One of the best moments of my food-life happened in the basement of Salumeria Biellese, in Chelsea, when owner Marc Buzzio yanked open the door to his closet-like drying room and revealed a dense forest of hanging salamis, fat soprassata, whole pigs’ legs, and tiny cacciatorini. The smell in that small room was incredible—a heady aroma with presence, thick and sweet and funky.
The act of making dry-cured meats is like a magic trick—take raw meat, plus salt and good bacteria, hang it to dry in a controlled environment for up to a year, and you get charcuterie with as much complexity as fine wine or great cheese. Recently, two cured-meat specialists—Cure and Ballaro—opened in the East Village within two blocks of each other, so I scampered right over to check them out.
Cure looks like a boudoir—a boudoir stocked with meat and cheese—ornamented with only seven two-top tables, a red chandelier, and a plush couch. Pillows are strewn here and there, and red velvet curtains conceal the prep area (there isn’t a proper kitchen). A gleaming slicing machine sits in the center of the room.
Cure is very good at some things, and less good at others. You wouldn’t want to go here with a group, and you wouldn’t want to go here too hungry, because the larger offerings are not their strong suit. However, the restaurant is pleasantly dark and comfy, and the wine is very affordable.
The wine list, which is short—but ranges from France and Italy to South America—tops out at about $40, with most bottles in the $20 to $30 range. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, bottles are half-price, meaning that we could drink a bottle of lush Malbec for $15.
One night, we sat next to an endearingly awkward couple on what sounded like a first date—she from Germany, he from Connecticut. Meanwhile, the guys in the prep area were listening to the Mets game on low and drinking wine on the sly, and we felt pretty thoroughly charmed.
Cure sources many of its meats from the New Jersey–based meat purveyor D’Artagnan, which includes a wonderful duck prosciutto, sliced into garnet crescents ringed with creamy fat. Order a selection of meats for $20, and they come on a wooden cutting board with various accompaniments, like wine-Dijon mustard (which our Socialist, elitist President may enjoy!), bread, Niçoise olives, and sweet pickled red peppers. Raspberry “chutney” turned out to be plain raspberry jam. Of the meats that we tried, we particularly liked the Spanish-style lomo (pink, translucent slices of lean pork loin that almost dissolve on your tongue) and the capicolla (loose, porky slices seasoned faintly with red chile).
Stick with the meat for best results. Even the most successful salad is made mostly of meat—a mess of a half-dozen kinds of chopped charcuterie, rendered even less healthy by the addition of sliced fresh mozzarella, all on top of a portion of mixed greens.
The quiches, unfortunately, are heated to sogginess in a microwave. And oddly, the jalapeños and cubanelle peppers in the jalapeño-cubanelle quiche were nowhere to be found. The moral of the story seems to be that Cure is perfectly enjoyable, has excellent wine deals, and enables you to grab some duck prosciutto until 2 a.m. on weekends, but is not very serious.
Over at Ballaro, the lights are brighter, the seats are harder, and the liquor license is “on hold,” but it must be said that the proprietors are more serious about their food. The place bills itself as a proscuitteria, and lists two classic Italian prosciuttos on the menu.
The first, prosciutto de Parma, is made from a hog from Emilia-Romagna that has fed on cows’ whey, a happy by-product of Parmigiano-Reggiano. This prosciutto is rosy and nutty. Secondly, there’s prosciutto San Daniele, from the northern mountainous Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, which is a bit darker and sweeter than the version from Parma. It’s fun to taste them side by side—those pink slices ribboned with silken fat have layers of flavor that seem to go on for miles, unfolding one after the other. Pigs’ legs also show up in other glorious incarnations, such as parmacotto, an Italian baked ham, and speck, a German smoke-cured ham.
Ballaro’s cool granite bar is a good spot for contemplating the miracle of the pig’s leg. In fact, you can get a very generous portion of five different meats and/or cheeses for $15. Of the cheeses, we especially enjoyed the smoked ricotta—tofu-like in appearance, smoky, milky, and billowy on the tongue. Stinky, sticky taleggio is also a very good idea.
The charcuterie at Ballaro is mainly imported from Italy. I was sorry to see that neither Cure nor Ballaro avails itself of New York’s marvelous, local charcuterie, such as the many varieties made by Salumeria Biellese.
Besides its meat and cheese platters, Ballaro offers excellent Lavazza coffee, sandwiches on foccacia or semolina bread, and a selection of antipasti and crostini. Don’t miss the frisella crostini—a crusty round of bread softened with a sprinkle of cold water and olive oil—topped with a garlicky mass of tomato and basil. The sandwiches are uniformly good, quality bread stuffed with various charcuterie and cheeses. Best of all the sandwiches is the combination of mortadella, primosale (a young, Sicilian sheeps’-milk cheese), and marinated artichokes. The rich mortadella (request the one with pistachios embedded in the slices) is wonderful with the tart artichokes and salty cheese.
In his book Charcuterie, Michael Ruhlman wrote, “The dry-cured ham elicits a reverence perhaps unmatched by any other single charcuterie item.” That’s true, and for good reason. Stop by Cure for a glass of wine (or three) and a meat salad, and then ensconce yourself at Ballaro, the better to revere the ham.