Trebbio Journal: Persuading Italians to Hold the Prosciutto and Pass the Pastrami


As Carnegie, Stage and many other traditional Jewish delis close in New York City, Mr. Tonelli, a 46-year-old equine veterinarian, is helping Italians acquire the taste for the Ashkenazi artery-clogging fare.

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Mr. Tonelli, a veterinarian by trade, working at a stable in the town of Torre del Lago.

Credit
Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

And as European populists rev up their base with nationalist appeals, Mr. Tonelli is the personification of globalization.

He found his truck in France and has a baker in the small town of Gallicano imitating bread he brought back from Ireland. He has pictures of Satu Mare, Romania, and New York City adorning his attic.

Unlike homogenized hipster foodies who flock from trend to trend, Mr. Tonelli is that rarest of things, a true free spirit with the work ethic to perfect his passion.

And his passion is pastrami.

On a recent morning, Mr. Tonelli took a break from cured meats to work his day job. He picked up David Bandieri, 38, his friend and the saxophone player in one of his bands; pointed out the hang gliders floating above (“I do that,” he said); and drove, at breakneck pace, to Torre del Lago. The town, best known as the home of the composer Giacomo Puccini, was where Mr. Tonelli had to attend to the teeth of some horses.

“I’m like the family doctor,” he said at the stable. He exchanged his porkpie hat for a wool beanie and a head lamp, then sedated one horse, Giacomino, before filing down his teeth.

“He’s not like these people who do a lot of things but badly,” said Emiliano Raffaelli, 44, the stable owner. “When he has an idea, he follows through and does it well. It’s a few years he’s been working on the meat.”

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Vendors at the street food fair in Campi Bisenzio. From his food truck, Mr. Tonelli was trying to introduce Italians to pastrami, his passion.

Credit
Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Mr. Tonelli first heard about pastrami 20 years ago, when a Scottish woman who gave him English lessons in the medieval town of Lucca first whet his appetite with stories about Katz’s. He made his pilgrimage to the deli — “the top,” he called it — in 2000.

Since then, he has become a student of pastrami, studying its history and even its etymology. Yet it has been a lonely pursuit. Despite some brief blips of interest in the past few years, as Italy has been swept by a street food fad, the sandwich has not caught on.

At lunch at Valentino, a venerable restaurant in the village of Pescaglia, waitresses brought out sausage, prosciutto, bowls of fresh tortellini. Mr. Bandieri says that when he mention pastrami, local residents just do not understand.

“Pastrami?” Valentino Donati, 84, the restaurant’s owner, asked with a bewildered look. After some explanation, he said Mr. Tonelli had to “make people understand.”

“When I opened up, no one knew what Valentino’s was,” he added, “and now it is famous all over the world.”

With those words of encouragement, Mr. Tonelli drove the winding roads home to his pastrami lab.

“There’s my rooster,” he said, when he saw his rooster.

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Mr. Tonelli’s pastrami sandwich. He lamented that he had to mix mustard with mayonnaise, a pastrami sacrilege, as a sop to Italian taste buds.

Credit
Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

He said hello to his two sons and his dog and his pig and his in-laws, and checked on the sous vide machine, the Coldline blast chiller, the brine, the smoker. The smoker is connected to a tractor that he received “in exchange for artificially inseminating two horses,” Mr. Tonelli said.

In the kitchen, even his son Gregorio ate prosciutto. (“You should be eating a beautiful pastrami sandwich,” his grandmother reprimanded him.) In a corner of the room stood a rack of Asian seasonings.

“Before pastrami, it was the noodle phase,” his wife said with a shrug.

It was getting late, and the couple had to make it to Campi Bisenzio, a suburb of Florence, where the pastrami truck was parked for a street food fair.

Once there, Mr. Tonelli put on some klezmer music and arranged foam boxes filled with frozen bread. The boxes read, “Dr. Tonelli Gianluca.”

“They used to hold horse vaccines,” he said.

He opened for business. Competition was stiff. One vendor sold “medieval sausages.” Another specialized in lampredotto, the classic Florentine sandwich made from the fourth stomach of a cow. The traditional Tuscan foods did well.

Domenico Guidotti, 60, who had driven five hours to sell his meat-stuffed olives from Ascoli Piceno, in Le Marche, came over to commiserate. “In Tuscany, they only know lampredotto,” he said. “They only eat their olives. They won’t try ours.”

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Mr. Tonelli’s wife, Beatrice Baroni, helping at the fair. “Pastrami has always stayed in his heart,” she said.

Credit
Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Even Mr. Tonelli, the eternal optimist, seemed dejected.

A budding accordion player, Mr. Tonelli turned down the klezmer music, which he said was more fun to play than to listen to. “It’s like Formula One,” he said. “It’s more fun to drive than watch.”

Mr. Tonelli lamented that he had to mix mustard with mayonnaise, a pastrami sacrilege, as a sop to Italian taste buds. “One asked me for ketchup,” he said. “I said no.”

He said he had once hoped to buy a second pastrami truck and then a third and canvass the nation. But now he felt down about Italy, its economic prospects and culinary closed-mindedness.

His dream, he said, is to put the truck on a boat to Ireland. “Nobody knows pastrami there,” he said, adding that it was a nation full of open-minded people, fiscal benefits and less cuisine elitism. “In Ireland the food is great until they cook it.”

But then, as night fell, more and more people came to try the pastrami. Ms. Tonelli became busy explaining the spices and long cooking process.

Roberto Gondolini, 46, ordered his first pastrami sandwich, inspired to try one by television shows about street food. “I like it a lot,” he said. “It could find a niche here. But not more — I mean, we have la porchetta.”

A few minutes later, he came back for a second sandwich to go.

One sandwich was plenty for Ilaria Bettazzi, 50, who said she found it delicious and very filling. “This is enough,” she said. “There’s not even room for an espresso.”

At 8:30 p.m., Mr. Tonelli took more sides of pastrami out to the cutting board and kept carefully sawing with his yellow knife. One potential customer seemed in doubt. Mr. Tonelli assured him.

“I first had it 20 years ago,” he said. “You can’t eat it every day, but it’s spectacular.”

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