue in La Española, which already had a multimillion-dollar facility for curing meat. Though the company had previously specialized in making Spanish-style cured meat, La Española partnered with Balistreri to produce his namesake salumi at the kind of consistency that adventurous chefs could only dream of. The main problem with “house-made” salumi, aside from the rigors of procuring USDA approval, is making a batch-to-batch consistent product. The humidity, temperature and even mold conditions are essential components of creating quality salumi, elements that are often impossible to establish in a restaurant setting.
Beyond that first space where the sausages get filled lie room after room of curing chambers, which contain hundreds of beautiful, ruddy forms hanging from white strings in delicate silence. The only noise comes from the hum of air conditioners that keep the room chilled and humid. Before long, the meat tubes, which can be filled with the likes of rosemary, garlic, chili flakes, fennel and other spices, get covered with a white edible mold, essential for flavoring and drying out the salami (don’t worry, the mold is carefully washed off before packaging). After months of curing, the salami is ready to be cut “paper thin,” as Balistreri recommends, which can only be done on a commercial slicer, though the smaller take-home package available at Tender Greens outlets is a little easier to manage for the home cook.
When the unctuous slices are cut that thin, they’re nearly translucent, redolent of smoked jerky and rich with a deep, savory flavor that stays on the palate for minutes. The texture has a chewy gelatinousness that yields an addictive complexity with every bite. This is salumi that’s worth savoring on its own, or over wine (or beer, as the San Diego–based chef prefers), and pairing with crusty bread or hearty cheese.
Balistreri has started to delve into other Italian cured meats, like prosciutto made from ReRide Ranch hogs, guanciale (pork jowl from Eden Ranch hogs), speck and lardo (back fat), keeping the product line straightforward and well-supplied for eager wholesale accounts.
P. Balistreri Salumi is distributed in Los Angeles and Orange counties by Avalon Fine Foods (323 278.9105), and is served at local Tender Greens restaurants.