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Be they nestled in pastries, topping pizzas, or lining platters, these Italian meats bring intense flavor and sumptuous texture to one of the world’s most renowned and beloved cuisines.
From luxurious Roman restaurants to rustic delis in the Tuscan hills, no visit to Italy for any meat lover is complete without trying as many of these delicious cold cuts as you can, in a range of different dishes.
Prepare to explore a rich and mouthwatering strand of Italian food, as we look at 21 of the country’s must-try meats, and how best to enjoy them.
1 – Prosciutto Crudo
Prosciutto crudo, simply known as prosciutto to non-Italians, is probably the most famous Italian cured meat. Prosciutto is Italian for ham, and it refers to any type of ham, be it dry-cured or cooked.
You’ll hear Italians call it simply “crudo” to distinguish it from the cooked version. Prosciutto crudo is a dry-cured pork leg, usually thinly sliced.
You’ll find many types of prosciutto crudo wherever you go in Italy, although the most famous types are Prosciutto di Parma, which takes the name from its place of origin, Parma, and Prosciutto di San Daniele, original from San Daniele del Friuli, Udine.
Prosciutto crudo can be used in recipes like Saltimbocca alla Romana, but it’s often served as an appetizer either on its own or on a cold cuts board. It’s also a great option for sandwiches, piadine (Italian flatbread), and on top of pizza.
2 – Prosciutto Cotto
Also cut from the pork leg, prosciutto cotto, or simply “cotto”, is a type of cooked ham. Just like the crudo, there are many brands of prosciutto cotto, and they are divided into three main categories, depending on the quality of the meat.
In Italian supermarkets you’ll find regular prosciutto cotto, prosciutto cotto scelto (select), and prosciutto cotto di alta qualità (high quality).
Prosciutto cotto is more versatile than crudo, and it’s often used in baked recipes, pasta dishes, and on top of pizza. You can also use prosciutto cotto to make delicious sandwiches and piadine.
3 – Speck
Though it may look similar to prosciutto crudo, speck is a specific cold cut staple of the Tyrol region, in the north of Italy. The main difference, when compared to prosciutto crudo, is that speck is smoked and usually drier.
You’ll find speck all over Italy, but it’s more popular in the north. Speck Alto Adige is the most renowned variation of speck, but there are many other varieties.
The most popular way to eat speck is as an appetizer or “aperitivo”, on a charcuterie board with other cured meats and Italian cheeses. Speck is also often used in recipes for pasta and risotto. When in Italy, try a risotto with speck and gorgonzola, or speck and pumpkin.
4 – Salame
There are so many different varieties of salami in Italy, it’s often overwhelming (in a good way)! Each region has different types of local salami, so depending on where you go, you’ll have plenty of choices.
Although many cold cuts fall under the general category of “salumi”, for traditional salame look for large, cured sausages, made with a mix of minced meat and fat, and with the addition of spices and herbs, depending on the variety.
Some of the most popular types of salame in Italy are salame Milano, salame Felino, salame ungherese, and salame Napoli. When in Italy, feel free to experiment with the different types. Add them to your sandwiches, make a piadina, or simply eat them on a cured meats board with a glass of wine.
5 – Pancetta
Pancetta is similar to bacon, though you may find it’s quite different from what you would eat in other countries. Pancetta in Italian means “belly”, and as the name points out it’s a meat cut from the pork belly. Pancetta is salt-cured and can be either dried or smoked.
There are two main types of pancetta: arrotolata (rolled) and stesa (flat). Arrotolata is commonly served like any other cured meat, be it in sandwiches, as a pizza topping, or on a cold cuts board.
Stesa, however, can be eaten with or without the pork skin. It is usually chopped into small cubes and added to cooked dishes like pasta, risotto, omelets, among many others. Just remember: carbonara is not made with pancetta!
6 – Guanciale
Although many non-Italians confuse guanciale for bacon or pancetta, this cold cut is in fact very different, and any true Italian will insist that you should never ever replace guanciale with pancetta in pasta recipes.
Guanciale is the main ingredient for popular pasta dishes like carbonara, amatriciana, and gricia. Fattier than pancetta, guanciale is made from pork cheek. In Italian, guancia means “cheek”, hence the name guanciale.
Guanciale is popular in central and southern Italy, and like many other cured meats, it comes in different varieties, depending on the region. You’ll find that guanciale is mostly used in pasta sauces, although it may also be added on top of pizza, or used in baked goods.
7 – Coppa
There are three types of cold cuts that are very similar, and oftentimes confused, even by Italians. These are coppa, lonza, and capocollo.
