An open letter to Mark DeNittis: Why is Il Mondo Vecchio closing?

Categories: Cafe Society

1) Nitrates

Having some experience with curing and the science behind it, I have been compelled to research the subject even further since the closing of Il Mondo Vecchio was announced. I have had discussions with people in the area who love your products and fear the vilified nitrates even without appearing to understand why they fear them. While I do not always agree with the methodology and means of the USDA, I understand that many Americans are mistrusting of cured meat and so the USDA has taken measures to protect the masses. The recent interest in pork and cured products is fantastic, and we all hope to educate potential consumers about the benefits of local food, small-scale production, and artisan traditions. The USDA is tasked with protecting consumers-- maybe not the way we would always like, but that is their job nonetheless. We have the choice to work with them, or not at all.

"Il Mondo Vecchio essentially hit an impasse. They could either change their methods to a process that has been validated by the USDA such as fermenting (cooking the product) or adding nitrites, nitrates, acids or copious amounts of salt, all resulting in what IMV believes to be an
inferior product or stop production."

That said, I don't know of a more hotly-debated topic within the world of salumi-making and eating than the use of nitrates in cured meat. The USDA's requirement for nitrates seems to be a common point of contention amongst many salumi makers when it comes to maintaining integrity of process. (Was this the case for your business?) Me, I'm unsure as to why there is such resistance to a naturally occurring compound.

Nitrates have been around for hundreds of years and are naturally-existing within salt mines, within greens such as celery, spinach and beetroots and even within your saliva. Studies have also begun to emerge that are showing nitrates as an antioxidant and potentially beneficial.

The other thing you fail to mention in any of these articles is that the amount set by the USDA as a maximum is still nominal. If using Instacure 2, it's 6.25 % sodium nitrite and 1% sodium nitrate, resulting in 7.25% total nitrates per the total weight of Instacure added. The USDA has a maximum of 625 parts per million (ppm) nitrates, which at the end of the day is .0625% of total weight of meat product.

1lb of raw meat/fat (453 grams) would be allowed a maximum of .0625% nitrates (625ppm). Before drying, you would have a level of .283 grams of nitrates. During drying, this converts almost entirely to nitric oxide leaving you with, at most, .002 grams of nitrate.

A single serving of greens with naturally-occurring nitrates have significantly higher levels than that in a single serving. Nitrates at that volume, in my experience, do help to retain color, but impart little to no flavor, especially in heavily seasoned products such as your own.

There have been no studies since 1972 that have proven any risk with regards to nitrates, and even that study refers to ingesting the amount of two tablespoons of straight nitrates. For what it's worth, you can't even easily purchase straight nitrates, as both cure types (#1 and #2) are composed of 6.25% nitrites and a combination of 6.25% nitrites and 1% nitrates respectively. The rest of the makeup of the cures is salt.

A 155lb man would need to consume approximately 14lbs of raw product intended to be dry-cured in one sitting. Given the reduction of nitrates to nitric oxide during the drying process, he would then need to eat a whopping 35 - 45 lbs of the same finished product to reach even potential "lethal" dose of nitrates. And tell me, who could eat even one pound of cured meat in a single sitting? It's virtually impossible to ingest anywhere near a harmful amount of nitrates, let alone a lethal dose.

In short, if you had a plate of 1/4lb of salumi, with a side of potatoes and spinach, there would be more nitrates in the spinach and potatoes than the entire serving of salumi.

I'm sure we can agree that this is purely ground-meat salumi where nitrates are absolutely critical. Given that whole muscles do not share the same air pocket risk, I see no issue with not using nitrates there, however, it still does not result in a negative affect on the consumer.

The other glaring omission in the articles is the fact that many producers use converted celery or cherry juice powder in their uncured products. While I am not sure whether or not you use plant based nitrates, the use of these products does in fact add nitrates into the meat and therefore trace amounts of nitrates are found within the finished product as well. There are several producers in this country providing a high quality product through the use converted celery juice, with the end result still being the addition of nitrates

This is misleading or at the very least confusing to consumers who are trying to understand the nature of their purchases and the differences between cured and uncured meats. It should be noted that cherry juice powder is a nitrate-reductant when combined with celery juice powder. It does not represent a substitute for nitrates, but is used purely for the maintenance of meat color.

To my knowledge, during the process of creating a HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plan, all aspects of product creation and sanitary maintenance must be outlined in detail. From the regulations I see, you have two choices:

Use an approved nitrates source
Provide adequate proof that your methods are in fact sound

You maintain that no synthetic nitrates are added, but do you use alternative source of nitrates? If you do, in fact, use converted celery juice powder, why is that not mentioned in any of your many interviews? Is it that you do not trust in the soundness of your production methods? Have you spent so much time stumping against the use of nitrates that you are unwilling to level with consumers about the specific ingredients their salumi actually contains? This seems to be the single-most confusing piece of the cured meats puzzle for consumers, and it's no wonder. Nor is it the fault of any single person. There is a vast and wonderful opportunity at hand for education about curing to the general public. People want to learn more about this fascinating and ancient tradition of preservation. That can only be achieved through transparency of practice

" Our name literally means 'Old World," DeNittis told me by phone. And how did they cure meat back in the old world? With a discrete, short list of ingredients: "Sea salt, meat, quality spices, and time."

You mention often the lack of nitrates in "Old World Methods" not just on your website and within emails and articles. Is there historic evidence that proves this as fact? In Europe, many large-scale hundred year old makers use saltpeter (potassium nitrate - KNO3) Saltpeter has been banned by the USDA for proven health effects, such as impotence. Although this has been up for some debate recently, nothing conclusive has been published to my knowledge. Saltpeter remains in use in Europe, but is banned in the U.S.

