Exploring the full range—and moneymaking potential—of Italian meats

You already know that pepperoni has been America’s favorite pizza topping for decades—but times are changing, and so are consumer tastes. When was the last time you introduced your guests to something different, such as an imported Italian salami or a beautiful prosciutto di Parma? Maybe it’s time to expand your horizons, explore the full range of Italian meats and discover how you can pair them with nearly everything on your existing menu.

“We use all kinds of meat, from raw to cured to dry-aged to dehydrated,” says Fabio Viviani, celebrity chef and owner of a growing list of restaurants in Chicago, including Siena Tavern and Bar Siena. “The most common meats we use for our pizzas are cold cuts and housemade sausages. We do a lot of salami, coppa, prosciutto sausage and housemade pepperoni. We chose these because they cook in the oven very well. Prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele are the best options when you want to slice the meat very thinly and place it on the pizza after cooking; everything else cooks and crisps very well.”

“Salami—whether dry or wet—is a very user-friendly, headache-free kind of cold cut that is delicious by itself or paired with a lot of things.”
—Fabio Viviani, Siena Tavern

As for the rest of the menu beyond pizza, Viviani say you can pair Italian meats with almost everything. “Put them together with sharp cheeses, any kind of vegetable, mozzarella, truffles, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, figs or pickled vegetables—really anything but fish,” he says.

Anthony Russo’s list may be slightly shorter, but the founder/CEO and head chef of Houston-based Russo’s restaurants also takes full advantage of cold cuts. “The main three Italian meats I use are soppressata salami, prosciutto di Parma and mortadella ham,” he says.

Good choices, all of them. So let’s take a closer look at each one.

Prosciutto di Parma

A first choice for many chefs is prosciutto di Parma, thanks to its salty flavor and versatility. “I use prosciutto di Parma on pizza, salads, pasta and sandwiches, because it slices really thin and is very soft,” Russo says. “I also wrap it around fresh buffalo mozzarella and grill it with a little olive oil for a great appetizer.”

One of the favorites at Russo’s is a flatbread sandwich with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto di Parma, arugula and pesto. “You can tell if a prosciutto is from Parma because it has a nice red color and it’s nice and soft, not chewy like some of the domestic prosciuttos can be,” Russo notes. (Learn more about prosciutto in the sidebar, “The Prosciutto Puzzle,” on this page.)

Soppressata Salami and Dry Italian Sausage

Much like prosciutto, salami and Italian sausage can be a great addition to the menu if you’re looking for something that’s easy to pair with many diverse dishes. “Dry Italian sausage and salami are very versatile,” Viviani says. “We use salami for salad, pizza, pasta, vinaigrette and more. Salami—whether dry or wet—is a very user-friendly, headache-free kind of cold cut that is delicious by itself or paired with a lot of things.”

For a little kick, try a spicy soppressata and see how your customers react. After all, today’s consumers are more attracted to dishes with a kick. “I don’t want to buy the regular salami that you can get anywhere else, so I use soppressata for my sandwiches,” Russo says. “Soppressata is a little spicy and really good.”

Mortadella

Mortadella, an Italian pork sausage flavored with various spices, plays a featured role on artisanal pizzas made by famed chefs such as Giada de Laurentiis, Marc Vetri and Emeril Lagasse. “There’s a lot of different types of mortadella ham, some with pistachio in it, some without,” Russo says. “I like the imported mortadella with pistachios from Italy. You can really taste the flavors in the imported one.”

“People get tired of the same old pepperoni and sausage. They want something unique and different. You can do a lot with prosciutto and pancetta on a pizza.”
—Anthony Russo, Russo’s New York Pizzeria

Choose Quality Over Price

When adding any new menu item, price is always a concern. But when it comes to high-end ingredients such as imported Italian meats, consider the benefits of choosing quality over price. A little goes a long way when the bold flavors of a spicy soppressata or salty prosciutto di Parma are paired with a gorgeous, fresh salad or housemade cheese.

“As a chef, I do look at the price, but what sells me is the quality,” Russo says. “The quality will set us apart from other pizza chains, and customers nowadays know the difference. We encourage our servers to promote the fact that we’re serving quality imported ingredients as well. When you look at it as $9 a pound versus $14 a pound and break it down by ounces, it’s a difference of pennies.”

“Start with a good salami, a good prosciutto and a good pepperoni,” Viviani agrees. “Everyone knows them, they’re easy to source, and if you want to make your own, salami and pepperoni are easy to make.”

Price is important but so is quality. Using better meats, including pepperoni, prosciutto and salami, will set your pizzeria apart from the big chains. Photo provided by Siena Tavern.

Not So Foreign Anymore

If you’re worried that your customers won’t understand what mortadella or soppressata is, fear not. Russo, who owns restaurant locations in places such as Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Tennessee, says that customers are ingredient-savvy nowadays. “Ten years ago, not too many people used prosciutto on their pizza,” he says. “Now prosciutto is more of a foodie dish. Mortadella may not be as popular, but we serve it on our sandwiches, and customers really enjoy it.”

Russo believes that today’s customers get a little bored with the same old pepperoni and sausage. “They want something unique and different. You can do a lot with prosciutto and pancetta on a pizza—add arugula, kale or artichoke hearts. You can also use Italian meats for calzones, pasta, bruschetta and antipasto salads, or create an Italian meat tray with prosciutto, mortadella, and Genoa salami.”

No matter how you decide to experiment with adding new cuts of Italian meats to your topping lineup, start small and test the waters. Focus on quality over quantity and let your sales forge a path toward increased creativity.

Liz Barrett is PMQ’s editor at large and author of Pizza: A Slice of American History.