We’ve talked about lardo before, I think, the traditional cold cut from the ancient Colonnata quarries innorthern Tuscany: slabs of pure, white hog lard cured for months in special coffin-shaped basins hewn from marble. You see lardo pretty much everywhere you go in central Italy these days, sliced thinly and melted into grilled bread, wrapped around prunes and piled atop roast pork loin, spread onto crostini, served cold on a plate with a sprinkling of coarse salt and a dribble of local honey.
At Dario Cecchini’s famous butcher shop in Panzano, the one featured in the best-selling kitchen memoir Heat, his version of lardo is whipped into a stiff, shiny paste that billows from his meat case like Miracle Whip. In the Val d’Aosta, chunks of pickled lardo bob in canning jars. Artisanal meat men in south Tuscany make a kind of lardo too, from the fat of plump, lovely Cinta Senese pigs, a local breed of black swine that look as if they have the white belts of Elvis impersonators wrapped around their midsections.
If you are very, very lucky in Italy, you can sometimes find somebody to grill a thick steak over a hot olive-wood fire, then gild it with just enough lardo to dissolve into the meat and scent it with the supreme fragrance of rosemary, spices and profoundly matured pork.
The Slow Food movement, the Italian-led organization that has been one of the driving forces behind sustainable agriculture in the last few years, has made the preservation of Colonnata lardo almost a sacred mission, spreading word of its succulence to the rest of Italy and the world, while fighting the European agricultural regulations that would exterminate it the way the NRDC fights the destruction of smelt habitat.
In Italy a few weeks ago, addled by jet lag and those funny little pills that some of us take on airplanes, I had a vivid dream about lardo: the way it crisps and curls over a fire, the way it tastes with fresh pears, the way it feels to slice through a cold chunk of it with a really sharp knife — lardo can become an obsession. But lardo obsessions make sense in Colonnata, the tiny town where it has been made since Roman times — the town’s other industry, cleaving massive slabs of marble from the steep mountainside, is the kind of work that requires the most concentrated possible nourishment. For a writer whose most arduous task most weeks is lugging bags of ripe peaches around the farmers market, even thinking about lardo is overkill.
A couple of days after my dream, I was twisting toward Colonnata along the tiny road that rises almost vertically from the coastal city of Carrara, trying not to think of the abyss yawning just inches from the car’s wheels, looking up at the marble mountains whose interiors, exposed by 2,200 years of quarrying, shone bright as the winter snow.
Practically anywhere you drive in Italy, you’ll run across an officially designated Strada del Vino or Strada dell’Olio, a road that happens to lead travelers from vineyard to vineyard or grove to grove, so they might inspect the differences between olives grown near Lago Trasimeno and olives grown in Trevi. The shelves of Italian bookstores groan with walking itineraries and self-guided truffle tours. Even I occasionally follow the well-worn paths of the art pilgrim, devoting a week or two to the scattered frescoes of Piero della Francesca or Luca Signorelli, Giotto or the mischievously named Il Sodoma, who was obviously more inspired by the pet greyhounds of the saints than he was by the actual saints themselves.
But Colonnata is a major stop on a different kind of itinerary, one connecting the famous meat towns of Italy: Langhirano, above Parma, where the best prosciutto is cured; nearby Felino, the source of an exquisite salame; Norcia, the remote Umbrian center of both monasticism (St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were born there) and of cured pork; the area north of Arezzo, where grilled Florentine steaks reach their apogee at places like Hostaria Costachiara and Il Canto del Maggio; and Panzano, where the butcher Cecchini recently opened a restaurant, Solociccia, that specializes in dozen-course family dinners consisting almost entirely of lesser cuts of Chianti-style beef. Some wine fetishists like to talk about the mystical feeling that comes across them when they sip a glass of wine overlooking the vineyards in which the wine was grown, but there can be an even stronger sense of terroir in the meat towns, where the essence of the local products almost seems to ooze through the buildings, where the air itself smells of flesh, salt and time.
Colonnata is a small town, much shrunken since the quarries were automated a few decades ago, and the marble that seems to cover everything here is regularly defaced with anarchist slogans. More than a dozen family-owned lardo concerns are tucked into former homes and such in the heart of the village, little shops that invite visitors in for a bite of the house-made lardo and a sip of the supple local wine, as much lardo as you could wish for and more, with the white mountains peeking out from between the buildings. And the best local restaurant, Locanda Apuana, does indeed serve lardo in every course, fanned out on a plate with the hot little balls of fried chickpea batter called panizzes; joining with rosemary to flavor great bowls of homemade pasta; stuffed into stewed rabbit. There are vegetable pies with lardo; crunchy potatoes that have been fried in pure molten lardo; and if you’re in the mood, big, lardo-slathered beefsteaks that help down the excellent local wine.
Lardo for dessert? Unfortunately not — chestnut crepes, gooey rice cakes and such. But I can almost imagine a tart of roast apricots, arranged in a sweetened, lardo-infused crust.
Back in Los Angeles, of course, lardo is a scarcer commodity. The estimable proprietors of the shop Guidi Marcello in Santa Monica, who do import guanciale from Colonnata, shrug when you ask them why they don’t also bring in the town’s lardo — import regulations, they say. Cube features artisanal American and Italian charcuterie, including prosciutto di Langhirano, and Il Moro serves a wonderful plate of meats from the Emilia-Romagna accompanied by gnocco, the pillows of fried bread that restaurants in that region traditionally serve with prosciutto and culatello. At the newly opened Osteria Mozza, chef Matt Molina not only serves gnocco, but cures his own lardo to go with it.
And they say there’s no such thing as progress.
Guidi Marcello, 1649 10th St., Santa Monica, (310) 452-6277; Cube, 615 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 939-1148; Il Moro, 11400 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A., (310) 575-3530; Osteria Mozza, 6602 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 297-0100.