Mortadella: Everything you need to know

Mortadella needs to be finely sliced so it drapes like silk on the plate.
Mortadella needs to be finely sliced so it drapes like silk on the plate. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Once upon a time, mortadella was the poor cousin to Strasbourg and Devon sausages: uniform pink like a cartoon character's skin and rubbery to the point of pneumatic. But a new wave of smallgoods makers has elevated this repository of offcuts into a delicately spiced and softly textured charcuterie, worthy of an antipasto platter or a panino.

What is it?

Mortadella is a mixture of meat (usually pork), fat, salt and spices blended together at extremely high speed to create an emulsion sausage with a silky texture. Cubes of fat, whole peppercorns, pistachios and green olives may be added to the mix before it is steam-cooked to complete the meaty mosaic.

Mortadella originally came from the Bologna region in Italy, where historically it was a method to transform dead livestock into a comparatively delicious comestible for the poorest of the poor.

Matteo's Delicatessen in Altona layers mortadella with deli goods such as pickles and provolone.
Matteo's Delicatessen in Altona layers mortadella with deli goods such as pickles and provolone. Photo: Parker Blain

Today, cheap Australian mortadella is made using imported pork, while the best versions are made by restaurateurs and top-end butchers using free-range and rare-breed local pork.

Why do we love it?

For many Italian readers, mortadella will bring back memories of la merenda, an after-school snack served on crusty bread.

"It has such a light, delicate texture, but rich flavour," says chef Joseph Vargetto, of Melbourne's Mister Bianco and soon-to-open Cucina Povera. "It is the food for everyman that can be elevated by simply adding some crostini and mustard fruits."

Bar Mammoni in Circular Quay layers mortadella with pesto and whipped ricotta in pastry.
Bar Mammoni in Circular Quay layers mortadella with pesto and whipped ricotta in pastry. Photo: Steven Woodburn

How do you use it?

Mortadella needs to be finely sliced so it drapes like silk to make it attractive on the plate and increase the surface area to release the delicate spice and garlic notes.

Warming the mortadella releases the aroma further so serve it on fresh bread browned in hot oil, seasoned with rosemary or on hot gnocchi fritto, as they do at Bar Di Stasio in St Kilda.

Layer slices of kangaroo mortadella in a ciabatta roll with ham, provolone, pickles, white onion and iceberg lettuce, as they do at Good Ways Deli in Sydney's Redfern.

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At Bar Mammoni in Circular Quay, you'll find a simple yet delicious croissant finger filled with a folded slice of mortadella with whipped ricotta and basil pesto. 

Mortadella can also be used as an ingredient, adding flavour, richness and a light texture to Stefano Manfredi's meatballs.

Francesco Rota, from Trattoria Emilia in Melbourne, blends mortadella with parmigiano reggiano and ricotta to create a spreadable pâté for his charcuterie board. The paste has become so popular that in a few weeks he'll be selling it online by the jar.

Where do you get it?

Princi Smallgoods (princismallgoods.com.au) in Perth makes a beautifully textured mortadella, available in selected delis and independent grocers. Borgo's is a good deli brand made with Australian meat. LP's Quality Meats (lpsqualitymeats.com) in Sydney is synonymous with mortadella, and Pino's Dolce Vita (pinosdolcevita.com.au) makes a good sausage using free-range pork.

In Melbourne, try the slightly coarse ground mortadella from Mister Cannubi, (saltkitchen.com.au) or Meatsmith's (meatsmith.com.au) version made with rare breed pig.

The fat in mortadella oxidises quickly, so once it's sliced, cover and use within 24 hours.

Send your culinary conundrums and ingredient suggestions to brainfood@richardcornish.com.au or Twitter and Insta @foodcornish