For Justin Severino, it's always time to make the sausage, and salami and...
PITTSBURGH — Justin Severino knows charcuterie.
The four-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation awards has been making his artisanal sausages, salami and cured meats for almost as long as he's been in the food business, both to serve in his restaurants and, more recently, to sell to a salumi-loving public.
Which is not to say it's always been effortless.
"My personal journey with charcuterie is [it's] the hardest thing I've ever done," Severino, 43, admitted on a sunny fall morning in Morcilla's recently remodeled dining room.
For starters, the Ohio native is self taught. He's also constantly expanding his selection to include new flavors and products, which requires thinking outside the box. "It's my biggest passion project."
"People want to eat good food, and we had awesome support from locals."
With the launch of his new USDA-inspected salami-making facility in the lower level of Morcilla, his Spanish tapas restaurant in Lawrenceville, it's gotten a little easier (there's so much more space) as well as more far-reaching. The government's stamp of approval means he and his wife and business partner, Hilary, can now also distribute his unique flavors of salami wholesale to restaurants, markets and retail outlets nationwide.
In a way, the Severinos have the coronavirus to thank. Salty Pork Bits, the mail-order salumi subscription service they started in 2018, did a bang-up business at its 2019 holiday pop-up and the early days of the pandemic. A permanent space they opened the following July also went gangbusters. It's just few doors down from where he ran Cure from 2012 to 2019 in a space previously occupied by Full Pint Wild Side Pub.
"We saw an increase of about 400%" in sales, he says, a boost that allowed Morcilla to hang on after it moved to takeout only.
"People want to eat good food, and we had awesome support from locals," he says.
Manned two hours a day by a USDA inspector, the 2,220-square-foot basement facility is the culmination of a dream that started percolating nearly 20 years ago, when the couple opened their first restaurant, Severino's Community Butcher, in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2007. Cure, the Upper Lawrenceville eatery he opened after returning to Pittsburgh in 2012, featured more of the cured meats he excels at making, garnering him national accolades from the likes of Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.
The second concept, Morcilla, presented Pittsburghers with Spanish-style charcuterie and traditional pintxos in 2015. It's also served as the production center for all of Salty Pork Bits' sausages and salami.
While there was never a doubt they would one day grow the charcuterie business, it wasn't until this past March that the couple actually decided to make it happen. The question was, how could they reconfigure Morcilla to incorporate a functional USDA facility within its walls but still keep the restaurant a great place to eat and drink?
The answer: Create two separate spaces by putting all the equipment needed to make fresh sausage and cured salumi in the lower level.
The construction, which took about two months, reduced the dining room by almost 25 percent, from 67 to 50 seats, and eliminated its draft system. But it also made the restaurant more efficient, Severino says. Wait staff no longer has to run to the basement to grab a bottle of Graciano, because wines are now chilled in coolers under the bar. There's also a walk-in cooler and a small office area in a walled-off space next to the kitchen.
While they had to get rid of the oyster bar and garde manger station at the bar's end that was so representative of Spain, the change allowed Severino to add six seats, making is more vibrant.
"And it's much more fun for the staff," he says.
The revamped basement, conversely, is completely dedicated to making fresh sausage, salami and other award-winning charcuterie.
The main production area holds a meat grinder, giant mixer, a commercial sausage stuffer and a heavy-duty sausage linker that allows for consistent portion control. It also features a refrigerator-sized sausage fermenting cabinet that precisely controls temperature, humidity and air speed. Most product hangs out in it for 16 to 24 hours at around 80 degrees with 90% humidity. "That's what makes it shelf stable," he says.
There also are two temperature-controlled rooms for drying up to 2,500 pounds of hanging meat at 50 degrees with 60% humidity. On any given day, each hold dozens of 3-ounce, small format sausage that take around a month to cure and 1-pound sausages that require 2 months of drying. Here's where you'll also find whole muscle charcuterie such a duck speck, guanciale, basturma and coppa secca cordoned off in an area carefully labeled "not for inspection."
There's also a packing room in a former shower, and a cooler in the rear in which to defrost the ready-to-grind, frozen pieces of pork that come in 30-pound boxes he gets from Heather Thomason of Primal Supply Meats in Philadelphia.
Severino says he and his team can make up to 450 pounds of salami a day, so long as they work between the inspection hours of 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Severino did all the design and construction himself, with his good friend Brandon Masi of Mitre Box pitching in to do the woodworking. "He makes all of my design dreams come true," he says.
Before COVID-19, Severino butchered whole hogs himself from local farms for his charcuterie. Once Cure closed, he says, he wanted to move away from doing everything himself, and focus on one or two things he could do better than ever. He also wanted to spend more time with his family, which now includes 3-year-old daughter Franny.
Thomason sources around 12 pigs a week from Grandview Farm in Maryland, and processes the hams, shoulders and belly to Severino's specifications. "So we just have to open the packages, grind it and make salami," he says. Meat for his lamb sausage comes from Elysian Farms in Waynesburg and he also gets Iberian pork from Iberian Pastures in Georgia for use in his Spanish chorizo, fuet, salchicho and Morcilla Iberia salamis.
As for the process, a voluminous food safety plan (penned after taking a course at Penn State) is used to identify and control any biological, chemical and physical hazards related to storage, transportation and food preparation. Severino, who also took a class in meat science at Cornell University with production manager Brian Wiltrout, additionally has to log each and every step of the salami-making process on a check sheet that stretches dozens of pages. "Every ingredient has to be validated, to a T," he says.
Wiltrout has been one of Severino's right-hand men since he was the executive chef at Elements Contemporary Cuisine in 2011. He also worked with him as a prep chef at Cure, "and no one's better," he says.
Because his fresh sausages, which he makes without preservatives and is always frozen, are still uninspected, they can't be sold wholesale like the salami. But you can find them at Salty Bits, which will open as a pop-up for the holiday season on Nov. 19.
Getting the USDA designation, Severino says, is probably the hardest thing he's ever had to do professionally. But at the end of the day, "It makes us better at what we do. We understand the science of meat and food far better, and make better food."
While they technically had their first USDA-inspected product on May 4, the couple only recently pulled the trigger on wholesale because it took weeks to build sufficient inventory. He's already delivered salumi to Baker's Daughter, Le Diplomate and Taco Bamba in Washington, D.C. "And I'm getting samples out around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia," he says, where Pittsburgh native Michael Solomonov's famed Zahav is a customer.
Severino says he's currently producing about 1,000 pounds of meat a week, which makes Morcilla an "extra" small plant by USDA standards. "But it's a lot for me," he says.
Before achieving USDA-inspected status, Severino relied on taste, touch and feel to create his award-winning charcuterie and sausages. "It was all about technique and what we do with our hands," he says, noting that he's butchered at least 1,000 pigs over the years.
Now, he's able to also use science as a tool to make more superior and consistent product. "And it's the most high-tech version ever."