The Italian Ham You Need to Know 

by Jessica Colley Clarke 


The name “Prince Charles was scribbled on the first tag. The next read: Osteria Francescana. I was standing in the cellars of Antica Corte Pallavicina—a farmhouse turned destination restaurant and boutique hotel on the Po River in Emilia Romagna—beneath 6,000 aging culatelli, the largely undisputed king of ham in a country renowned for its cured meats. My entire trip to Italy had been planned around a single bite.  


Royalty and Italy’s top chefs aren’t the only ones who have discovered how ham reaches sublime status in these cool stone cellars dating back to 1320. Hungry travelers can book a room, wander the kitchen gardens, dine in the Michelin-rated restaurant, and set out on a tour of the fabled cellars, where a unique combination of environmental conditions is responsible for the superior quality of the culatelli. There are no machines or technology involved, only ancient methods of curing meat and plenty of patience. 


While Italian products like Prosciutto di Parma have reached international fame, the hyper-local culatello (translation: little ass) is mainly consumed in a small section of Emilia Romagna, the fertile region of Italy known for its prized food products like parmigiano reggiano cheese. Unlike some of its cured meat cousins, culatello supposedly doesn’t travel well (and can’t be imported to the U.S.). As a result, people craving a taste must travel to the source to sample the hand-sliced culatelli, aged in cellars for a minimum of 12 months and up to around 36 months.  


Photo by Luca Rossi 

Culatello is made from the rear of the pig’s leg. The boneless cut, about the size of an oblong volleyball, is first rubbed with garlic, salt, pepper, and a local wine. Then it’s encased in a clean pig’s bladder, tied in a series of stitches that resembles a net, and hung in the cellar where it ages and gathers natural molds. The ever-present fog coming off the Po River, a microclimate unique to this precise location, is given some credit for the character of the meat.  


“The area is famous for its particular microclimate, we have a lot of humidity all year long,” says Zeno, a representative of Antica Corte Pallavicina. “This environment helps the aging process.” 


Photo by Luca Rossi 

A modern Michelin-rated restaurant with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and white tablecloths sits above the stone cellars. During my visit, each table began the meal with a tasting, or podium, of culatelli including a selection from the white pig, aged over 18, 27, and 37 months, plus (for an extra cost) the chance to taste a gran riserva culatello made from black pig and aged over 40 months.  


“Culatello has a different flavor due to the aging process and the molds that cover it,” Zeno says. Sit down to a tasting of culatello and the aromas can call to mind a range of scent memories from mushrooms to chestnuts to undergrowth. 


I started at the youngest, and proceeded with age. The culatello is best enjoyed eaten slowly, paying attention to the almost creamy texture, the density of flavor. A second pass through the ages of culatelli revealed even more complex flavors: it can be sweet, smoky, and funky all at once. Each table lingered over the first course, entirely consumed by the slices carefully arranged on the plate. Classic accompaniments include white bread, pickled vegetables, and a glass of sparkling wine. 


Photo by Luca Rossi 

While culatello can’t be imported to the US, it is possible to purchase one during a visit to Antica Corte Pallavicina. Just be sure to finish it off before boarding the plane back home.