Superlative sausages

The art of antipasti is supposed to be that of whetting the appetite. The fact that eating half-a-pound of pork before your meal is as likely to sate as to slake, well...
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Not exactly hidden away, since Parioli is the chic district of Rome, but not all that easy to find, lies the Ambasciata de' Abruzzi, a restaurant for which I feel, especially in winter, a recurring nostalgia. Not, I hasten to add, simply because I'd rather be in Rome - for what man in his right mind would forsake a blizzard for a few ruins? - nor even because the restaurant is particularly good, but because I have an occasional craving for salami.

Now, say you, "The man's gone potty. Happens to anyone, when they're in the tenth year of writing a weekly column. If he wants salami, why doesn't he just go out and buy some? What's all this guff about a restaurant in Rome we can't get to?"

My reply is this. No, I am not going potty, and the reason I mention the Ambasciata de' Abruzzi (if memory serves, it's either in a building that was once an embassy, or it wanted to improve its image, in that area of diplomats, by becoming one) is that it's the only place I know where you can sit down at a table at lunch and, before you know it, the waiter has brought you a great slab of wood, a sharp knife and a basket of bread (great, crusty stuff); and on the slab of wood, with barely room for cutting, are - I've never counted them, but probably 15 or 20 - superlative salami or sausages of different kinds, all impeccable, none of them with dry, nasty bits, and some of them sufficiently local for you never to have tried them before.

No one cuts the salami for you. You pick up this one and that one, slice away, make up interesting combinations on your plate, put down a glass or two of Montepulciano, for salami are salty, and work your way through the assortment. You also try to forget, since this is a mere antipasto, or starter, that you have a full and generous meal ahead of you.

The art of antipasti in general is supposed to be that of whetting the appetite, hence the salt (anchovies, sardines, smoked salmon, Russian salad, prosciutto). The fact that eating half-a-pound of pork before your meal is as likely to sate as to slake, well, we won't talk about that. I consider what follows - pasta and main course - to be no more than an afterthought.

I go to that restaurant whenever I'm in Rome, for two reasons: first that its salami, all of them brought in from small artisan charcutiers in villages and small towns you're unlikely ever to visit, are absolutely first rate; and secondly, because if you have one of those tedious affairs known as a "business lunch" (that is, a meal at which the party of the first part wants something the party of the second part is determined not to give away readily) with someone you don't know very well, the first half hour at the Ambasciata is going to break the ice in rather splendid fashion. There is something warmly human about picking bits of garlic out of your teeth or watching an agent trying to decide whether to try the obscenely large sausage.

Now, of course, you can get salami almost anywhere. Glistening with fat, dark, studded with garlic and pepper, impregnated with herbs and clothed in a transparent casing that has to be wrestled away from the meat, it's a staple. But this is not what I mean. What I mean is a vast assortment of different colours, flavours and textures among which your appetite may freely roam. The reason we do not eat a great deal of salami is, I suspect, because a) the salami we do eat is not all that good; b) we think of it as something that you pick up on the Hovercraft on the way home (and that means French salami, which, though good, is not even remotely comparable to Italian); and c) that it is one of those products which doesn't fit into traditional cuisine, so it doesn't get written up or demonstrated on the box.

In fact, most salami, particularly the fresh ones, go exceedingly well into many dishes. Just as no Italian kitchen would be without its chunk of pancetta, ready to be tossed into any number of sauces and dishes, so I've rarely seen one of those determined ladies who do the food shopping in small towns in Italy pass by the salumeria. There hang sausages of all lengths and dimensions; there lie salami coiled in enamel dishes; there whirs the slicer; and there will the shopkeeper gladly offer you una fettina, "just a tiny slice?" to try out his ingenuity with the pig - with every part of the pig, which is why the salumeria is such a fragrantly frugal place, an enemy of waste.

I do not know why more Italian restaurants do not do as the Ambasciata does. As an antipasto it need not be expensive; salami travel well, even the fresher ones; and, of course, anything a charcutier makes, you can make at home with no great sweat (though only with practice and a few readily-available implements, a gadget to get your sausage meat out of its casing, for example). For that matter, given the general high quality of the British pig, I do not know why we have so few charcutiers. Or why we are so unimaginative in general about our antipasti.

And, while I'm on the subject, please, please, remember that most salami are not sliced thin, but thick. They are bits of substance, and not that delicate. Slice them too thin, and they get dry. And they are never so good when pre-sliced and vacuum-packed. Salami are local (not generic), infinitely varied, humble, congenial food