Olli Salumeria’s Norcino Salame is named after Norcia, Italy, the town where co-owner Oliviero Colmignoli’s grandfather was born. Photo courtesy of Olli Salumeria
I've been known to collect sausage. I buy it, I put it in the freezer and I'm so pleased that I found it, I don't eat it. Or I panic and buy it in enormously large quantities on the off chance that I might run out. That's why I once bolted through Times Square carrying 7 pounds of chorizo, plus a pound of good Spanish cheese and two brand-new bento boxes for my daughters. And maybe some cupcakes. You never know when you'll run across that good Spanish sausage again.
I thought nothing was as good as the Ibérico ham of Spain. Made from free-range, acorn-eating pigs, the jamón is slowly cured for two to four years. It was a banner day when the United States finally lifted its importation ban. Our family had eaten it everywhere we went when we were in Spain. Along with bread and ice cream, jamón was all that stood between my youngest daughter and starvation.
Yet a tall, handsome Italian has since changed my mind. Not through charm, though he has plenty of it, but because when it comes to charcuterie, he's a rock star — or soon to become one. Olivierio (Olli) Colmignoli, co-owner and founder of the Mechanicsville-based Olli Salumeria, makes the best cured hams and salumi I've ever tasted. He also introduced me to something I had never heard of. And that ham blew my mind. Speck is a cured ham made in northern Italy, similar to prosciutto, but subtly fragrant, not too salty and with just enough smoke. The fat — and there's quite a bit of it — is meltingly rich and intrinsic to the experience. It's the pork itself that shines, though, with that deep richness that only a heritage breed provides.
Colmignoli had a sausage-factory upbringing. His great-great grandfather, Innocenzo Fiorucci, founded Fiorucci Foods in Norcia, Italy, in the mid-19th century, and Colmignoli found himself in and out of the plants his family ran all of his life. "I went to work there as soon as I was old enough," he says. The United States wouldn't allow importation of the salami, prosciutto and other cured meats that Fiorucci produced. So, spearheaded by Colmignoli's father, Claudio, the company expanded and began producing and distributing its products from Colonial Heights in 1985.
Chip Vosmik didn't know anything about sausage. He'd been friends with Claudio for years, and when he found a farmer who sold heritage Berkshire hogs, he asked the Colmignolis to help him cure his own ham. Olli Colmignoli cured the pork for him, and it was so good, Vosmik ordered 100 more hogs. Fiorucci Foods, however, was taking its products into deli cases and stores everywhere, and artisan-produced charcuterie wasn't the way the company wanted to go. That was when Colmignoli and Vosmik came up with a plan to start a business together.
Colmignoli uses whole cuts of meat instead of the odds and ends other producers throw into their products. When I ask him if he butchers the hogs on site, he looks appalled. "No! It's too messy," he says. Instead, the meat arrives already cut and in boxes from a patchwork of small farmers carefully raising their pigs on sunshine, grass and whatever else pigs grub up while wandering the fields.
I watch as Colmignoli makes Napoli sausage. The entire facility, which once housed Carytown Seafood, is refrigerated. After the sausage's spices are mixed, about a dozen or so whole cloves of garlic are minced with a couple cups of red wine in a food processor. "It's very good wine," Colmignoli says.
"It's what we served at our Christmas party," Vosmik adds.
The spices and wine and garlic are added to about 350 pounds of whole pork shoulder that's been ground in shiny new equipment from Italy. ("Everything comes from Italy except for the walls," Colmignoli says.) The pork sits overnight to meld flavors redolent of cinnamon and fennel; then it's stuffed into beef casings the next day. White mold is added to the outside, and the sausage moves to a 70-degree chamber to ferment. It's USDA approved, although the inspectors needed some persuading, Colmignoli says. "They didn't understand. ‘You take it and let it sit at room temperature on purpose?' they said. ‘It's fermenting,' I told them." It's also where the sausage smokes overnight.
By allowing the sausage to cure slowly (think ceviche), it doesn't become cooked meat masquerading as cured meat, as most other sausage does. The flavor is able to bloom over the next week at a warm, but not too hot, temperature. Next door, the racks of sausage go into refrigeration to dry over the next three weeks. Another shiny machine packages it, and out the door it all goes as fast as this five-man operation can get its meticulously produced sausages out there.
In Richmond, you can find Olli Salumeria products at Belmont Butchery and Libbie Market for about $8 to $10 per 6-ounce package. You can also find their artisan-made sausage in San Francisco, Chicago, New York City and Atlanta.
They've been overwhelmed with the positive response they've received since they first began only two months ago. "At the Fancy Food Show [in San Francisco], they put us in the back 40, next to the emergency exit," says Vosmik. They didn't think anyone would be able to find them, but instead, chefs, cookbook authors and all of the major food magazines stopped by to taste and rave about their salumi. "There was never a lull. Everyone wanted it."