The federal government's decision to allow the import of more Italian cured meats already has food lovers salivating.

Ask for particulars, and many will reply almost in unison: "Culatello."

"I'm looking forward to everything, but the main one would be culatello," says Marco Guidi, whose family has run the Italian specialty food distributor Guidi Marcello in Santa Monica, Calif., for more than 30 years.

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Almost unknown in this country, culatello is the "heart" of a prosciutto ham, removed and cured separately. It has a silky texture and profound pork flavor.

So great is its renown, in Italy it is known as the king of salumi.

"Of course, it's got to be culatello," says Celestino Drago, owner of four Italian restaurants in Southern California.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision, published last month in the Federal Register, cleared six Italian provinces for export of pork products to the United States starting Tuesday. The provinces - Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Venice, Piedmont, Trento and Bolzano - also happen to be some of the most salumi-happy areas in all of Italy.

The decision was based on a finding that those areas are now free of swine vesicular disease, a malady first detected in the mid-1960s that can survive cooking and even long curing. It is still found in parts of central and southern Italy, but the north has been clear.

So now any pork product, including fresh meat, that has been processed in a USDA-approved facility can be brought into this country.

Almost as anticipated as culatello is something most Americans think of as lunch meat: salami. But salami in Italy is very different from the packaged stuff you buy here. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of types.

When Vincenti owner Maureen Vincenti asked her chef, Nicola Mastronardi, what he was most excited about, he pulled down his edition of the Italian cooking encyclopedia "Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia" and opened it straight to salami.

"He's pointing at every single one of them," she said with a laugh.


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