Mortadella is the sleeper meat of the current era. Rarely spoken of, it appears only sporadically on menus — though it turns out to be nearly everyone’s favorite when it comes to the dubious category called “luncheon meats.” But lately it has been materializing as more than a bit player, not only in wacky sandwiches, but also in more complicated dishes, sometimes even cooked. At New York restaurants, find it wadded atop a fried pizza drizzled with miso at Kimika; folded into a flatbread oozing gorgonzola at Cremini’s; and substituted for pork in a katsu cutlet at Katana Kitten, among other appealing new usages.
Many consider it bologna’s fancier Italian cousin, but what is it, really? According to the Time-Life volume The Food of Italy (1968), Mortadella originated in the Middle Ages, when it was made in monasteries by monks crushing pork in giant mortars, and the lengthy name of these devices was shortened to mortadella. By 1376, when the first guild of sausage-makers was founded in Italy, it was considered the most distinguished of sausages.
Mortadella is a cooked sausage, while most of the salamis associated with Italy remain uncooked. Preserved by heavy salting and air drying, salamis are far from subtle. By contrast, the spices commonly used in mortadella run to measured amounts of white pepper, ground coriander, and garlic. The pistachios found therein, brought from the Middle East to Italy by the Moors around 1000 A.D., lend further nuanced flavor and texture.
Of course, the feature that most impresses the sausage eater upon encountering mortadella for the first time is its humongous size. Mortadellas traditionally run as large as 180 pounds, according to John Mariani’s 1998 Dictionary of Italian Food, though more recently a stunt mortadella of nearly 6,000 pounds was produced. Another prominent feature of mortadella are the globules of lard it flaunts, daring you to eat such a fatty sausage.
Bologna is a latter-day riff on mortadella that does away with its ostentatious fat in favor of a coarser but more homogeneous forcemeat. Gone, too, are the pistachios. Oddly, bologna seems to have arrived in nineteenth century America with the Germans, rather than the Italians; most of it as cylinders, but also accompanied by a ring-shaped variety. But bologna really took off in the early twentieth century as a sandwich meat, its popularity accelerating during the Great Depression due to its cheapness. But who’d ever put it on a pizza?
During the last century, mortadella’s primary usage in city restaurants was presented thinly sliced, atop charcuterie platters. Ironically, because it had been cooked, it was a legal import here, while Italian-made prosciutto and salami were largely forbidden until 2014 because they were technically uncooked, and hence thought to be a source of trichinosis and other porcine-borne diseases.
But in the current era, mortadella has managed to broaden its deployments. I have sought out the pink meat wherever I can find it, especially when used in an unconventional manner. Here are nine of my current favorites.
Focaccia der muratore at Montesacro Pinseria Romana
This restaurant, which originated in San Francisco, specializes in the Roman pizza called pinsa, with a broad range of toppings. The pinsa dates back to classical times, with a crust of multiple grains, including wheat, rice, and soy flours in this case. Ordinarily the pinsa would be dressed on top, but this example is split horizontally while still hot and layered with a few slices of mortadella, making a warm round sandwich. 432 Union Avenue, between Metropolitan Avenue and Devoe Street, Williamsburg
Mortadella and gorgonzola crescia at Cremini’s
Mortadella has demonstrated its versatility with any sort of bread or pizza, but one rare use here is folded into a flatbread with cheese. Hailing from the Le Marche region of Italy just across the Apennines from Rome, Cremini’s is a café specializing in casual food from the region. This fold-over features mortadella and gorgonzola that oozes provocatively and adds a sharp creaminess to the garlicky sausage, with loft and bitterness contributed by fresh arugula. Taste mortadella as you’ve never tasted it before. 521 Court St, between 9th and Garnet streets, Carroll Gardens
Mortadella sandwich at Dave & Tony Salumeria
Dave & Tony is an old-style Italian deli that makes its own mozzarella daily, which is the key to this wonderful sandwich. It deploys an outsize wad of thin-sliced meat, then layers mozzarella sliced on the same slicer on top, making a sandwich not only beautiful to look at, but one in which the creamy propensities of the fresh cheese give the mortadella extra pungency. 35-18 30th Avenue, between 35th and 36th streets, Astoria
Mortadella katsu sando at Katana Kitten
Forget everything you know about mortadella. Especially the idea that it must be sliced thin to bring out the flavor. At West Village izakaya and low dive Katana Kitten, it’s sliced into thick squares, panko-crumbed, and deep fried in the manner of pork cutlets. The meat block is then incorporated into a sando, which is a white bread sandwich with the crusts cut off. The unctuous delight of the sausage, and the chance to try mortadella cooked, makes this dish spin like a child’s top. 521 Hudson Street, between West 10th and Charles streets, West Village
Mortadella sandwich at Sullivan Street Bakery Pop-Up
Let’s face it, a little mortadella goes a long way. When made into sandwiches with flatbreads in Emilia Romagna, its home turf, just a slice or two is used, sometimes with cheese or arugula. Sullivan Street has followed this in spirit, by using a small roll and putting a modest quantity of wadded mortadella on it. For most, this elegant sandwich is more than sufficient. 437 East 9th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, East Village
Mortadella sandwich at Bread & Salt
Anomalously located in the Jersey City Heights, Bread & Salt is a Roman-style bakery adept at focaccia that are sometimes topped, sometimes not, as well as pastries, toasts, cookies, panettone, and Italian groceries. (Before the pandemic there were also pastas, roast meats, and beans and greens.) The mortadella sandwich places a modest amount on the focaccia sometimes called pizza bianca, and it’s just the right ratio of bread to meat. 435 Palisade Avenue, between Griffith and Hutton streets, Jersey City
Mortadella pizzette fritte at Kimika
Located on Nolita’s bustling, post-industrial Kenmare Street, Kimika occupies the ground floor of a boutique hotel and peddles something it refers to as Japanese-Italian cooking. Central to that theme is the Neapolitan montanara, a deep fried pizza crust with toppings applied after frying. The best features a schmear of stracciatella and slices of mortadella squiggled with a sweet dark sauce containing miso. 40 Kenmare Street, at Elizabeth Street, Nolita
Mortadella and provolone hero at Faicco’s Pork Store
By contrast to the pink bouncy sausage’s more subtle uses, there’s this humongous hero from Greenwich Village’s century-old Faicco’s salumeria, dating from the days when the neighborhood along Bleecker Street was mainly Italian and Portuguese. The provolone adds a dairy note to the sandwich, but even more important are the lettuce, tomatoes, and onions that nutritionally balance the sandwich. Or maybe not. The dressing? In my case mayo, though oil and vinegar would be more on-theme. 260 Bleecker Street, between Leroy and Morton streets, Greenwich Village