THERE IS nothing wrong with prosciutto ham made in America, according to Luigi Di Palo. It is just that prosciutto made in Parma, northern Italy, is... well, better. In Italy, the hogs live a little longer, so the hams are larger. They are fed a richer diet, which gives the meat a sweeter taste.
Luigi is joint owner, with a brother and a sister, of Di Palo's, a purveyor of imported Italian fare on a street corner in Manhattan's Little Italy. Crammed with cheeses and cured meats, it has been a shrine to discerning - and homesick - Italian Americans since his grandparents opened it in 1925. He offers me two prosciutti to sample. Even I can tell the difference.
Luigi has good reason to be concerned about prosciutto and two other staples of his shop. They are pecorino cheese - he has 88 varieties, all from Italy, ranging from the delicate and very young to the aged, much sharper pecorino that is mostly used for grating - and also Italian biscuits, including biscotti. His worry is that all these products may be about to become seriously expensive, to the point where even his most loyal customers may feel they are too costly.
This is due to the spat between Washington and Brussels over EU policies that favour Caribbean and African bananas over those from American companies. The US threatens to impose 100 per centtariffs on a range of "luxury goods" from Europe - among them a good portion of what fills Luigi's shop.
``Prosciutto, pecorino cheese and biscotti have nothing to do with luxury," Luigi insists, with a sweep of the hand around his miniature shop, which is solid with patrons. "These are necessities for Italian families. It is not a gourmet item to have pecorino on your table and it is not a gourmet item to have prosciutto on the table. We need them, like everybody else needs a loaf of bread." Many of his customers are from families who have been shopping here for three generations. "In some ways, we are probably more Italian than most shops back in Italy," he says.
"This isn't about bananas, it's about attitude. The Europeans think they can now act strong with the United States. But Europe should remember how America helped when it was in need," says Luigi, talking not just about world wars but also about how America became home to so many European immigrants.
Luigi concedes that his loyalties are a little divided. "I am proud to be an American, but I am proud of my Italian heritage also," he says. The Americans should not be so hasty in threatening the tariffs. The Europeans, on the other hand, should drop the "attitude".
Di Palo will endure, even if the tariffs are applied. After all, a veterinary embargo kept all Italian prosciutto out of the US for 20 years from 1968. And Luigi has been scheming how best to circumvent the new duties. For the biscuits, there is little he can do and his customers are already hoarding. "Some of them are getting a little panicked," he admits.
Of the pecorino, the news is better. Fresh pecorino will be hit with the new tariffs, but aged pecorino - considered inferior by some, but in Luigi's book more tasty - will be exempt. And while the duties will theoretically push up the price of Italian prosciutto from about $16 (pounds 10) to $30 (pounds 19) a pound, he will be able to soften that by importing prosciutto on the bone, which is also exempt from the tariffs.
Failing all else, there will be prosciutto made in the US. Really, it's not bad.
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