One of the aspects of the Mediterranean cooking I love best is using meat as a condiment rather than as the center of the meal. In Italy, cooks use two cured pork products this way—prosciutto and pancetta. Adding just a small amount of either to snacks, appetizers, pasta, stews, vegetables, and roasts gives them great flavor.
Prosciutto is best enjoyed simply
A hindquarter cut of pork that’s cured, dried, and aged to a maroon-pink color, good prosciutto (pronounced proh-SHOO-toh) is ever-so-slightly sweet, just the right degree of salty, and almost melts in your mouth. It’s best eaten plain or wrapped around fruits or vegetables (see sidebar below), but you can also use it as a flavorful addition to a stuffing or tossed into pasta at the last minute.
For cooking, use a lesser grade than Parma. (The very best grade is prosciutto di Parma, which you should never cook.) Prosciutto di San Danieli (from the Fruili region) is very good, and Citterio makes a good domestic brand. Apply gentle, indirect heat when you cook prosciutto, or it will get tough and leathery. Ask your grocer for the end pieces, bones, and bits of fat that get discarded; they’re great for flavoring soups and stews.
When shopping, ask for a taste. Make sure it’s sliced as thin as possible: the meat should be translucent. If you see that the prosciutto begins to shred in the grocer’s slicer, it’s drying out. Ask for slices from another piece or try another store.
Pancetta is like bacon, but subtler
Pancetta is a belly cut of pork, just like American bacon. The difference is that it’s salt-cured, like prosciutto, rather than smoked, which accounts for its more subtle, delicate flavor. Pancetta (pronounced pan-CHEH-tah) doesn’t get dried, and it isn’t aged for as long as prosciutto is. It’s usually rolled; you’ll see it sold in a cylinder shape. Good pancetta should have streaks of pale maroon meat and pale white fat, and the meat shouldn’t look greasy.
Pancetta is cured, so it’s safe to eat raw, but it tastes quite fatty this way. It’s much better cooked (see sidebar below).
Raw prosciutto is great with fruit or cheese; cooked pancetta adds depth to stews and vegetables
Cooking with pancetta is a lot like cooking with bacon. It’s rolled, so it may unravel slightly when you use it as a wrapping, but it will still taste great.
• Finely chop pancetta with onion, carrots, and celery to make a battuto (which becomes a soffritto when it’s cooked), the beginning of a delicious sauce, risotto, or ragù.
• Sauté chopped pancetta until crisp and toss it with bitter greens for a salad.
• Wrap chicken breasts or pork tenderloin in pancetta and grill. Try the same for grilled asparagus spears or green beans.
• Microwave a few slices between paper towels until the pancetta is firm, for about a minute, and eat it with raw tomatoes.
The best way to eat good prosciutto is raw—by itself or with a simple accompaniment.
• Drape a slice around a piece of peach, fig, melon, or strawberry.
• Wrap a slice around cooked asparagus or green beans; slip in a few pine nuts.
• Tuck a slice into half a hollowed-out plum tomato.
• Bundle spinach cooked in olive oil and garlic in a slice of prosciutto.
•Envelope buffalo mozzarella cheese or slivers of unsalted butter with a slice.