Food & Drink Lay it on thin

The prosciutto pizza from Ciao Lavanderia, with prosciutto, olives, and fresh arugula is a veritable salt lick. Try instead any one of the restaurant's lovely risottos or gnocchi.
The pleasure of Prosciutto di Parma, on pizza or by the slice

There is one fundamental rule - well, one rule with two parts - behind great prosciutto pizza: Slice the prosciutto thin and layer it on generously. This guideline is followed rigorously at Wolfgang Puck's San Francisco franchise Postrio, where the pie is fragrant with fresh arugula and a drizzle of truffle oil. Truffle oil almost dominates the much fancier pizza served at Austin's Vespaio, which is also ornamented with two sunny-side-up eggs. But here, too, the prosciutto is paper thin and laid tighter than terrazzo.

Prosciutto is a natural topping for pizza, especially when paired with a rich, slightly pungent cheese foundation such as the combination of fontina, mozzarella, and Reggiano Parmigiano used at Postrio. Not much other ornamentation is required, although any amendment containing anchovy paste, olives, capers, or fresh greens melds perfectly with the prosciutto as long as it is sparingly applied.

Alas, in San Antonio, two of our finer pedestrian Italian kitchens let thick curls of prosciutto harden into salty corkscrews atop their concoctions. Piatti in the Quarry begins nicely with its light, tart, and fruity tomato sauce, but the meat could almost be mistaken for that aberration known as Canadian Bacon. At Ciao Lavanderia, you have to special order prosciutto pizza, no longer on the menu, but don't go to the trouble: The prosciutto is thick, dry, and exclusively salty; even the addition of fresh arugula didn't help. Better to stick to the luscious gnocchi and make your own prosciutto pie at home.

As ducks have affectionately been called pigs with wings by salivating gourmands, I like to think of prosciutto as bacon that has been to finishing school, although it is made from the leg, not the belly, and is technically a ham. It also is marbled more elegantly and sparingly. In the Parma region of Italy, producers pack the legs in salt for approximately two months before they are hung to dry and age. Of the three main types of Italian prosciutto - Parma, San Daniele, and Veneto - Prosciutto di Parma is less salty than San Daniele because the legs are hung while they are seasoned, but it has a more assertive flavor than Veneto. Prosciutto San Daniele, in contrast, is piled when salted and the weight presses the seasoning deeper into the flesh.

Just add pineapple: The thick curls of prosciutto atop this pizza from Piatti's could easily be mistaken for its lowly cousin, Canadian bacon.

Because it is cured and not cooked, good prosciutto, when it is sliced to transluscence, seems to melt on your tongue, leaving the slightly more persistent veins of fat for you to savor slowly. Although a little goes a long way, it is also addictive; I've eaten an entire quarter-pound, one shaving at a time, in 15 minutes flat (requiring me to rethink the hors d'oeuvres planned for later that evening).

For you health nuts, that's approximately 600 calories, 48 grams of protein, 48 grams of fat, and (the downside) a whopping 4,000 milligrams of sodium. But I felt great.

Savvy marketers that they are, the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma - the cooperative of producers that metes out the Italian and European seals of authenticity for Parma and Veneto prosciuttos - reports that "Endurance athletes such as bicycle racers and soccer players, in Italy and elsewhere, use Prosciutto di Parma as an energy booster because it contains free amino acids, a 'quick metabolizing form of protein,'" and even puts a positive spin on the fat content: two-thirds of it is the "good" unsaturated fat. Great, I say. If it's so healthy, let's stop serving it with fruit all the time (although Liberty Bar has a scrumptuous salad composed of field greens, apples, hazelnuts, and duck prosciutto - finishing-school bacon with wings!). Endurance hostesses everywhere, get ready to embrace the prosciutto pizza.

Central Market sells Prosciutto di Parma in its deli, where you can order as little or as much as you like. With a half-pound of it in hand, a half-pound of various oven-friendly cheeses, a fresh bunch of arugula, and tapenade, you can make a memorable prosciutto pizza in a relatively short time. A pre-made pizza crust makes even quicker work of it, but isn't quite as good, and a thinner crust works better than pan-style.

Vespaio bakes the prosciutto on the pizza, drawing out the salt and fat, which are in turn mellowed by breaking the egg yolks. Postrio serves a fresher, lighter version, layering prosciutto and arugula on the bubbling cheese when the pizza is just out of the oven, then drizzling it with a little truffle oil. This is the version I mimic at home, substituting a good olive oil for the truffle oil (it's expensive, and not everyone likes the funky earthy flavor and aroma) and serving it with a bowl of basic black-olive tapenade for garnishing.

But if even this version is too much trouble (perhaps you're reading this on the couch in your pajamas), an easier solution is close at hand. Dial up the nearest Domino's and order a thin-crust pizza with bacon - specify "breakfast bacon" to avoid the inferior Canadian shoe leather. Add jalapeños and you have a perfect, inexpensive, late-night treat, particularly suitable for Deadwood reruns or a housefull of lingering party guests. Even hostesses who got their tips in finishing school know that a crowd-pleaser needs no pedigree.

By Elaine Wolff

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