2010 July: Such a Ham!

Prosciutto is more than just Italian ham. It’s a delicacy, prized for its melt-in-your-mouth texture and subtle, complex flavor. A little goes a long way, allowing operators to leverage prosciutto’s sense of place, perceived value and flavor profile. Fabricated from the haunches of a pig, lots of love and attention goes into its production: the meat is salted, air-cured, greased with salted lard and then cured for 12 to 30 months. Prosciutto di Parma is perhaps the most common variety. Pigs raised in Italy’s Parma region for prosciutto, or Parma ham, are fed a diet that includes whey from locally made Parmiggiano-Reggiano, giving it its distinctly rich, sweet-salty flavor. (The longer it’s aged, the deeper and meatier the flavor.)

So how best to show off prosciutto’s rosy color, sublime texture and sweet flavor? Classic appetizers lay thin layers of prosciutto over musky melon, or wrap the paper-thin slices around grilled asparagus spears or luscious figs. Prosciutto stars in antipasto platters, where the complex-flavored ham shares space with pepperoni and fresh mozzarella, roasted red pepper, marinated artichokes and briny olives. But some operators are extolling the virtues of prosciutto beyond its traditional uses, perhaps as a pizza topping or as a high-value ingredient in a signature pasta dish.

At Prosciutto’s Pizzeria, Pub & Restaurant in Cornelius, North Carolina, prosciutto is prevalent on the menu. The Prosciutto’s House Pizza, a gourmet white pizza with an olive-oil and garlic base, combines the meat with feta and mozzarella. Out of 15 specialty pizzas, it ranks among the top-three sellers. “We lay the prosciutto over the dough, and then the cheeses on top,” says Joel Pfyffer, owner operator of this 130-seat restaurant. “The prosciutto crisps up beautifully.”

The Prosciutto’s House Pasta sports cheese tortellini tossed with prosciutto and garlic sautéed in olive oil, mushrooms, grilled chicken and Alfredo sauce. “It’s our No. 1 seller,” he says. “We make the Alfredo sauce in house. The dish has wonderful fl avors in it—from the cheese and garlic to the really good quality prosciutto.”

An entrée portion sells for $13.95 and comes with salad and bread. The dish runs a food cost of $6.50.

“We use prosciutto di Parma, and cut it very, very thin,” he says. “You only need a little of it to make a good impact on the dish. He says the trick is to have someone who knows how to wield a knife well, slicing the prosciutto paper thin. The restaurant goes through 10 pounds a week, storing it in the walk-in until needed. Other uses for prosciutto? “We deep fry it and add it to salads. Or it’s a perfect base for an Italian sandwich,” says Pfyffer.

At 74-seat Vertuccio’s Pizza on the Park in Brooklyn, New York, Chef Gaetano Giuffre goes through a whole leg of prosciutto once a week. It’s showcased on two of the menu’s 20 gourmet pizzas and on one of its focaccia sandwiches. On the Reale Pizza, the dough is topped with San Marzano tomato sauce, Fior di latte mozzarella and chunks of fried eggplant. Once baked, the chef tops the pizza with thin slices of prosciutto di Parma and fresh basil. “By fi nishing the pizza with the prosciutto, you’re maintaining its freshness and wonderful texture,” says Giuffre. The 18-inch pie sells for $21.50 and runs a 30 percent food cost. It falls in the top six or seven out of the 20 pizzas.

Vertuccio’s Prosciutto Pizza sees cherry tomatoes and Fior di latte mozzarella on a pizza. When pulled out of the oven, Giuffre adds wisps of arugula, razor-thin slices of prosciutto and shaved Parmesan cheese. “The flavors are simple, fresh and light,” he says. “The prosciutto adds some depth.” The 18-inch pizza sells for $20 and runs a 30 percent food cost.

The Prosciutto, a sandwich housed between two slices of brick-oven focaccia, boasts prosciutto, arugula, Fior di latte mozzarella and a balsamic dressing, which brings out the prosciutto’s sweeter side. “We want to highlight the delicacy of prosciutto, complementing it with flavors, but not overwhelming it,” says Giuffre. 

Pasta with Prosciutto, Parmesan and Peas

Yields 8 servings

24 ounces tagliatelle or other pasta
1½ tablespoons butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 10-ounce package frozen peas, thawed
8 ounces prosciutto, sliced paper thin and halved
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

Cook pasta until al dente in a large pot of boiling, salted water, according to package directions. Reserve 2 cups pasta water; drain pasta and return to pot.

In a large skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat; add shallot and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add cream, peas and prosciutto; bring to a very gentle simmer over medium heat, stirring. Simmer until peas are heated through, about 4 minutes.

Add lemon juice and zest. Toss pasta with sauce; add Parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add some of reserved pasta water to thin sauce as desired. Serve immediately; top with additional Parmesan, if desired.

Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.