Food & Drink

Meet Cesare Casella, the Tuscan Chef Who's Known as the "Prosciutto Whisperer"

The determined chef is on a quest to make American delicacies that will impress even the snobbiest Italian connoisseur.
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES/ NEILSON BARNARD
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You’ve probably never heard of him, but in the world of restaurants, few chefs are more beloved than Cesare Casella, a bighearted Tuscan who strolls through life with a smile on his face and a sprig of rosemary in his pocket. “Cesare knows everyone. He knows everything about food, and he’s the most generous guy in the world,” says Patrick Martins, author of The Carnivore’s Manifesto. “When we had the pig catastrophe he was the first person I called. I figured if anyone would know what to do, it would be him.”

Martins, who also runs Heritage Foods USA, the country’s main supplier of ethically raised heritage breed meats, is referring to the 2016 fire in which the Edwards Virginia Smokehouse burned to the ground. The inferno spelled disaster not only for the Edwards family, which had been curing hams for 90 years, but for the farmers who raised the ancient breeds of pig the family required.

Unlike commodity pork, which comes from pigs bred in factory farms to grow fat fast, the Edwards family relied on pastured pigs raised as they have been since the beginning of civilization. “You can’t make long-aged ham with commodity meat,” Martins says. “After a few months, it just turns to dust. You need good genetics, and one of our Missouri farms has Berkshire pigs with genes going back to Oliver Cromwell’s day. Raising pigs like that takes time, and our farmers had a year’s worth of pigs on the ground.


A tempting plate of prosciutto

The Edwardses were buying 250 hams a week to cure, and if I couldn’t find another buyer for those pigs, the farmers were going to go broke.” Curemasters throughout the South agreed to take the current crop, but it was a temporary reprieve. Martins was worried about the following week, and all the weeks to come. “To my surprise,” he says, “Cesare said, ‘I’ll take them all. I’m going to start making prosciutto.’ And all I could say was, ‘Are you sure?’”

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Curing ham the old-fashioned way requires enormous amounts of both patience and money. Traditional American ham is made from nothing more than pork, salt, smoke, and time. Classic Italian prosciutto is even simpler: The hind legs of pigs are rubbed with salt and hung in a temperature-controlled atmosphere for a minimum of 400 days. “It was a challenge,” Casella admits, his Italian accent still strong after 25 years in America. “But I decided to put everything I had into the venture.”

Casella was not unfamiliar with pigs. He grew up in the hills outside Lucca, where his family raised their own chickens and ­grew vegetables and herbs for their restaurant, Vipore. They also raised a few pigs to make the restaurant’s sausage, salami, and prosciutto. “American pigs taste different from the ones we raise in Italy,” he says. “But I knew the ones Patrick was bringing me were happy animals that had good lives, and I thought if I took enough time and aged on the bone, I could make great American prosciutto. I’d just sold my restaurant in New York, Salumeria Rosi, so I thought, Why not? I’ll take the risk.”

I heard about this crazy guy who named his cows after Puccini operas and I knew I had to meet him.

It was not the first gamble he had taken in his career. In 1992, after earning a Michelin star for Vipore, Casella arrived in New York and started looking for ways to translate his native cuisine to his adopted home. He began with beans. Tuscans eat a lot of beans, but Casella didn’t think much of the ones he found in New York. So he persuaded a farmer he met at the Union Square Greenmarket, Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm, to grow 19 different varieties just for him.


Chef Cesare Casella

Then he turned to beef. He was determined that his first restaurant, Beppe, would serve classic bistecca alla fiorentina, which relies on the meat of the beautiful white Chianina cattle of Tuscany. There was none on the market, but Casella was not daunted. “They wouldn’t let me bring cows from Italy, so I bought some Chianini from a farm in Texas and started raising them in upstate New York.”

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“I heard about this crazy guy who named his cows after Puccini operas,” says Patrick H. Dollard, the only other Chianina breeder in the Empire State, “and I knew I had to meet him. So I went to Beppe, and it changed my life.”

Dollard is neither cattleman nor farmer. He is the president and CEO of the Center for Discovery, a research facility for people with complex disabilities in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. His cows were part of a radical approach to integrating nutrition and therapy. “When I first came here, more than 30 years ago, I had the stench of institutional food in my nostrils,” he says, having previously worked in more traditional settings. “Our kids are medically fragile, but they’re capable of getting well, and I wanted to blow the system up and get them good food.” 

