Cured for What Ails You

Those sad slices of pepperoni on pizza would give anyone the blues. If you're craving authentic Italian dry-cured meats, you'll find your fix in a surprising place.

Photography by Reena Bammi

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In the sleepy backwoods of Pascoag, an unlikely thing exists: a prosciutto factory. The headquarters of Daniele, Inc. were built in 1977, when Vlado Dukcevich, ambitious scion of an Italian salumeria, came to Rhode Island to continue his family’s legacy. For the past thirty years, the company has been quietly making some of the best Italian cured meats in the country.

Quietly, because Vlado has the caution borne of immigrants. His parents were forced to flee their ancestral home in Croatia during World War II. With nothing except their two young children, they settled in Trieste, an Italian port just across the Croatian and Slovenian border, and learned to make sausages to earn a living. As the years passed, they honed their expertise, eventually sending Vlado to study with master prosciutto makers in Parma. By the time Vlado was married with young children, he wanted to expand the family business abroad. The United States was a logical new market, but the ban on imports from Italy in those days meant he would have to go to the country himself.

“In Italy, we have more prosciutto factories than inhabitants,” jokes Vlado, who retains a strong Italian accent and a courtly manner. “Here, no one had heard of it. But the American consumer has a deep desire to learn—not like us Italians, who think we know everything. In the United States, if you are good at something, you can go all the way.”

It was a tough sell at first, convincing buyers that people would want traditional Italian products. Italian enclaves on Federal Hill and in Boston, Brooklyn and Manhattan were his first markets. As the years went by, Vlado expanded the line, offering mortadella, pancetta and salami. Unlike his competitors, he stayed true to the traditional method of air-drying the meat rather than taking the less expensive shortcut of cooking it and using fillers like dried milk, corn syrup and MSG.

As America’s interest in traditional butchering has grown, so, without fanfare, has Daniele. The company now owns three buildings: the original prosciutto factory, a salami factory and a plant for making panini rolls, pepper shooters and other modern spins on the classics. But few people in Rhode Island know it exists, and the family has always avoided publicity. So why allow me in? Give credit to Vlado’s son Davide, who now runs the company with his brother, Stefano.

“Dry-curing a ham is really an art form; it’s not standardized— you have to let the meat tell you what to do.”

Davide was three years old when Vlado moved the family to Pascoag. He grew up playing hide and seek amongst the hams with Stefano and their sister, attending school in Rhode Island and visiting the old country during the holidays. He speaks Italian as fluently as English, and on my recent visit, his stylish sports jacket bore an unmistakably Italian cut.

After a spell in journalism, writing business profiles for Forbes magazine, Davide realized that no story he wrote was as compelling to him as that of his own family’s business. After long debates with his father, he persuaded Vlado it was time to share it. “Our story is so cool,” Davide says. “Here we are in the middle of the woods in Pascoag. We have German and Italian machines, Italian staff, and we’re making prosciutto. And there are pheasants outside.” And in any case, he says, “I love prosciutto. People ask me if I get sick of it, and I really don’t. I eat it all the time.”

Dry-curing a ham is “really an art form,” says Davide. “It’s not standardized—you have to let the meat tell you what to do.” Old-time Italian curing masters, whom Davide calls the “Prosciutto Jedi,” press each ham to gauge how far along it is in the curing process. The prosciutto masters “kind of set your clock,” Davide says. “They tell you you might want to send this out earlier, or keep this later.” Most hams cure for about eight to thirteen months; a small salami, for two to three months.

Despite the nod to old-country wisdom, this is a highly technical business, and it’s a big one. You can’t enter the huge, climate-controlled rooms without a hair net and coveralls, stepping through sanitizing foam at each threshold. Sensors measure the temperature and humidity every few feet; the air filtration system rivals that of a hospital. A system of giant overhead racks allows workers to move the meats through the rooms, and big spray guns dangle from the ceiling for easy cleanup. While machines handle some jobs, such as de-boning the fully cured hams or slicing and packing the meats that will be sold ready-to-eat, much of the work is labor intensive—each of the 130,000 hams in the factory have been salted and peppered by hand; the panini are hand-rolled from mozzarella and sliced prosciutto; the salami are hand-stuffed into casings that are tied by hand. “You have to
be extremely careful with food safety,” says Davide. “We have three lab people on staff, and almost all they do is swab tables (to
test for germs).”

The family orders hogs from the Mid-west and Denmark. Increasingly, the animals are antibiotic free, and the company is looking into carrying organic lines. “That’s the next step,” says Davide. “It’s natural for us. We’ve always used good ingredients, pure ingredients. That’s why we’ve been able to stick around.”

Italian MeatsIt was only two years ago that the company finished building its new salami factory. Plant manager Marco Giacobbe, an Italian who grew up in Chile and fell in love with Daniele’s products while importing them, says the company is “one of the most sophisticated salami makers in the world. We are very proud of the product but also of the equipment. It’s a philosophy.” Giacobbe says he doesn’t know of any competitor in the United States that takes the time to dry cure all its products in hand-tied natural casings. The others, he says, will cook at least some of the ingredients, a shortcut that produces a less subtle flavor.

Every room here has its own aroma, variations on the Maldon’s sea salt, Spanish paprika, turbinado sugar, white wine and fresh garlic that fill the store room. But it’s pork, endless cuts of that not-so-white meat, that scents the place. Perhaps because it isn’t cooked, the smell isn’t meaty, but fresh, tangy, sweet. I was flooded by memories of a French charcuterie my mother and I visited in my childhood, and the dry, white-crusted salami that my father brought home from business trips to Europe. I was ready for lunch.

I love any good meal, and if it’s fresh and local, so much the better. But the simple sandwiches I enjoyed in Daniele’s break room were a high point. Marcello Pardini, an avuncular Tuscan who is the sales manager of Daniele, prepared our feast, filling crusty white bread with sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto and mozzarella. The men tactfully restrained from lapsing into Italian; I regretfully refused a glass of wine. It felt like a vacation, but I was on the job.

Our side dishes were yet more meats. One was a sweet salami that Stefano had made in a small batch for the family. The subtle, deeply savory taste had me asking when it would go on sale to the masses. Slices of “Daniele Inferno,” a hybrid combination of prosciutto, cheddar and jala-peño, cried out for a beer on a Saturday night. All the meats were deep red in color, the result of the slow curing process. “When the color is pale, the flavor is pale,” says Giacobbe.

Other things I learned over lunch: The end of the salami is considered the most flavorful part because it’s the most dense, and pepperoni is an over-flavored American invention that no self-respecting Italian salumeria would ever make. 

 “It’s been thirty-one years of selling and educating,” reflects Vlado. Does he ever regret leaving Italy? “Professionally, it was a blessing from God,” he says. “Personally, well, I don’t know, because I spent all my time at the factory.” Now, however, he says he’s slowing down. “I’m retired, doing almost nothing,” says Vlado before Davide laughs him off. “Yeah, right,” Davide says. “He’s a control freak.”

By the end of the day, I had walked through rooms filled with prosciutti crudi, breathing the slightly sweet scent. I had watched workers roll prosciutto around chunks of provolone to stuff into pickled cherry peppers and jar in olive oil. I had feasted on a spread of artisan meats, handmade by my hosts. And I returned home to find myself adding pancetta, prosciutto or capocollo to almost every meal. 
 - June, 2008

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