Strip District's Parma Sausage unrolls a prosciutto with substance

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Parma Sausage Products, a low-profile family business located for 57 years in the Strip District, has been up to something big.

The only clue may have been the stark hand-lettered signs on meat counters where their products are sold: "No Parma prosciutto until 2011."

Making prosciutto is the very old art of transforming a fresh leg of pork, well rubbed with salt, then hung in the air for many months to lose moisture, ferment a bit and gain flavor, into a revered ham with the texture of a silk tie and a complex aroma. It is a skill perfected in Italy's midsection, in the city of Parma.

The art also is a source of pride in Pittsburgh at Parma Sausage. Company founder Luigi Spinabella, 83, who was born near Parma, learned from his father to cure pork in this time-intensive way.

Two decades ago he got seriously into prosciutto-making.

Adding prosciutto to the store's popular lineup of sausages and cured pork products was a daring move in Western Pennsylvania in the 1990s. High-quality domestic prosciutto was almost unheard of. Few besides Italians and foodies had learned to savor the funky fragrance of the paper-thin sliced ham.

The Pittsburgh-made prosciutto now claims a solid fan base. Until the recent hiatus you would find 3,000 or so "hams" hanging in aging rooms above the store, where they were prodded and sniffed for about two years until they felt and smelled just right. The aroma was tested by spearing them with a sliver of horse bone, called a sonda.

Mr. Spinabella has now passed the scepter -- and the sonda -- to his daughter, Rina Edwards, 53.

Parma's latest move shocked customers by offering no prosciutto at all for months. Ms. Edwards' decision suggests the sort of gumption and judgment people had come to expect from the patriarch.

Two years ago she decided she simply wanted to start over with better pork for Parma's prosciutto. She began scouring Pennsylvania for a better source than the large Midwest supplier they'd been using. She wanted local and she wanted full-fat heritage pork, with all the flavor she could get.

She learned that for the time being, local would have to be deferred. Central Pennsylvania's heritage pigs could not be found in dependable quantity. "They didn't have the fat we were looking for." And they were nowhere near big enough.

She wanted sizeable legs of 27 or 28 pounds. "The legs will lose 50 percent of their weight. They will be about 12 and a half pounds, boned and packaged. In Italy the Parma hogs are twice as large -- fed on whey of Parmigiana-Reggiano."

She found Heritage Pork, a supplier in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, that contracts with 30 to 40 ranches for 300 hogs a week. The animals are certified 100 percent Berkshire, an old British breed prized for its fat and flavor. The product is more costly because the animals have smaller litters and take longer to reach weight.

Heritage Pork's Berkshires are fed corn and soybean meal, vitamins and minerals, says sales manager Doug Smith. They are raised in large hoop barns with access to the outdoors. They receive no hormones and antibiotics only if ill.

"Heritage was willing to work with us to get hogs to the size we want [300 pounds plus]," Ms. Edwards says. "We are thrilled."

"La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa, is the only other domestic prosciutto made from Berkshire pork," Ms. Edwards says.

The roll-out of the new product was typical Parma Sausage -- in the lowest key. "We have only 50 pieces so far," Ms. Edwards says.

The city's chef customers, for whom the last of the old-style prosciutto had been reserved, didn't know they'd been switched over to the new Berkshire product late last month.

Chef-owner Sonja Finn of Dinette, who has used Parma's cured meats exclusively since she opened in 2008, was among them: "I tasted the new prosciutto without being told they changed to Berkshire and noticed a huge difference. The fat content is definitely higher and better distributed. You can see the marbling. The meat, although it's cured the same way, is softer and has a richer flavor.

"I'm impressed that Parma changed to humanely raised pigs. They could have continued being successful without changing a thing. They took the time and risk to improve -- not just to make the prosciutto taste better, but because they wanted to be a more responsible company.

"I believe we are lucky to have them in Pittsburgh. And now I am even happier to use their product."

Taste it on Dinette's pizza with arugula, Parmigiana-Reggiano, fresh mozzarella and tomato.

Besides the superior taste, Ms. Edwards is delighted with the size of the slices. "This is prosciutto with substance. Three-and-a-half to 4-inch slices -- big enough to actually wrap."

The fledgling prosciutto also is featured on the menus at Cioppino and Nine on Nine. Customers can taste and buy it at the Parma counter, 1734 Penn Ave., at $16.99 a pound. It is sold at the Giant Eagle Market Districts. The product will be sampled at the Local Food Showcase at Chatham University on March 10.

If you ask Ms. Edwards really nicely, you could be among the lucky ones invited to have "spuntini," a taste of Parma products in the back room with a glass of homemade wine, a homey ritual that Ms. Edwards presides over late mornings when she has time.

The Parma "matriarch" shares the company's balancing of tradition and innovation with her husband John Edwards, plant manager and company co-owner. "John is always creating new things: Our rosemary pork loin, lonzetta di cotta, is slow-cooked and sold sliced or by the piece. We've introduced British-style 'banger' sausages. We sell them in the store, and they are on the menu at Piper's Pub in the South Side. We'll sell a lot of John's Hot Grillers -- fully cooked Italian sausages for the grill."

As her father prepared her, Ms. Edwards, the company president, is grooming her daughter Erin Schumacher, whose title is sales manager and company secretary. Erin's husband, Darren, is senior sales manager. They are both 28. Dylan Schumacher, 4, the first grandson, also is the first member of the fourth generation to lend a hand. He helps to salt the prosciutto.

Ms. Edwards and her husband still spear the hams with her dad's horse bone to evaluate the hams' progress. "Aroma is everything," Ms. Edwards says.

The current newbies have been aged 18 months. Ms. Edwards: "As the rotation continues (a batch of new hams is added three times a year), we expect some hams will reach 20 months. Most industry sells it at 12 months. You're not going to see one of ours coming out at 12 months. We like it a little better aged."

"Premium-aged," Erin Schumacher emphasizes.

Virginia Phillips: .


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