by Angelo Colavita
As a writer, an artist, I understand that the creative process is in every sense an evolution of ideas. We are given a foundation, a set of rules and frameworks to build upon, thus facilitating the evolution of our craft. This gives our work personality, style, and most importantly a voice. This voice is what pushes our work from “creation” to “innovation.” Without this innovation, our craft becomes stagnant and boring, defining the term “dying art.” Innovation is not something to be draped over a framework or formula. Innovation is something that is woven into the fabric. In other words, a bed is not “made” until the sheets are tucked into corners and the pillows are cased. Until then, we simply have a mattress and a bag of goose feathers. For instance, on Wednesday I attended a lecture by one of my favorite living writers, Mr. Samuel R. Delaney. Delaney, currently a professor at Temple University, brought up a good point. Most writers see language as a finishing touch to be applied after the story or novel is finished. But according to Delaney, and I would have to agree, language inevitably IS the story, and to look at language as a polish or a separate entity is neglecting your craft altogether. Try writing without words and then add them in later, or building a house without nails… The same goes for food artisans, charcuterie specifically. Salami is more than just salt and meat pieces. It is futile to try and spice a soppressatta after it’s been hanging for eight months. Innovation must be made at the moment of creation. As creators, it is our duty, not merely to copy our predecessors, but to build upon what they’ve learned for themselves, taking their art to the next level and to a whole new audience. In this sense, art is immortality. The legacy of one artist’s creations will continue to live long after the creator has passed. One painter’s work can influence many young painters. One region’s salami can evolve into another’s soppressatta, and another’s sausage, and so on to infinity. This is not only the evolution of the craft, but a natural progression of thought. By creating without innovation, one simply exists. He exists and pays his bills and continues to exist. He will never be remembered. His work will go unrecognized. His creations will stagnate others who are innovative and passionate, ultimately dragging them down into a bog void of progress or ideas.
As a cheesemonger and avid foodie, my artistic sensibilities tend to spill into my opinions on food. Now in the kitchen, especially in Philadelphia kitchens, there is no shortage of innovative cuisine. Philly is home to some of the most creative dining experiences this side of the Atlantic. But there is one thing that is easy to overlook, or rather to take lazily, and that is charcuterie. Curing meats is a centuries old Italian tradition that has seemed to stagnate in the past several decades. It seems as if a salumist obtains his grandfather’s recipe, or someone’s grandfather’s recipe, follows it accordingly, and makes his living selling “Super Saat.” That’s all well-and-good, but if there was any lick of passion for curing meats in this simple-minded salumist’s heart, there would also be innovation. Perhaps it is the fear of breaking tradition, or maybe fear of rejection that prevents this. Overall it is not the presence of fear, but the lack of a presence of passion and innovation. Take the basket of fruit, for example. For painters, the basket of fruit is a simple rendering of, well, a basket of fruit. But when you look at, for instance, Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, the sense of passion and innovation are apparent: the leaves are wilted, the pears are bruised, the light source is distant and dim, even the wicker basket seems warped and tired. We feel what Caravaggio felt as he painted – the darkness, the damage – and we can not only empathize with the artist, we admire him for his honesty and innovation, his courage to progress while remaining bound to the traditions set by his predecessors, and evolving the art form for the benefit of future artists. My friend and artist Christine Jones told me that she learned to draw as a child by copying Caravaggio. Her artwork today is built upon that foundation she set for herself with Caravaggio and she enjoys a modest success with her own unique art. However, if she were to have gone on copying his work, it would be nothing new to the galleries and she’d no longer be able to support herself with painting.
With that said, I must bring to the table (pardon the pun) Salumi Artisan Cured Meats, definitely the single most progressive production of cured meats I’ve ever tasted. Founded by Armandino Batali (yes, he’s Mario’s father), Salumi is a Seattle-based curing facility famous for their modern takes on old-world Italian and Spanish charcuterie. With a full line of salame, prosciutto, and chorizo just to name a few, Armandino is clearly a passionate, forward-thinking innovator. A successful artist does not merely create. An artist’s loves to create, lives to create. This love is evident in Armandino’s work. He knows that to make genuine culatello, it’s got to be made near Parma’s Po River. So, rather than move his facility to Parma, where it would be lost among the hundreds of other culatello literally “hanging out” by the banks of the Po, he brought the Po to Seattle. With rooms which simulate the climate, humidity, and sunlight (and gradations thereof) of various regions, Armandino can reproduce the environments necessary to make culatello, or prosciutto, or speck, or what-have-you, and the freedom to alter those environments as he sees fit, depending on what exactly it is that he’s making (which is not a luxury the Parmese have… Live by the Po, die by the Po). Without being restricted by environmental limitations, Armandino can create culatello that no one has ever tasted, with a texture that the folks of the old-world would envy.
But aside from wielding humidity like a double-edged sword, Armandino also has a natural instinct for spicing. My favorite, which we at DiBruno’s have lovingly referred to as “Christmas Sausage” for its crisp, piney undertones is Armandino’s Agrumi Salami. More like a sausage with its coarsely-ground meat and naturally-cased links, Agrumi is spiced with various zests of citrus such as lime and orange, as well as cardamom, ginger’s more delicately floral cousin. There is also the highly addictive Molé Sausage: a light salt cure containing chocolate and cinnamon with the kick coming from ancho and chipotle peppers. The “molé” is in the sausage, not the other way around.
Di Bruno Bros. carries a full line of Salumi Artisan Cured Meats, including Armandino’s Culatello, Agrumi Salami, Molé Sausage, Smoked Paprika Sausage, and the signature Salumi Salami (very sweetly adorned with garlic and ginger). Within the next few weeks, we expect the arrival of the Salumi Winter Sausage, which contains black, red, and green peppercorn. As culinary pioneers, we at Di Bruno Bros. feel it is not only a privilege, but also our responsibility to bring people the best food from across the globe without neglecting the fine artisan producers right here in the USA. People like Armandino Batali, La Quercia’s Herb Eckhouse (recently named Food Artisan of the Year by Bon Appetite Magazine), and Soyoung Scanlon in San Francisco with her amazing array of artisan cheeses, have all found a home at this little cheeseshop in Philadelphia’s Italian Market by taking a traditional, noble, artisan craft, making it their own, and giving it to the world. Tradition and innovation, art and passion. When you factor these elements into creation and creativity, be it a great novel, a classic painting, or a mouth-watering prosciutto, the differences diminish and whether the artist is Samuel Beckett, Salvador Dalí, Miles Davis, or Armandino Batali takes the backseat to their own progressive creations, outliving the names of their creators themselves forever in our hearts, our memories, and our bellies.