This Modest Deli Meat Is Taking Fancy Restaurants by Storm

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In the 1971 comedy Lady Liberty, Sophia Loren arrives in the U.S. carrying mortadella from the Italian factory where she worked. When a customs official stops her, she refuses to give up the sausage and gets quarantined at the airport. A special agent arrives, pulls out a pocketknife to sample it, and soon enough, it’s all gone. The Italian name of the film? La Mortadella.

In the decades since, the cured meat has often been confused with mass-market bologna, which has a similar dull pink hue. If you’ve ever avoided a slice of olive-studded sandwich meat on a deli platter, it was probably also labeled mortadella.

This staple of the charcuterie board has been around for millennia. The first century philosopher Pliny the Elder referred to it in his writing. Its name derives from the Latin word for mortar (mortarium), the instrument used to grind the meat; its hometown is Bologna, where it’s made from pork, nutmeg, and the juniperlike myrtle spice. The meat is punctuated with cubes of fat and often pearls of peppercorns and, less classically, crunchy pistachios.

Now mortadella has become one of the trendiest meats in U.S. restaurants: It’s griddled at sandwich specialist Lardo in Portland, Ore., and proudly turned into a corn dog at Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge in Coronado, Calif. At New York’s buzzy Frenchette, co-owners and co-chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson slice it paper-thin and serve it with brioche and a sprinkling of Comté cheese. (The dish is called La Mortadella, a nod to the Loren film.) “On many levels, it’s one of the highest forms of charcuterie,” Nasr says. “I consider it a luxury product with those rich chunks of fat. It’s like the ultra bologna.”

But the biggest sign that mortadella is poised for a return to prominence comes from fatty-pork promoter David Chang, who’s looking to do for the cured meat what his Momofuku empire has done for pork belly and his Ssam Bar did for Korean specialty bo ssam. At his Bang Bar at the Shops at Columbus Circle in New York, hungry diners wait in line for a taste of the Mini Bang sandwich, which features spit-roasted mortadella coated with lard and stuffed inside homemade flatbread. “It’s time for it to make a comeback,” Chang says.

Recipe for Mortadella “Sandos”

Manhattan’s Katana Kitten does a brisk business in mortadella “sandos,” or Japanese sandwiches, made with cured meat sourced from Fra’ Mani Handcrafted Foods in Berkeley, Calif. This is a simplified version provided by managing partner Masahiro Urushido. Makes four.

Coat four ¾-inch-thick slices of good-quality mortadella on both sides with beaten egg, then cover them in panko bread crumbs. Heat a generous amount of vegetable oil in a skillet and fry on medium-high until golden on both sides and heated through. Let cool. Make sandos using thick slices of Japanese milk bread. (Brioche also works.) Brush the bread with Dijon mustard and tangy tonkatsu sauce, a Japanese barbecue staple available at international markets.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net, Chris Rovzar

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