A Taste of Italy
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
For three generations, Volpi Foods has produced authentic Italian meats in America’s heartland.
Starting in the 19th century, when Italian immigrants came to St. Louis looking for a new life, many of them ended up in the neighborhood known as The Hill. Located in southwest St. Louis, The Hill is where generations of Italian-Americans were born, raised and worked. Baseball legends Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up there. Even today, the area is predominantly Italian-American. The green, white and red of the Italian flag can be seen frequently, and the area is known for its fine Italian restaurants and bakeries.
It’s fitting, then, that a processor of authentic Italian meats has found its home there as well. Volpi Foods has prospered under three generations of family-run ownership, keeping to tradition while still utilizing the latest technologies.
“It leads to a different set of challenges,” Lorenza Pasetti, president of Volpi, says of overseeing a family-run business. “There’s more at stake than just the dollar profit. There’s your reputation, and if you’re an Italian family, there’s a lot of pressure on quality.”
Volpi Foods’ reputation has far exceeded The Hill. Its products are shipped all across the country as well as to Canada and Asia, and the company has many well-known fans, including chefs Mario Batali, Michael Chiarello and Jamie and Bobby Deen. The Deen brothers featured the company’s meats on their Food Network “Road Tasted” show, and they included the company in a follow-up cookbook. Chiarello, a cookbook author and television personality, has called Volpi the best domestic artisan salami producer and has produced a line of artisan salami with Volpi under his own brand, Napa Style.
While Volpi Foods has expanded to three buildings, it still does business out of the location where John Volpi founded the company in 1902. A trained salumiere (salami maker) from Milan, Volpi combined his
background with the fresh, high-quality pork found in the Midwest and began producing Italian specialty meats, including salami, coppa, pancetta, prosciutto and more.
The original building also served as the home for Volpi and his wife. They lived on the second floor, and the manufacturing plant and a small store, which still operates today, was on the first floor.
The Volpis did not have any children, but they wanted to train someone in the family to carry on the business. Their nephew, Armando Pasetti, moved to St. Louis from Italy, and carried on the tradition for more than 60 years. Six years ago, he turned the company over to his daughter, Lorenza, although he still comes to work every day and makes sure the quality of the products is at the forefront of decisions made.
“This building holds a lot of history and continues to be an integral part in the making of salami,” says Adisa Kalkan, international sales for Volpi Foods. While many of the old traditions are kept intact, the company has also benefited from modern technology to produce approximately 60,000 pounds of salami per week, as well as the same amount of prosciutto.
As easy as uno, due, tre
All around Volpi Foods’ offices and store, there are pictures of the company history. One shows John Volpi, cigar clenched in his mouth, hard at work preparing salamis. A dog can be seen at the bottom of the photo. The company has come a long way since those days.
The original building is still used to produce some types of salami and other specialty products. It is called Uno, or “one” in Italian. The second building, Due, was bought 12 years ago and was converted into a prosciutto-producing facility. The third and newest building, Tre, was built across the street from Due in 2004. It produces salami, rotola (sliced prosciutto ham rolled in mozzarella cheese) and sliced and diced products. Throughout all three buildings, there is a combination of technology and tradition, with the emphasis on producing the best-quality product.
“Our process is a gentle process,” says Lorenza Pasetti. “Mild temperatures are used, and we would rather add time to the aging process than to hurry it up with heat. The result is a milder-tasting product that doesn’t taste like it’s been cooked.”
Uno, the oldest building, produces salami along with whole-muscle products, including pancetta, coppa, bresaola and capocolla. All of the products are pork, with bresaola, a beef product, being the sole exception. Everything in this facility is dry-cured with the exception of capocolla, a cooked muscle product, and mortadella, a slow-roasted bologna.
The Uno building has several modern drying rooms, but it still uses a two-story wooden drying room that John Volpi himself probably helped build. The salami get stuffed, netted and tied to large sticks. Those sticks are then carried to this drying room, where they hang for several weeks. “This is as authentic as it gets,” comments Steve Taaffe, vice president of operations. The labor-intensive method and rustic environment of the wooden drying room treats certain products such as natural casing Genova Salami well.
Other drying rooms in Uno are much more modern. Air is discharged from nozzles along the sides of the rooms, hits radiused curves along the floor, collides in the center of the room and goes up the air return in the center. “It’s a challenge to balance, because you don’t want the product on the ends to be abused by the airflow,” Taaffe says. With the design of the room, product is consistently dried, no matter where it is. Along with the modern design of the room, the newer drying rooms also reduce the worker load. Sticks of salami are loaded onto a truck and rolled into the rooms instead of being carried.
“Our No. 1 priority is safety, and that’s from a food-safety standpoint as well as an employee-safety standpoint. No. 2 is quality, and for any change that we have, we have to maintain or improve the quality of the product,” Taaffe says. “We’ve been able to improve some processes while improving our quality, which is rare.”
Volpi Foods has followed the Six Sigma philosophy of continuous improvement, and it has brought about gains in product quality and consistency. While some processes have been modernized, others are kept to the Old World methods. The fermentation rooms, for example, use a cooler temperature instead of high heat.
