Former Chez Panisse and Oliveto chef Paul Bertolli is on a mission to xxx. Photo: courtesy Fra' Mani
Former Chez Panisse and Oliveto chef Paul Bertolli is on a mission to bring back the pre-agribusiness taste of cured meats. Photo: courtesy Fra’ Mani

Paul Bertolli is a talented man who plays to his own symphonic mission. He calls himself the “curemaster” of his food company, Fra’ Mani. But his reach is broader than overseer of fermented meat products. Bertolli’s goal is to orchestrate Americans back to the taste of meat before agribusiness industrialized the food supply.

“I realized that the delicatessen case had shrunk to the trinity of ham, roast beef and white turkey. Large meat processers controlled how animals were treated in confined spaces and what products were sold. Old-World sausage makers were dying out. I wanted to make naturally cured meats,” said Bertolli, who founded Fra’ Mani (meaning ‘between, or among hands’ in Italian) in West Berkeley eight years ago.

The simple décor of the sun-yellow Fra’ Mani conference room reflects his mission. Facing the entrance is a framed photo of a man’s hand slicing turkey galantine; the next shows fluffy mounds of mortadella lolling in front of an upright piece of the cooked salumi. There are no company logos or retail packs of the salami and sausages produced in the facility at 8th and Gilman. Bertolli endorses the hands slicing the meat.

For years, Bertolli’s hands made celebrated food as a star chef working at Chez Panisse (1982-1992), and then Oliveto (1995-2005). Bertolli was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Foundation ‘Outstanding Chef  in the U.S.’ award in his final year at Oliveto. At the height of his culinary acclaim in 2006, however, Bertolli decided to return to the artisanal roots of cooking with the launch of his food company.
Bertolli had published a book called Cooking by Hand (Clarkson Potter, 2003), with 140 recipes and a widely cited chapter on sausage making. But beyond the culinary arts, Bertolli has brought other artistic and engineering skills — and strong convictions about healthy farming— to the Fra’ Mani production floor.

All Bertolli’s salumi are naturally cured. Photo: courtesy Fra’ Mani

A Renaissance approach to making food

As a young man, Bertolli’s career choice was classical pianist.

“I was fascinated by the hand work in playing and the mechanics of the keys,” he said. “The mind can know certain things, but teaching the body is hard. Learning to play Chopin takes practice. After several tries in Italy, I learned how to make the pirouette twist in the knot which ties casings to salami. I teach this to our employees. Manual dexterity in a chef or sausage maker is critical.”

Fra’ Mani products are sold nationally through a network of 35 distributors. People often ask Bertolli how he sells a product that is both national and handcrafted. A cornerstone for the startup of the business, said Bertolli, was finding a machine that he could modify to his style of curing meat.

“I adapted the machine for the purpose of chopping to mimic the handwork of the up and down of a knife,” he said. “Precisely cut meat and fat results in clearly defined texture. ”

Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant industry consultant in New York City and Sonoma has observed Bertolli’s evolution from chef to food producer.

“Paul launched a whole new generation of salumi makers,” he said. “Long after the discovery and thrill of 1970s-style French charcuterie had melted into the culture, he brought back a spotlight on cured pork at just the right moment.”

Certainly handcrafted salumi and charcuterie have moved center stage in restaurants in the Bay Area in the wake of Fra’ Mani’s launch, often made in-house, such as at Adesso and Dopo, both owned by Jon Smulewitz. And local makers like Fatted Calf and The Fifth Quarter have found loyal fan bases.

Restaurants and consumers vie for Fra’ Mani products as Bertolli experiments with more cured meats. Dry salami, the core product, is frequently sold out and allocated to businesses. Flavors and styles range from salame toscano and soppressata, to the newer salame calabrese. In the cooked salumi range, rosemary ham, turkey galantine, mortadella and spicy capicollo, an East Coasters’ favorite, are lead products. The fully cooked sausage line features flavors such as chorizo, spicy Italian and savory herb pork.

Cured meat, naturally produced

Bertolli has built relationships with family farmer groups that follow the highest animal husbandry standards, and he purchases meat only from these sustainable sources. His selection criteria target animals that are born and raised in the U.S. with 100% vegetarian diets, and without antibiotics, added hormones or growth promotants.

“Manual dexterity in a chef or sausage maker is critical,” says Paul Bertolli. Photo: courtesy Fra’ Mani

Once Bertolli receives his meat, his role as curemaster is akin to a brewmaster turning grains into beer through fermentation — curing is basically the process of fermenting raw meat into sausage and salami. Fermenting food is an ancient process which requires a deep understanding of biology, chemistry and food safety. Bertolli points out that “botulus” is the Latin word for sausage, and the work of healthy bacteria on raw meat results in the fermented product. Bertolli inoculates the meat with “starter culture,” a gentler, FDA-approved name for lactobacillus, a common ingredient used to induce fermentation in beer, yogurt, sauerkraut and other food.

A fundamental part of fermentation is the prevention of oxidation and infiltration of bad bacteria into the cured product. The compound that safely turns raw meat into sausage is sodium nitrite. The overuse of sodium nitrates on bacon in the 1970s had a deleterious effect on the image of cured meat, especially bacon. When cooked at high temperatures, the excess sodium nitrites could turn toxic.

Though large meat producers have reduced the amount of synthetic sodium nitrite (derived from a chemical process), the ingredient continues to be the primary food safety element and preservative to prevent harmful bacteria from developing. Another key role of sodium nitrite is to develop the rosy color of cured meat.

Many people, said Bertolli, are not aware that sodium nitrite is a natural byproduct of vegetables.  Celery in particular contains high amounts of natural sodium nitrite. To avoid the use of synthetic sodium nitrites applied by the vast majority of producers, Bertolli adds celery powder as a curing agent in Fra’ Mani dry salami and the liquid version (celery juice) in sausage production. A negligible amount of nitrites is present after curing the finished product.

Though Fra’ Mani products are cured naturally with the celery byproducts, the label on Fra’ Mani salami and sausage describes it as uncured. USDA regulations, which are based on practices of the large processors, require that it is labeled “uncured.”

Beyond salumi: recipes for prepared meals

Fra’ Mani sells prepared meals, including pea, pancetta and leek risotto, at Costco (west of the Mississippi) that use natural ingredients with no synthetic additives. Photo: courtesy Fra’ Mani

Less visible to the food community locally are the prepared Fra’ Mani meals that Bertolli sells at Costco west of the Mississippi. After Costco approached him, Bertolli created recipes for turkey meatloaf, organic polenta, pea, pancetta and leek risotto and other meals using natural ingredients with no synthetic additives. During the Thanksgiving season, Bertolli sells wildly popular, whole, brined turkeys under the Diestel-Fra’ Mani label at Costco.

Bertolli finds producing the prepared meals as satisfying as curing meats.

“A woman told me recently that her elderly mother hadn’t tasted polenta like ours since she had left Italy,” he said.

Bertolli cooks dinner for his family in their Berkeley home most days. An active supporter of his son’s crew team, he occasionally finds time to dine out.

“I’m pleased to see the new generation of tattooed chefs in baseball hats who are careful with their sourcing and want to preserve the primitive goodness of food,” he said.

Keeping a hand in his music interests, Bertolli continues to study piano and recently had a recital with the Berkeley Piano Club. His lifelong quest for learning continues as his culinary legacy grows.

As Wolf, the food consultant, said, “Bertolli’s work [in preserving Italian food ways] has been a gift to us all.”

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Deborah Grossman is a San Francisco Bay Area food, drink and travel journalist who writes about people and places with a special emphasis on life at the table. Deborah finds the behind the scenes stories...