Last updated on November 21st, 2023
Do you ever find yourself at the grocery store (or in bed late and night) wondering:
“What is mortadella?”
“Is Italy’s version of American Bologna (or baloney) really that much better?”
“What’s the difference between Bologna and mortadella?”
“Can I find mortadella outside of Italy?”
If so, don’t worry – you’re not alone! I get this question quite often.
You may know mortadella as Bologna, the mystery meat at school cafeterias or in grandma’s packed lunches but here, Italian mortadella is actually a very refined deli meat that takes years to master.
While I grew up on America not being a big fan of this deli meat, when I moved to Italy over ten years ago, I was quickly converted to a mortadella-lover. Although I don’t live in Bologna, I live in Tuscany where we eat A TON of cured meat on a weekly basis. I like variation and after a while, Tuscan cured meats didn’t cut it for me and so, I learned all about Italy’s most beloved cooked deli meat, mortadella. Ever since, it’s been a staple ingredient in my refrigerator.
Mortadella is a type of Italian cold cut or sausage from Bologna in Emilia Romagna. Italian mortadella is so prized by Italians and foodies all over the word that it even holds a specific certificate of authenticity and production quality.
While seemingly the grossest deli meat at the counter, mortadella is so much more and I’m dedicated to convincing you just such! In this article, I will lay down my argument for why mortadella is so good, including all you could ever want to know about mortadella, including how it’s made and what to do with it.
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How To Pronounce Mortadella In Italian
Mortadella is pronounced mohr-tah-dehl-lah in Italian
Listen to the pronunciation of mortadella here:
Mortadella Vs Bologna Overview
|Name comes from the Latin mortarium
|Name comes from Bologna (the city)
|Made in Emilia Romagna (Italy)
|Made anywhere else
|Mixture of pork, beef, veal, turkey and/or chicken
|Textured with bits of pork fat and other flavorings
|Fully emulsified into a homogenous texture
|Flavored with whole pistachios and peppercorns
|Flavored with various pulverized spices
|Silky and smooth in texture
|A bit more rubbery in texture
|Typically sliced thinly
|Typically sliced thickly
|Tastes like pork
|Similar to the artificial taste of hot dogs
|Enjoyed as a deli meat and in Italian cooking
|Typically enjoyed as a deli meat
What Is Mortadella
Mortadella meat is a type of emulsified pork (meaning mixed with water into a smooth, uniform mixture) with at least 15% cured pork fat pieces which are dotted throughout its entirety and steamed. In Italy, mortadella is often flavored with pistachios (but not always) and with black pepper and local myrtle berries, which grow well throughout the Italian peninsula.
Fact: Authentic Mortadella PGI (protected geographical location or IGP – Indicazione Geografica Protetta – in Italian) has to be made in Bologna under strict regulations and following a specific recipe. This certified mortadella is known as mortadella Bologna, in Italian.
What Does Mortadella Look Like?
Mortadella is a large, cylindrical sausage, about 8-12 inches in diameter, held together in either a natural or synthetic casing. It’s light pink in color, dotted with white pork fat and sometimes pistachios and black pepper corns, giving the mortadella a polka dot look.
What Does Mortadella Taste Like?
Mortadella tastes exactly like rich pork should with hints of black pepper and the occasional bite of pistachio.
The texture is very silky but has a slightly rubbery bite to it. The thinner it’s sliced, the better it melts in your mouth.
Origins Of Mortadella
Mortadella is originally from Bologna, dating back to 1600’s, where we see documentation of the first mortadella recipe.
What we know about mortadella comes from its name. Some say it refers to the tool that was originally used to grind the meat into a paste, the mortarium or murtatum. Others believe that its name stems from the word myrtatum, meaning “myrt” in Latin, the local herb used in Italian cooking and with which mortadella was originally seasoned.
The ancient process to grind the pork meat was extremely labor intensive and was thus, a cured meat for the well-to-dos. Today, it’s as common, if not more so, then any other Italian deli meat.
Originally, mortadella was flavored with what was found locally, myrtle berries and later with black pepper corns and pistachios.
How Mortadella Is Made
After the mortadella is ground into a paste, it’s mixed with the flavoring and stuffed into either a synthetic or natural casing which is then simmered. It’s tenderized in a slow cooling process by way of a water bath, creating a very silky finished cured meat.
Although it’s relatively unprocessed when compared to its American counterpart, Bologna, it still feels a little bit like an unhealthy deli meat.