Coppa is made from the muscle in the pig’s neck and is commonly seasoned for three to six months. The procedure in preparing this meat is similar to how prosciutto crudo is made.
As with many meats on this list, each region of Italy has its own version of coppa. The more popular variations are Coppa di Parma and Coppa Piacentina. Coppa is perfect for sandwiches or charcuterie boards.
8 – Capocollo
Capocollo is very similar to coppa and made from the same part of the pig. Capocollo is a compound word made from capo (head) and collo (neck).
The difference with capocollo, however, is in the preparation, as the meat has to be cooked for a long time. A well-known brand of this meat is Capocollo di Martina Franca, made in the Apulia region. Like coppa, capocollo is great for sandwiches and charcuterie boards.
9 – Lonza
The third of the three closely aligned cold cuts, lonza, differs from the other two cold cuts as it’s made from the muscle surrounding spareribs, after removing the bones. Lonza is more popular in the central regions of Italy, mainly Umbria, Lazio, Marche, and Abruzzo.
While capocollo and coppa look very similar, lonza is easier to distinguish as it has a lighter red, almost pink color, and each cut doesn’t often have the white gat parts in the middle. Add it to your sandwiches or pizzas, or mix it with other cold cuts on a board for an aperitivo.
10 – Mortadella
An unmissable snack when in Rome is “pizza e mortazza”, a slice of plain pizza (or pizza bianca) filled with mortadella.
Though very popular in Rome, mortadella is originally from Bologna. Outside of Italy, similar cold cuts are simply called bologna, and that’s how you may also know it. Even in Italy, the most popular version is Mortadella Bologna.
Mortadella is a cold cut made with finely hashed pork meat and pieces of pork fat. Aside from the classic version, there are also versions with black pepper grains, pistachio, or olives. Mortadella is a perfect addition to any charcuterie board and a tasty pizza topping.
11 – Lardo
Although it may not sound attractive to some, lardo is plain pork fat, more precisely fatback. This is found on the back of the pork, and it’s a harder cut of meat, as opposed to the abdominal meat.
Lardo di Colonnata is the most famous version of this cold cut, and is originally from the Tuscan village with the same name, in the province of Massa-Carrara. The peculiarity of this cold cut is the seasoning that takes place in basins made of Carrara marble.
Lardo can be served thinly sliced on bruschetta as an appetizer or can be used in risotto recipes, in combination with nuts, mushrooms, or gorgonzola cheese and pears.
12 – Bresaola
Bresaola is air-dried, salted beef, although there are versions made with pork, venison, or even horse meat. Bresaola is more common in the north of Italy, and the most renowned type is Bresaola della Valtellina, which takes the name from the alpine region in which it is made.
Bresaola is a very popular cold cut for sandwiches, piadine, on top of pizza, as an appetizer, and also some pasta dishes.
One must-try way of enjoying bresaola is with arugula salad and parmesan shavings. This is a delicious salad dish, and a truly refreshing meal to enjoy on a warm summer day.
13 – ‘Nduja
‘Nduja is not your regular cured meat. This is a spicy, spreadable sausage, typical of the Calabria region, in the south of Italy.
The sausage is made from the head of the pig and other meat cuts, fatback, and Calabrian chili peppers. The rich, spicy mixture is stuffed in a sausage casing and smoked.
Given its creamy texture, the perfect way to serve it is spread on a slice of bread. Another way to use it is an addition to pasta sauces, as long as you like your pasta spicy.
You can find it sold as sausage, or even in a jar. To enjoy the traditional recipe, you should definitely visit Calabria, an underrated yet beautiful region of Italy.
14 – Soppressata
Soppressata is a particular type of salami, popular in central and southern Italy, mainly in the regions of Calabria, Basilicata, Apulia, Abruzzo, Molise, and Campania. Soppressata is made from ground pork meat, usually from pork leg or shoulder, filled with lardo and pancetta.
Like the majority of Italian cured meats, you’ll find soppressata in different combinations on charcuterie boards, or in a range of delicious sandwiches.
15 – Culatello
Culatello di Zibello is a cured meat, originally from the region of Parma and dates back to the early 18th century. Being a PDO product (protected designation of origin), culatello is produced in a specific area comprising of just a few towns in the province of Parma.
Furthermore, it is only made between the months of October and February, due to the lower temperatures necessary for the preparation. Its preparation is so meticulous in fact, that Culatello must be seasoned for a minimum of ten months before being sold. Given these limitations, only fifty thousand pieces of Culatello di Zibello are made every year.
