One of the most iconic ways to start a holiday or other important Italian meal is with a plate of assorted cured meats, called salumi in Italian, thinly sliced and arranged artistically (or not) on a serving platter. Each diner then helps themselves to the ones that appeal to them most. It’s a delicious to start a meal—and an easy one, since all the hard work was done by the artisans who cured those meats.
Types of Salumi
The assortment can vary from one or two types of salumi, but like a cheese plate that sometimes ends a meal, a plate of affettati misti is at its best when you are careful to mix and balance tastes and textures. Salumi can be lean or fat, spicy or mild, strong or delicate, tender or chewy. They are generally made from pork but a few (like bresaola) are made from beef or, more rarely, horse or donkey meat or even goose. To my mind, the best kind of affettati misti includes a wide variety of salumi that mixes and matches all of these characteristics, and includes at least one kind of cured beef. Here is a partial list of some of the best known salumi that are usually available even outside Italy:
Prosciutto or, more precisely, prosciutto crudo. Cured, uncooked and unsmoked ham from Emilia-Romagna is the sine qua non of any plate of affettati misti. The best known are prosciutti are prosciutto di Parma and the slightly less expensive prosciutto San Daniele. They both have a mild, sweet taste and a delicate texture. Less well known in this country are the saltier, more rustic prosciutti from Tuscany, well worth seeking out. They should be thinly sliced (but, in my opinion, not quite as thin as you will sometimes find) Less common is cooked ham, or prosciutto cotto, which is more often used as a cooking ingredient but can show up on your cured meat plate if you like.
Mortadella. An impressive thing to behold in its whole state, this huge sausage is the original “Bologna”. And, yes, it’s actually from that town. The real thing, though, is a lot more subtle than the American cold cut. It has a soft, almost velvety texture and tastes subtlely of the pistachios and spices that this sausage is cured with. Mortadella can be served thinly sliced or in cubes.
Salami. There is an incredible variety of cured, dried sausages that fall under this rubric. They can be spicy like the Calabrian ‘Nduja or mild like the felino or cacciatorino, or something in between, like the black pepper-laced sopressata. Those that have been cured for a long time can be quite dry and hard, in which case they should be sliced very thin. The ‘younger’ ones are my favorites; they are soft and chewy and can be sliced (rather more thickly than most salumi are) or cut into small cubes. Salami, especially those with tough or powdery skins, should be peeled before slicing.
Coppa. Made from the shoulder butt, coppa is mildly flavored in its Northern piacentina form, but in southern Italy it can also be cured with hot red pepper. In its spicy form, it is called capicollo, very popular among Italian-Americans.
Then there are the various bacon-like forms of salumi. The best known include pancetta, cured but usually unsmoked pork belly, which is a common cooking ingredient cut into cubes or lardons, but is rolled and thinly sliced when served as part of a cured meat platter. Also falling into this category are the more rustic and fattier guanciale, made from pork jowl, also a common cooking ingredient that can be served the same way as pancetta, and lardo, fatback cured with pepper and spices.
Speck is unusual for an Italian salumi because it is smoked. Of course, some might say it’s not really Italian, since it comes from Alto Adige, or as the locals call it, Südtirol, which was part of Austria until after World War I and still is largely Austrian in the cultural, linguistic and culinary senses.
Bresaola. Whenever I can, I always make sure that bresaola is on my platter of mixed cured meats because, unusually, it is not made from pork but from beef. It is mildly flavored and, also unusually, quite lean. It is usually sliced almost paper-thin.
In an event, the above just scratches the surface. Like its cheeses, Italy has an incredible variety of salumi. Every region and practically every town has its own versions based on local ingredients and predilections. Kyle Phillips even writes that you can find goose-based Kosher salumi in the Veneto, produced under rabbinical supervision.
Non-Italian Cured Meats. One of the advantages of living here in the US is the variety of different food cultures we have at our disposal. I see no reason why we can’t then take advantage and include non-Italian salumi as part of a plate of affettati misti. Spanish hams, more rustic in taste and texture than Italian prosciutto, would be a fantastic addition to any mixed cured meat platter. Or what about a few slices of our own Virginia ham? In its artisanal form it can be very good eating. Similarly, a few slices of spicy Spanish chorizo wouldn’t be amiss, nor would nice, garlicky kielbasa. (NB: Most Latin American chorizo is a sausage that needs to be cooked, not a cured meat.)
“Cold cuts” are, of course, everywhere. In upscale supermarkets you can often find Italian, or Italian-style, salumi, either pre-packaged or sliced to order. One of the happier culinary developments in the States these days is the emergence of artisanal salumi makers, along with the trend among passionate foodies, propelled by Michael Ruhman and others, of curing meats at home. So I will go so far as to say that these days you can serve domestic salumi without hesitation. And, for Americans, you’ll have to anyway in some cases, since many Italian cured meats are still prohibited in the US, although restrictions were recently loosened up a bit.
Presentation and serving
The simplest way of serving affettati misti is simply sliced in neat rows. But Italians typically like to add a bit more fantasia to their presentation. Rather than laying slices flat, you can add visual interest to your platter by folding them in half or into triangular fazzoletti (hankerchiefs) or draping them loosely on the platter in irregular shapes. Prosciutto is particularly attractive curled into rose-like twists. Slices can also be tightly rolled into cannelloni, but, in my experience, this is much less common on Italian tables than abroad. Softer meats like mortadella or young salami can be cubed rather than sliced.
Arrange the meats on a large serving platter or individual plates or, for a more convivial feel, a wooden board. Lay them out in an attractive pattern, alternating for texture, color and contour. Rows are the most practical arrangement, if a bit unimaginative, for square or rectangular platters, concentric circles are nice for round ones.
Salumi should not be served cold, but at room temperature to fully appreciate their flavors. They can be arranged on a platter a bit ahead of time, but if you leave them out for too long, their ample fat content can turn some salumi rather ‘greasy’. If you want to arrange the platter well ahead of time, cover it with plastic wrap or waxed paper and keep it in the fridge. Let is return to room temperature before serving.
Good, crusty, well-structured bread is a must with a plate of affetati misti. Shaving of butter are not amiss, even if most salumi are quite fatty on their own. Unlike the French, Italians are not prone to cutting the fattiness of cured meats with mustard or cornichons. And I must say, I think the Italians are right in this; strongly flavored accompaniments tend to overwhelm, not balance, the often delicate flavors of the affettati. I would say the most common way to enjoy a platter of mixed cured meats is just by themselves. Having said that, Italians are fond of pairing cured meats with fruits like melon or figs. (In my book, the figs are a much better match, and are in season right now.) And a plate of affettati misti is often part of a larger assortment of antipasti that include olives, certain cheeses like mozzarella or provolone or an mixed pickled vegetables called giardiniera.
Place in the Meal
Although usually served as an antipasto, a plate of affettati misti can also take the place of the usual cooked secondo after a pasta dish, especially in the hot summer months. They can even be served as a piatto unico for an informal meal with friends or family. Because a platter of affettati misti require no cooking and almost no preparation, they’re a great option when you’re short on time or motivation.