’Nduja and Campanilismo in Chicago

by Sean Kenniff
Caroline Hatchett and Megan Swann
May 2015

Restaurant

Publican Chef Cosmo Goss was dining in San Francisco at Chris Cosentino’s Incanto when he got his first taste. West Loop Salumi’s Greg Laketek stumbled across it at a market in Milan several years ago. For Charcutier Tony Fiasche and his family, “It was essentially part of our blood. My father was born in Calabria, in a small town five minutes away from Spilinga—the birthplace of ’nduja.”

If guanciale is cheeky, then ’nduja is heady, and homey, too. Thanks to the ingenuity, discernment, and craft of the citizens of the Italian comune of Spilinga, the luscious, spicy, fruity, floral spreadable fermented meat, ’nduja, lives! Varying from village to village and household to household, ’nduja (pronounced eN-DOO-yah] is traditionally made with pork fat and meat from the pig’s head, and Calabrian chiles. This idea, that a recipe for a single specific item will change from town to town, is the Italian phenomenon of campanilismo—signifying allegiance, loyalty, or pride in one’s town, often in rivalry to another. When it comes to the Spilingan specialty, the provincial spirit of campanilismo is alive and well in Chicago, where there’s quite a bit of diversity within the niche ’nduja market.

As proprietor of ’Nduja Artisans,  Fiasche is spearheading the spread of spreadable-pork love with his Chi-Town charcuterie business. “It’s in my DNA,” says Fiasche, who’s DNA is composed of 20 to 35 percent dried Calabrian chiles (a mix of seeds, pods, and powders), 60 to 80 percent pork fat, and 20 to 40 percent lean pork meat. Sometimes the cuts of pork or where the pork fat comes from changes, but the hog is always Berkshire and the proportions remain relatively the same from batch to batch of the fermented, soft salami.

After two years recipe testing at his family’s Ristorante Agostino, Fiasche opened ’Nduja Artisans. “’Nduja was a family-produced salame, until about 10 to 12 years ago when our area of Calabria became a tourist attraction. We keep tradition according to my family’s recipe, which calls for more lean meat than is typical.”

Fiasche’s father used to refer to ’nduja as a poor man’s food, but today, in Chicago, Fiasche’s ’nduja retails for $29.95 per pound. Over at West Loop Salumi, Laketek sells his ’nduja for $38 per one to one and a half pounds. His recipe, while distinct to West Loop, relies heavily on the Italian DOC regulations for ’nduja, and consists of fresh and dried Calabrian chiles, red wine, pepper, and salt. One-third of the weight of West Loop’s ’nduja is chile. “’Nduja is our most expensive and least profitable product,” says Laketek. “The reason we make it is for the love of carrying out something very special. It takes an entire day to pull the stems off the peppers. There are a few techniques we use that remain a secret, but we don’t rely on fat content to make it spreadable.”  

West Loop’s ’nduja has tangy, grassy notes, and heat that’s two-fold from the combination of fresh and dried chiles. At Publican Quality Meats, the ’nduja is sweet and spicy, because while their process is true to tradition, the ingredients are totally Team Publican (#GoHawks). “We tried countless recipes to perfect our own version and threw out lots of imperfect versions—with lots of Calabrian chiles,” says Goss. “What did Aaliyah say again? ‘If at first you don't succeed, you dust yourself off and try again, dust yourself off and try again.’ Finally, we tried gochujang, and the recipe hasn’t changed since.” PQM uses Berkshire pork belly and lard, giving their ’nduja a softer texture. And since the chiles are swapped for Korean gochujang, the pork becomes the most expensive part of the food cost, allowing for a lower price than their competitors’.

Whether Chicagoans are in the mood for spreadable tradition, tang, or gochujang, their city’s artisans are spreading the spirit and salami of Spilinga throughout the Second City and beyond.