There was a time during the early part of this decade when a thing called “meat butter” started popping up in food writer dispatches from around the country. I’m among those guilty of propagating it. It was the jokey way we referred to nduja, the spicy, scarlet-colored Calabrian spreadable salami that was capturing the imaginations of all those obsessed with cured meats.
And everybody was obsessed with cured meats.
At first no one knew where to get it. And then it was very hard to come by; say, someone snuck some over in their luggage, or someone’s uncle made a dubious version out in the garage, or you could order some online from a limited supply. And then, suddenly, in 2013 Chicago got its own nduja label, the work of father and son Agostino and Tony Fiasche, of Harlem Avenue’s old-school Ristorante Agostino Gustofino.
In fact, “spreadable salami” was another catchy way of describing the stuff. It was hot and tangy, with its own almost imperceptible chew. Chefs went nuts for it, employing it in sauces, marinades, vinaigrettes. It topped pizzas, dressed pastas, and nestled itself in grilled cheese. I was, and remain, a huge fan of it. (Full disclosure: Tony Fiasche has in the past plied me with nduja.)
Chefs are still nuts for it, though the fever has waned a bit. In the time since, the Fiasches haven’t been sitting idle. Operating as ‘Nduja Artisans, they got busy developing a line of some two dozen (and growing) cured pork and beef products in a USDA-licensed factory in near-west-suburban Franklin Park. As far as preserved meats go, it’s a pretty seductive roster, featuring firm, spicy chubs with mysterious names like manzo, cremosa, hot Napoli, and nostrano and more familiar ones like coppa, pancetta, soppressata, and finocchiona. These got out in the world too, showing up at Mariano’s and Eataly and smaller specialty shops, but now they’re amassed in their gorgeous full force at Tempesta Market, the Fiasches’ new sit-down deli and imported Italian food retail outlet in West Town on the Grand Avenue corridor. Home to one of the city’s enduring little Little Italys, it’s a neighborhood that already has several stalwart sandwich stops like Vinnie’s, Bari, and D’Amatos. So what does this upstart have to say for itself?
Quite a lot, actually. The space is small, but immediately upon entering you’re drawn in to a universe of meat that’s difficult to escape from, all contained within a single glass display case. It’s a landscape of sausage possibilities (sausagilities?), triggering sensory overload with exposed cross sections of fat- and pistachio-studded mortadella, dark mineral-rich slabs of Wagyu bresaola, or a sinister-looking orb of emulsified pork called “Calabrian paté,” made with chicken liver, pork shoulder, hot and sweet chiles, and dates. There are many, many more under the ‘Nduja Artisans label, plus a handful of products from other producers such as Indianapolis’s great Smoking Goose.
Atop the case sits a giant blob of the meat butter that started it all, the size of a small newborn, slowly diminished by sampling. At any given time a tray of something special may be passed around, like slices of hot coppa made from Iberian hogs. Cheeses from some of Wisconsin’s most lauded makers (Uplands, Hook’s, Roelli) are in a case to the left, on top of which are lined thick squares of focaccia. Shelves at the rear hold a small but dazzling selection of dry imports—grape saba, hot and sweet crushed Calabrian chiles, monofloral Italian honey, truffle salt—while refrigerated and frozen cases line the wall holding stocks and sauces, frozen morcilla and andouille, house-made mozzarella and burrata, nduja pimento cheese and giardiniera. It’s difficult not to lose yourself in this deftly curated selection.
Apart from all these attractions, there’s a good chance you’ve come here for a sandwich. A chalkboard menu overseen by chef Mike Rivera (who met Fiasche when both worked for Publican Quality Meats) features six of them, plus the occasional weekend special. Among them the one sandwich that will live on to eternity—the one people will speak of when they speak of Tempesta—is the Dante, a baguette stacked with six layers of NA’s cured meats (hot soppressata, coppa, mortadella, finocchiona, porchetta, and nduja aioli), giardiniera, provolone, lettuce, and, outnumbering the nine circles of hell by one, tomato. The Saint Gennaro, temporarily off the menu, is a coiled hot Italian sausage grilled and bedded on a soft brioche with pickled peppers, roasted onions, and red Lollo Rosso lettuce. The Southside Johnny, in effect a nod to Philadelphia’s iconic roast pork sandwich with provolone and broccoli rabe, features porchetta, moist and thinly shaved, bedded on grilled Publican Quality Breads sourdough with robustly bitter chopped broccolini, gooey Brun-uusto cheese, chimmichurri, pickled fennel, and a cup of rosemary broth. Though the thin machine-sliced (rather than hand-carved) pork seemed to irritate one of the more rigid Italophiles I eat with from time to time, who maintains the dubious opinion that nobody in Chicago knows how to make porchetta, I’m taken with it.
These are the most identifiably Italian sandwiches on the menu, but you can see this isn’t your nonno’s sub shop. Marinated beets on multigrain are available in the unlikely event you can lure a vegetarian onto the premises; there’s a bacon, egg, cheddar, and hash brown option for the all-day breakfast enthusiast; and two weekends ago there was a banh mi special built around the aforementioned Calabrian and pork pistachio patés, with house-made kimchi, cilantro, and aioli. (The latter is currently in the steady rotation while the sausage for the Saint Gennaro gets made.)
There’s a complementary selection of sides and salads, a few of which shouldn’t be missed. Crispy arancini conceal a hot and gooey nduja core, and Berkshire pork meatballs in marinara sauce seem to melt to the touch, while dense marinated eggplant is made almost meaty by a decades-old press owned by a Fiasche matriarch.
Above all, the meats are available to take home by weight, sliced for picnics, or in packaged whole chubs, and also served in-house on cheese and charcuterie boards—which highlights the one deficiency Tempesta suffers from for the moment. You need to drink wine with most of the food here. Fiasche expects a liquor license within weeks. Until then, there’s mineral water, the bitter Italian soft drink Chinotto, or crisp, refreshing Arize kombucha from Back of the Yards.
Tempesta is the kind of densely stocked outfit that entices you to walk out with far more than you intended to. Basque cakes, chocolate chip cookies, and fried rosemary-white chocolate Rice Krispie treats sit atop an ice cream case that dares you not to take away a cup of nduja-panna cotta gelato. Even now there’s no denying its allure even in the unlikeliest applications. v