As you can imagine, culatello is also among the most expensive cured meats in Italy. If you want to try it in one of the towns that produce it, naturally you can head to Zibello, but also try Busseto, Roccabianca, Polesine Parmense, San Secondo Parmense, Sissa, Soragna, or Colorno.
16 – Salamini alla Cacciatora
Salamini alla cacciatora are a variety of salame that deserve a special mention. They are much smaller than other types of salame, and supposedly this meat was carried by hunters in their bags during hunting trips. The name “alla cacciatora” comes from the Italian word for “hunter”, cacciatore.
Salamini alla cacciatora look like small, dried sausages, and they are made from the finest cuts of pork, the same used to make Prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele. They are typical of the central and northern regions of Italy.
In a sandwich, in baked goods, or on charcuterie boards, salamini alla cacciatora are always a more than worthwhile choice of cold-cut meat.
17 – Ciauscolo
Ciauscolo is a type of Italian salame typical of the Marche region, province of Macerata, but also popular in Umbria. As opposed to most types of salame, ciauscolo is soft and spreadable, commonly enjoyed spread on slices of bread.
Ciauscolo is made from a mix of different cuts of pork meat and fat, and seasoned with white wine, black pepper, and garlic. The seasoning takes around 15 days before the meat can be consumed. To try the original version, go to Macerata, Ascoli Piceno, or Ancona.
18 – Cotechino
Most people only eat cotechino only once a year, on New Year’s Eve. For many Italians, this meat is in fact a must to celebrate the new year, and it’s traditionally cooked together with lentils in the hope that the new year will bring financial prosperity.
Cotechino is made from a natural sausage casing filled with pork rind, fat, and meat, usually less refined cuts, seasoned with salt and a combination of spices.
As opposed to other meat types, cotechino needs to be cooked, often for several hours. Due to its lengthy preparation time, it is often only prepared for special occasions. If you happen to celebrate the New Year in Italy, cotechino e lenticchie is a must-try dish.
19 – Zampone
Somewhat similar to cotechino, Zampone is a literal pig foot, or better said, the casing of the foot filled with a mix of pork meats, including shoulder, cheeks, and head.
The minced meat is seasoned with salt and spices and encased in the pork foot. The most renowned version of this meat is Zampone Modena, made in the city of Modena. In fact, in 2014, in the town of Castelnuovo Rangone, the largest zampone ever made weighed 1038 kilos, which is a Guinness World Record!
Zampone with lentils is an alternative to the more popular cotechino, mentioned above, as a New Year’s Eve meal. However, some restaurants serve it all year long. You may want to go to Modena to try this dish at its place of origin.
20 – Finocchiona
Another special kind of salame, this time typical of the Florence area, is finocchiona. While it looks similar to many other varieties of salame, the addition of fennel seeds and red wine makes it particularly special. The name comes from the Italian for “fennel”, finocchio.
In medieval times, fennel seeds were used in salami as an alternative to the more expensive black pepper. According to the legend, the addition of fennel to the salami would make the wine taste better, so finocchiona was served right before a wine tasting, to mask the taste of low-quality wine.
When in Tuscany, have aperitivo with a charcuterie board that includes finocchiona and a glass of red wine. If the legend is true, no matter what wine you choose, it will taste amazing after the finocchiona!
21 – Porchetta
Last but not least, a must-try type of meat when in Italy is porchetta. Especially popular in the Lazio region, porchetta is a pork roast seasoned with garlic, black pepper, and herbs.
If you go to Rome in September, visit the nearby town of Ariccia for the Porchetta Feast. Ariccia is the hometown of porchetta, so even if you miss the celebrations, you’ll be able to try the traditional meat all year round.
Enjoy a porchetta sandwich for a filling snack, eat it on its own, or try this delicious meat with a side of baked potatoes or grilled vegetables.
Italian Meats Summary
Rich, flavorful, and found in a vast array of dishes and styles, a trip to Italy for any passionate foodie isn’t quite complete until you give some, if not all, of these meats a try.
While not initially renowned for its meat dishes, as this article shows Italians are deeply passionate about the meats they serve in their restaurants and at their delis.
The diverse cuts, the delicate preparation, and the intense seasonings all come together to create a truly unique part of this world-renowned cuisine, that brings some utterly sumptuous flavors to the table.
If you are a meat eater, be sure to delve into this wondrous world of Italian meats on a future trip to the country, and broaden your palate, tease your tastebuds, and more than satisfy your stomach in the process.
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Author: Roxana Fanaru is a Rome-based journalist and writer, who has lived in Italy for two decades. Passionate about Italian cuisine and culture, she has a wealth of experience writing in the travel and lifestyle spaces.
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