Curing Meats—Pittsburgher Keeping Italian Family Tradition Alive & Well

Ciao Pittsburgh recently caught up with Michael Pizzuto, 31, from Pitcairn, PA. Michael is a great local blogger—check out some of his photos and posts at http://a-lost-art.blogspot.com. His blog tracks the cured meats he and seven of his friends, his dad and grandfather, make each year.

Michael’s real-life, 9-to-5 job is working for a telecommunications company. He analyzes data around his company’s policies and procedures looking for gaps in their processes and making sure employees are following procedures. His passion, however, is making cured meats. In fact, he made his very own curing chamber to refrigerate his cured meats. If you would like to learn more about his system, feel free to contact him through his blog.

We chatted with Michael via email a couple weeks ago to learn more about him, this annual tradition of his, and what he enjoys most about being Italian.

We checked out your blog… pretty cool stuff on there! Why did you start the blog, and also what do you enjoy most curing meats? 

I started the blog because I kept posting everything on Facebook and it was kind of taking over my Facebook feeds. Also, I follow a couple of blogs that have information on how to cure meats. It’s pretty cool to have other people you don’t know find your site and either gain something from the site or provide me with some tips or tricks.

What I enjoy most form cured meats is that it’s a lost art—you cannot find how to do it in a cookbook. You transform a raw piece of meat into this delicacy that has never been cooked and takes anywhere from two months to a year to make. In addition, it connects you back to our ancestors. This is how they cooked before refrigeration. It’s also nice when you give someone some salami and they’re shocked when you tell them you made it.

You created a refrigeration system for your cured meets. How did you create it and why?

I created it because every January my dad, grandfather, and about seven of my friends get together and make supersud (sopressata). I found information about building a curing chamber on one of the blogs that I follow. I also have a book that has plans for this type of curing chamber.

Basically, you need a temperature controller that you plug the refrigerator into, which allows you to set the proper temperature (50-60 degrees). They make the same device for a humidifier. Humidity is very important. I run a humidifier inside the refrigerator—the controller turns on its own when the humidity drops below 60.  My dad wired up a separate outlet inside the refrigerator but you can use an extension cord. These controlling devices can be bought off of Amazon.

Winter is the best time to make cured meats because it’s cold outside and most cold cellars are at the proper temperatures to cure meats.  Once the supersud is gone, it’s gone, so I wanted to be able to make it all year around. Plus this was the first year, I made prosciutto and I wanted a controlled environment to keep it in during the summer months—it takes about a year to make.   It also helped me with practicing on small batches of salamis.

Where do you currently live?

I currently live in Pitcairn, Pa right outside of Monroeville about 15 min from downtown Pittsburgh.

How long have you lived in Pittsburgh and what do you enjoy most about the city? I lived in Pittsburgh my whole life and I love the city. I enjoy being a Steelers fan! But I really enjoy that the town is a hard working town and full of Italians and other nationalities that are proud of where they came from. There are a lot of mom and pop shops to visit but Pittsburgh is big enough to hold its own with the larger cities.

Can you tell us about your Italian heritage?

I am actually 100% Italian. My family is from all over but mainly Calabria and Abruzzo. My great grandparents came from Italy. I had the pleasure to grow up with my great grandmother until I was around 17; she came over when she was 11.

What are some of your favorite Italian traditions and why?

I love Christmas Eve and having the feast of the seven fishes is my favorite dinner of all time. We cook and drink wine most of the day. Another favorite tradition is making supersud every January with my dad and grandfather.  My great uncle got me into making wine and my grandparents on my mother’s side got me into making homemade sausage and pasta. Those our traditions I hope to pass down if I ever have kids.

Have you had a chance to visit Italy and the town where your ancestors are from?

Not yet, I’m afraid I might not want to come back! When I go I want to be able to go for a couple of weeks.

What does being Italian mean to you?

I think being Italian gives you a sense of pride. Our ancestors worked hard and went through a lot when they came over. It’s also a nationality that holds on to traditions like making wine and salami, and anything else around food.

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

I’m a little bit of old school and new school. I like to cook, make wine and work in my garden. I am a diehard Steelers fan, so going to the game or having a party is a big part of my spare time during football season. I also like to hit the gym here and there or go out with friends on the weekends.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to learn how to cure their own meats?

There is a big movement with curing meats now days. There are two books out there—one is called Charcuterie and the other one is called Salumi. They are a great start. You can also find great information online. There is some risk since you are not cooking the product, but reading will help you understand the guidelines. Using the right amount of salt and curing salt is the biggest part. Practice and don’t be afraid it you mess up—even the big producers account for loss. We lost about 80lbs of supersud last year.

Have fun with it, it can be very rewarding!

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