One look at the bucolic campus makes it clear that this is not a man who is content with half measures. The hundreds of buildings—clinics, barns, houses, schools, greenhouses, bakeries—he has built at the ever-expanding Center for Discovery sprawl across 1,500 acres. About 300 of them comprise an organic, biodynamic farm. The center is where I meet with Casella. It’s a place where wheelchairs roll into the fields and blind people ride horses, a place so inspiring that it’s easy to understand how the chef felt on his first visit. “I came to see Patrick’s cows, and it was like finding a little piece of Tuscany,” he says. “It all felt so familiar: The animals, the fields, and the people were all part of the life. And everyone was so nice! I thought, Caring for the disabled like this? I never saw that before. But I thought it was cool.”

“We began talking,” Dollard says, “and we never stopped. I soon realized that ­Chezzie isn’t just a chef, he’s a great agronomist. He’s a scientist.” Drawn by the atmosphere and intrigued by the idea of using food as medicine, Casella began showing up at the center in his spare time. “Being there,” he says, “just made me feel good.”

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I soon realized that ­Chezzie isn’t just a chef, he’s a great agronomist. He’s a scientist.

The visits gradually turned into a working relationship, and Casella began reorganizing the way the system worked. “Before Chezzie came,” Dollard says, “we had farmers, we had nutritionists, and we had cooks. But they didn’t talk to each other. All that changed in 2012, when he agreed to become chief of the Department of Nourishment Arts.” Casella’s staff—some 50 farmers, chefs, bakers, and nutritionists—feed not only the 350 full-time residents and 150 day students but also the 1,600 people who care for them. His people have their own bakery, their own herb shop, their own CSA, even their own market in the tiny town of Hurleyville, where they sell the farm’s culinary herbs, vinegar, herbal teas, pickles, honey, and granola.

It’s an enormous job, but as Casella ambles through the fields he makes it all look easy. He pulls some green garlic from the ground and sniffs appreciatively at the aroma now filling the air. He says hello to the 850 laying hens, and he goes looking for pigs that have retreated to a sheltered spot beneath some trees. He points to a huge hoop house filled with basil: “We’ll freeze most of this for winter.” Then he wades in among the tomatoes, brushing against the fragrant leaves, seeking out the ripest ones. “These were the first Canestrino di Lucca tomatoes in America,” he says, gently stroking the strangely ribbed orbs. “When I couldn’t find them here I planted seeds from home. They make the best sauce.”

When the Hudson Valley Seed Company got wind of these unusual tomatoes, they wanted to sell the seeds. “They named them for me!” Casella says, as if he can’t imagine why this honor would be bestowed on him. As I watch him tenderly touching each tomato, I understand his prosciutto dreams. He may have left Italy, but, like the accent he has never tried to lose, he carries it with him wherever he goes.

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Besides the market, Hurleyville is also where he began his prosciutto project. “He hovers over those legs,” Martins says, “anxiously watching them. He wants them to be perfect. Last spring, when the first prosciutto was finally ready, he was so nervous. He went around asking what everyone thought. Was it good enough?”


Tomatoes on a farm

Softer than the prosciutto of Parma, its color a paler pink, Casella’s has a deep, rich flavor and a lacy edge of creamy fat. Its delicate texture and gentle flavor were an instant hit with chefs. Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, was one of the first customers. So was Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde. Today Casella prosciutto is on menus all across the country, at specialty shops like Eataly in New York, and online.

The Edwards family is back in business, but Martins’s Midwestern farmers are still sending Casella hundreds of hams every week. They raise a variety of breeds, from the robust Berkshire to the almost extinct Red Wattle, each of which has its own characteristics. The differences in size, flavor profile, and fat content mean that it takes experience and artistry to know how to treat each one.

Eventually Casella ran out of space in Hurleyville, and he now does his curing in Mapleville, Rhode Island, where his friends Davide and Stefano Dukcevich, of Daniele Charcuterie, have a plant. At the moment he has 5,000 heritage hams slowly turning into prosciutto. Still, Martins worries that it won’t be enough. “Everyone wants it,” he sighs. “I’m anticipating a prosciutto shortage.”

Back at the center Casella shrugs. He’s on to his next project. “I’m thinking,” he says, looking off into the fields, pondering the gastronomical treasures he could cultivate here. Who knows what he’ll come up with, but you can bet it will be something Italian. And something very delicious.

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This story appears in the October 2018 issue of Town & Country.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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