“We use a cold-temperature fermentation,” Kalkan says. “It’s more traditional, and the product tends to be sweeter and less acidic at the end.“
Using that method, the Volpi products don’t have the tangy aftertaste that some products can get.
“There are three factors that we work with,” she says. “That’s the temperature, humidity and time.”
During the drying process of three to seven weeks, mold does grow on the product and is removed with a power washer.
For years, all of Volpi’s salami production was done at Uno. Since salami production began in the newest building a year ago, the bulk of the products are produced in Tre. It uses modern drying rooms for all of its products. Once the salami are stuffed and netted, they are hung on trucks that are attached to ceiling rails. When the trucks are full, they are guided to the fermentation and drying rooms, and finally to the final washdown and packaging. The salami stay on the trucks for the entire process, so that most of the manual carrying of product has been eliminated.
Tre also houses the slicing and dicing operations for the company, along with the central warehouse and main offices for the company. “We needed more space for production, and we also needed to have a different kind of setup,” Pasetti explains. “Slicing has grown substantially, so we needed to have rooms allocated for a slicing operation and dicing operation. Then we needed a centralized warehouse for distribution.”
In a populated area like The Hill, finding open real estate that is nearby the facilities has been tough. The original facility has been expanded up and down to add capacity. Fortunately, the newest building still has room for expansion. Several more drying rooms can be added to increase capacity.
High-tech with horse bones
The production of prosciutto ham is a long-term process. The drying step alone is about six months, so starting off with quality pork is the key to a successful end product.
“If you don’t start off with a good product, as far as size and cut, you don’t know for another 250 days later what the product is going to be,” Taaffe says. “We have high standards for our suppliers, and we work very closely with them to make sure that we get consistent product.”
Some parts of the process are still done by hand. Each ham, for example, is packed with salt in a two-step process to cure the meat. Other areas have been modernized. Traditionally, prosciutto hams would be hand-massaged to get the blood out of the veins, but today there is equipment that can focus specifically on those veins, eliminating some of the manual labor.
After the prosciutto has been curing and drying for months, one of the final tests uses a bit of Old World ingenuity.
“A horse bone has been used in the production of prosciutto for many, many years,” Kalkan says. “It does not hold any odor, so you can test if the product is good or bad.”
An employee takes the sharpened bone and drives it deep into the prosciutto to ensure that the salt has penetrated all the way through. If there is a pleasant odor on the bone when the worker pulls it out, the ham is fine and can be processed further. If it smells bad, then the meat has not been cured, and no further processing will correct it.
Prosciutto hams are trimmed, deboned and pressed before being shipped to customers. The amount of fat left on the product is up to the customer. Some want it almost all removed, while others insist that the sweetness of the fat helps to balance out the saltiness of the meat.
“We have one customer who says that taking the fat off of prosciutto is like taking the bubbles off of champagne,” Kalkan says, laughing.
Bridging the gap
Volpi Foods has struck a chord with Italians and Italian-Americans looking for traditional meats. Some of the company’s largest markets are in California, New York and Chicago, areas with large Italian populations. “I think there are a lot of things that set us apart, not the least of which is our adherence to tradition,” Pasetti explains. “Yet we are able to translate that tradition to the American market and palate. We tend to be more creative on our product line than some of our competitors.”
She says that over the last 10 years, the company has seen a definite change from strictly Italian consumers to more mainstream consumers. “More people of non-Italian ancestry are more open to tastes and trying it. Who doesn’t like Italian food, really?” Pasetti points out.
Volpi’s latest offering is wine salami, pairing fresh pork and traditional spices with either Pinot Grigio or Chianti wine. Pasetti says that she got the idea for the products after visiting Napa Valley with a friend. The blending of wine with other products, such as cheeses, has been gaining in popularity, she says.
“I think people are just enjoying wines more. For us, it was a way of differentiating our products. We’ve always held tightly to the traditional salamis of Italy, but this was able to cross that bridge with Americans.”
The wine salamis are the first items in a Signature Series of products. They are packaged in a traditional paper wrapping, and the label features the signature of Pasetti’s father. The salamis are all-natural as well, featuring no nitrites.
All-natural is going to be more prevalent at Volpi Foods, Pasetti says. “I’m trying to bring us back to the time when John Volpi was actually alive. He didn’t use any nitrites, and we’re actively switching over our whole product line to use no added nitrites or nitrates,” she says. The timeframe to convert the entire product line will be very soon as this project has been underway for some time. Part of that is due to the long drying process of the prosciutto, and part of it will be re-defining the entire production process for every item that uses preservatives.
“The elimination of a nitrite-based preservative will add some time to the process,” she explains. “We’re OK with that, because we feel it will produce a better-quality product, and that’s what we’re after. We’re not about pursuing high volume, we want to be the best at what we do.”
Founded in 1902
Headquarters: St. Louis, Mo.
Brands: Volpi Foods
Headquarters: St. Louis, Mo.
Brands: Volpi Foods