How To Use Mortadella
Mortadella is used a lot in Italian cooking but also served on charcuterie boards during an aperitivo or as an appetizer. In this case, the mortadella is usually sliced very thinly or, less commonly, cut into chunks.
My family’s favorite way to use mortadella, however, is in a mortadella sandwich or on pizza or pizza pinsa. Mortadella adds a ton of flavor and is really hearty.
The most popular Italian recipes that use mortadella are in stuffed pastas or in meatballs.
Mortadella vs. Bologna
While Bologna has origins in mortadella, hence its name, what we find today in America is far different in taste and texture from the real, Italian mortadella.
The Italian mortadella from Bologna, known as Mortadella Bologna, goes through strict and rigorous checks to ensure the meat is being produced in accordance with Italian food production laws and regulations.
Fact: You may find other mortadella in Italy but if it’s not stamped with the I.G.P certification of approval, it may not be called Mortadella Bologna.
Mortadella has a much richer taste with hints of spice. Bologna is quite plain and I find it rather flat on the palette compared to mortadella. I find the taste more similar to a hotdog.
In terms of texture, mortadella is much more smooth and silky. Bologna has a tendency to be rubbery. This is because bologna is emulsified completely, meaning it’s not dotted with individual pork fat bits. Mortadella is textured with fat and other seasonings, giving it more texture and a totally different appearance.
In Italy, mortadella is still artisan made, meaning in small batches by specialists. In America, Bologna is mass produced and made by anyone without specific training.
Bologna can also be made with a combination of various meats including, veal, beef, turkey and chicken. Mortadella is solely made with pork.
Besides the Mortadella Bologna, named and classified by its geographic production location and I.G.P. stamp of approval, there is only regular mortadella, not produced within the borders of Emilia Romagna.
Both of these two types of mortadella may vary in the spices of seasoning the producer uses. You won’t usually see any additional terms of description added to Mortadella to describe what’s inside. For example, Mortadella spiced with black pepper and juniper won’t be labeled as mortadella di pepe nero e ginepro.
Unless the mortadella is being made in accordance to the I.G.P. guidelines, a producer may add whatever regional seasonings he or she likes.
How Mortadella Is Used In Italy
The main use for mortadella is in a mortadella sandwich or mortadella focaccia. Other mortadella uses include:
- Topping for pizza
- Topping for pizza pinsa
- On crostini or crostone (large version of crostini)
- In schiacciata or focaccia farcita – stuffed Tuscan flatbread
Because mortadella is a rich, fatty meat, it’s a great way to add flavor and fat to Italian recipes, including these favorites:
- Tortellini – stuffed egg pasta
- Tortellini panna e piselli – stuffed pasta with cream and peas
- Tortellini in brodo – stuffed pasta served in broth
- Polpette – meatballs
- Pasta pasticciata – baked rigatoni with mortadella, cheese, and eggs
- Peperoni ripieni – stuffed baked bell peppers
- Torta salata – Italian quiche
- Pizza fritta – street food calzone
Where to Buy Mortadella
If you are in Italy, buy mortadella at any Italian grocery store, pizzicheria or alimentari. The best will be in Emilia Romagna. Italian mortadella is at its best when it’s sliced thinly so ask for it tagliato fine at the deli counter.
You can also find it pre-packaged in the refrigerator section of Italian supermarkets. Check at the deli counter in your local grocery store, but if they don’t carry it, you can find it from an Italian specialty grocer or order it from specialty markets online.
In America, you can also find mortadella as baloney either at the deli counter or pre-packaged, already sliced. It’s usually sliced much thicker than in Italy.
How To Store Mortadella
Mortadella that comes freshly sliced from the deli counter should be eaten within three or four days for best results. Afterwards, I find that it tends to lose its silky texture and also a bit of flavor.
Once a package of mortadella has been opened, consume it within five days or so.
Keep it in an airtight container or tightly wrapped to keep the air out.
Authentic Italian mortadella is made from 100% pork meat but American Bologna is made from a mix of beef, pork, chicken and/or turkey.
Mortadella is famous in Italy because of its history linked to nobility. Mortadella was historically a very labor intensive meat to produce and thus, was reserved only for the wealthiest Italians. Today, mortadella’s unique flavor remains popular, across social and economic backgrounds.
Mortadella is a cooked type of sausage that is steamed and then slowly cooled in a water bath. Pregnant women can eat mortadella in Italy without any concerns.
The little white specks dotted throughout the entire mortadella are small pieces of pork cubes, which adds both flavor and texture.
Mortadella is considered a processed meat because of how it’s produced and manipulated into a sausage from the pork meat.