Passion for Old World recipes, methods spice up cured meats
By Mike Irwin | The Wenatchee World
World photo/Don Seabrook
Dan Carr hangs 200 pounds of snack sticks for curing in a smoker in the basement of Visconti’s Italian Restaurant in Leavenworth, Tuesday.
World photo/Don Seabrook
Capicola hangs in a curing room in the basement of Visconti’s Italian Restaurant in Leavenworth. Friendly bacteria grows on the outside.
World photo/Don Seabrook
Ed O’Claire of Yakima watches as Dan Carr, owner of Visconti’s restaurant in Leavenworth, grabs some sausage from a display case in the retail shop.
LEAVENWORTH — Daniel Carr, an owner of the popular Visconti’s Italian Restaurants here and in Wenatchee, briefly set aside his intense interests in savory foods, exquisite wines and European travel to hold up a lowly pepper-pork meat stick.
“You can’t fake the taste of this with loads of chemicals and phony flavorings,” said Carr, snapping off a chunk of the delicacy and popping it in his mouth. He nodded as the smoky spiciness bloomed across his tongue. “The truth is right here. The truth is in the sausage.”
If so, then lots of tasty truth fills the basement of Visconti’s, the landmark building and Italian eatery in downtown Leavenworth. Since April, Carr and his team of cured-meat makers have churned out thousands of meat sticks, sausages and hams to meet demands of the crowded restaurant upstairs and of voracious customers to his ground-floor outlet named “cured.” (That’s right, no capital letters.)
Opened 17 months ago, cured at first sold gourmet meat products made by outside sausage companies. But, gradually, as basement remodeling and permitting progressed, Carr introduced his own in-house salumi — the collective Italian name for meats cured through cooking, smoking or fermentation processes — all hand-crafted in his new, sleek downstairs sausage factory.
Soon, the restaurant’s recipes and storefront display cases were filled with more than 15 different kinds of cured meats offered in almost 30 different flavors and varieties.
“We started with our own pancetta,” said Carr, describing the tweaking of the spiced and salt-cured bacon to bring out its own distinctive taste. From there, they proceeded to make other Italian meats such as salamino cacciatore (a small salami), pepperoni (spicy salami) and capicola (a popular pork cold-cut).
And, of course, they included German cured meats — including kantwurst (a German sausage) and landjaeger (a southern German meat stick and popular snack) — because, well ... Leavenworth is a Bavarian-themed tourist town complete with oom-pah bands, beer gardens, and beam-and-stucco architecture. “These are traditional German and Bavarian foods,” Carr said. “We’d have been crazy not to include them.”
Carr waved his pepper-pork meat stick, like a pointer, at the spare stainless-steel and plastic furnishings of the sausage factory, a USDA- and FDA-approved facility.
“At the very beginning, we weren’t sure about any of this — making our own sausage, building this factory,” Carr said. “But as we went forward, it started to feel right and come together. It just clicked — the right ideas, the right people, the right products.”
Carr said his “aha!” moment came in 2000 when he and 20-year partner Candy Mecham, founder of Visconti’s Italian Restaurant in Wenatchee, traveled to Italy in search of “real food, simple food, true food.”
They made two profound discoveries, he said. First, they searched out and found “gelato so pure and good that it was unbelievable.” That led to the opening of their gelateria, Viadolce!, on the ground floor of their Leavenworth Visconti’s building.
Second, they feasted on cured meats handmade in small Tuscan towns by expert curers using centuries-old techniques and recipes. “It was an eye-opening food adventure,” Carr said. “We were hooked.”
When the Leavenworth Brewery vacated the Visconti’s basement in 2002, Carr began mulling over the possibilities for using the space in food preparation. Upstairs, his restaurant’s cooks and chefs were culling processed and prepared ingredients from most recipes and, said Carr, “taking a fresher, more flavorful approach” in the busy kitchen. That approach, he said, has evolved to a point where the restaurant uses few outside ingredients or products.
“We buy good olive oil and, in winter, a very specific brand of high-quality canned tomatoes for our sauces,” Carr said. “Everything else, we try to do right here.”
When his storefront outlet — cured — proved almost immediately popular in 2008, Carr realized that making sausages could make him happy. He soon began renovation of the restaurant’s basement into a meat-curing production facility and started experimenting with recipes.
Now, the factory boasts its own full-time sausage maker, Randy Nichols, who operates the meat grinders, mixers, casing stuffers, cookers, smokers, aging rooms and packing tables under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors and in temperatures ranging from cool to downright chilly (around 48 degrees down to 35 degrees). Nichols is a career chef who once owned a cheese shop in town.
“We’re going back to the Old World ways of making sausages,” said Carr, “back to the natural ingredients and methods that give real flavor to real food.”
With practiced ease, he reached into his store’s display case, withdrew a garlicky kielbasa that he’d made himself, and sliced off a piece for an early customer. “Give this a try,” Carr said to the visitor. “I think you’ll be amazed.”
Mike Irwin: 665-1179