Capicola is a type of Italian cured meat that is often used as lunch meat on sandwiches or in dishes such as pasta and antipasti. It differs from prosciutto because it is coated with black pepper or hot pepper powder during curing. The taste of capicola is sweet when cured with black pepper or hot when red pepper is used. The curing process is generally dry, with cold smoking for more traditional preparations, but it can also be cured after being salted or cooked. This meat product is one of the many food products recognized and protected by the European Union as important to Italy’s history and heritage, meaning that, in Europe, only capicola produced in certain regions can be sold under specific names, similar to the way Champagne is regulated in France.
The authentic type of meat that is used to make capicola is the shoulder or neck of a pig, although non-traditional recipes sometimes use leaner cuts of meat for convenience. Meat from these areas is used because it is particularly tender and because of its fat content. The marbled fat within the meat is very important to the final flavor, especially since it helps temper the intense flavor of the spices.
Both hot and sweet varieties of capicola begin by preparing the meat for the aging process. This may involve covering the meat in salt and letting it sit for a month or placing the meat in brine to achieve the same results. The brine in which the meat is placed sometimes contains wine.
Once the first step is completed, the salt is removed and the meat is washed to remove as much salt as possible and clean the surface. Some recipes call for rinsing the meat in a good amount of wine, although the exact reason is not very clear. One idea is that the alcohol in the wine might act as a disinfectant, killing any harmful bacteria that might have settled on unsalted surfaces.
The cleaned pork is sprinkled generously with chili or black pepper and paprika. Milder versions can be made using less intense or smaller amounts of chili pepper. The entire piece of meat is then wrapped in a natural casing and hung for one to three months or more. Cold smoking may occur during this period. The finished capicola has a very spicy flavor and the skin and outer layers of meat may be stained by paprika and red pepper, giving it a bright reddish hue.