Tuesday, January 18, 2022

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Food Dude

First and last tastes


Robert Anderson, the guiding force behind the Iowa Culinary Institute since 1974, once told me that, of all the students who passed through that academy, George Formaro was the one he felt most likely to succeed. “George was always thinking about food.”

Coppa promises to be a signature of the charcuterie at Centro and Django.

Coppa promises to be a signature of the charcuterie at Centro and Django.

In the last dozen years, Formaro opened South Union Cafe, Django, Centro, Zombie Burger and Gateway Market Café. Last year he became the first Iowan ever named a national semifinalist as the James Beard Foundation’s top restaurateur. Next year his Malo will open in the Des Moines Social Club. He admits that he still usually wakes up from what little sleep he manages thinking about recipes. His latest project, house-made charcuterie, demonstrates that his obsession with good food is contagious.

Three of Formaro’s chefs, Derek Eidson (Centro), Johan Larsson (Django) and Scott Stroud (Malo), have occupied a pair of rooms in the mammoth catacombs of the Hotel Fort Des Moines with a two-year project curing meat. Inspired by Herb Eckhouse, whose La Quercia in Norwalk has become the nation’s top line of charcuterie, they decided to try it themselves. They quickly discovered why so few restaurants outside Italy bother. The chefs divided their responsibilities much like the three branches of government: Eidson legislates the recipes and procedures, Larsson is in charge of execution and Stroud judges the safety of the products.

Stroud showed me the HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) report he prepared for state health inspectors. It included more than 200 pages. He said that all three chefs completed courses at Iowa State University to learn “about everything that could possibly go wrong.” He added that everyone else taking such classes worked for industrial giants like Tyson.


They talked Orchestrate Management’s Paul Rosenberg into paying for the classes, a $2,000 water activity meter, a separate garbage disposal, coolers and state of art testing by Eurofins, the world leader in food safety technology with a lab in Des Moines. Then they began curing whole Iowa Swabian Hall hogs, snout to tail. Those pigs are half Russian wild boar and half Meishan, the fattiest pig in the world. They cured muscle meat, in four stages at consistently warmer temperatures, and made the rest into sausage or lard.

Last week, I tried their first four products. Bacon was served cooked though properly cured it can be enjoyed raw. Guanciale, made from jowls, is fattier than other charcuterie, and Django’s version was only slightly seasoned with its customary black pepper. Lonza, made from loins, is the leanest of cured meats. Its version was quite moist. Coppa is the most legendary of Italian cured pork products. Originally from Piacenza, it was so cherished it once served as currency. Made with the upper neck muscle, it’s famous for its deep red color. Django’s version was true. A large shipment of Niman Ranch collars suggests that coppa will be a house signature. Last week, lonza was featured at Centro with arugula salad and apple mostarda.

To balance those first tastes, I visited Suburban Café for a last taste of its fabulous pies and pork tenderloins. After 50 years in the same family, the café closed at Gilbert Corners this month. It was the best example of old fashioned, scratch cooking in Iowa. Thanks for the memories, Deb and Susie.

Side Dishes Linda Bisignano died this month after a long fight with cancer. Many years ago, when being interviewed about the free Thanksgiving meals she made at Chuck’s, Bisignano made a demand of extreme modesty. “Do not make me sound like some kind of saint. I do this without any semblance of good will. I am sustained only by remembering that the long hours will end, and then I can get drunk.” May bands of angels toast you to your rest Biz. CV

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