Many "Old World" methods used far less salt then what science has shown to be necessary (2% minimum), and others use far more. Hell, in many "Old Word Methods", they don't even measure most ingredients and go by taste and appearance rather than weight. My Nonna used to eat raw pork to check flavor, something no one in modern day salumi making would dare.

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I get that Mr. Spinillo has questions. I really do. But to call Chef DeNittis out in such an ugly and public way is just shameful.


Why are you trying to pick a fight, Christian? What personal beef could you possibly have against Mark? Yes, I said personal, because that's how this reads, in my opinion. It's like the closing of IMV is a slight against you personally, and you want everyone to know how much your feelings are getting hurt.


While most of the people that I know are content to shake Mark's hand and express their sadness at IMV's closing, you seem to want to imply that there is something sinister afoot; the great salumi conspiracy of 2012. At the end of the day, this is about a man and his partners making the incredibly difficult decision to close a business that they've spent three plus years sinking their heart and soul into. Blubbering on about the definition of "old world" doesn't change that.


Christian, you seem to have all your pretty little ducks in a row when it comes to knowing how much of whatever chemical the all-knowing USDA recommends or requires in produced foods, and sure, Mark could bend and start dumping a bunch of that crap into his food. I for one am proud of him for not doing so. It's not about producing "A" product. It's about producing "HIS" product, which for three years he has done safely with no (that's zero) violations from the USDA.


Do you think it was easy for the man to decide to close his business? You seem to want to imply that the second the USDA applied any pressure, the IMV guys threw their hands up like petulant children and walked away from their business. I submit to you, sir, that you are not privy to the process by which they came to such a difficult decision. It is being spelled out in the media as IMV VS. the USDA because that's the crux. That's where it started. There are a whole two months of trial, error, option weighing and decision making in there that you don't have all the details about.


Like I said before, I'm positive that your "open letter" to Mark DeNittis, in which you call for "transparency" and beg for answers, is a symptom of some larger beef you feel you have. Is it professional jealousy? Seriously. It's obvious from some of the comments about your letter that have shown up on your girlfriend's facebook page that you guys don't really grasp what IMV was about, and you have no idea who Mark is, or who his clientele is. Which am I, by the way? Hippie or hipster? Is this how you guys really talk about IMV behind closed doors? How about some transparency here, Christian?


I am not really sure why Westword decided to carry this almost manically detailed letter from someone not even in the business professionally regarding IMV’s closing. No one at IMV one owes Christian Spinillo (or anyone, for that matter) a thing, explanation or otherwise. Additionally, I don’t know how smart it is to want to go into this business area by picking a fight publicly with a highly respected chef, butcher, and teacher. There are better ways to ask for answers than in this antagonistic manner.


A well written and fact enticing letter. As much as IMV has been in the media and blamed the USDA on their demise it is clarifying to hear the truth about each point. As only 9 out of 10 small businesses close in the first year IMV should be happy about their time but honest about the true reasons. Jon s has said what everyone is talking about and Christian is right Coloradans are a Savy and smart bunch and its embarrassing mark denittis tried to bs us. Embarrassing for him.


An interesting letter for sure, and I frankly learned a lot about cured meat just reading it.


But beyond the processing questions, I still have questions about the circumstances surrounding the closing of Il Mondo Vecchio. Does anyone else find it oddly coincidental that a mere 5 weeks after DeNittis ended involvement in Cinque Soldi, IMV announced that is was closing? Especially considering that the owners of both ventures were all family. As Mr. Spinillo points out, $7000 is a minimal amount to spend towards an attempt to save a multi-year investment. I can't believe that anyone truly wanting to keep a business open would not make the attempt.


The question raised in my mind isn't really around the quality of the process. I wonder if other personal or business issues are the real cause of IMV's closing, and the USDA just happened to make for a face-saving alibi for the involved parties.


 @hooligan1 I'll gladly take the criticism of me being crazy along side the reference to you finding my girlfriend on facebook, that's pretty interesting and seems to be a big stone to throw in the glass house of yours.


Also, westword's decision to push this out made it public, I simply used the medium that I have created on my behalf to address something publicly with a lot of questions.  The same way you just did here...


In Mark's interviews and press release he hoped that his closing would encourage discourse and questions around the USDA and it's impact on small producers, and that's exactly what I did. I don't claim to know mark and never have, again, clearly stated in the letter.  I also have spoken openly here, not behind closed doors, why else would I write a thoughtful letter as I did?


I'll state it again incase it got lost in the lengthy letter, my issue is with the missing information.  Mark doesn't owe me or anyone else an explanation, that's his right.  It doesn't change the fact that I have a ton of questions as someone who has followed closely what Mark has been able to do, as well as his rise through the Denver/Boulder scene.  This entire area is full of blow-hard foodies, which are often missing most, if not all, of the information regarding their food.  As they speak out for local while eating their imported avocados, blast the GMO topic while sipping on their Whiskey and Vodka made from GMO corn and hate nitrates while chomping on their spinach.  


I have questions, I asked those questions and you and everyone else can choose to ignore them, answer them or any combination of the two.  My name is in the article by the way, I'd love to know yours and encourage you to email me with more discussion. ...


Did either the writer of this 4 page letter (eatthepig), Jon_S or FoodFox bother to go in to IMV on any of their loading dock days and talk with Mark DeNittis? I'm going to suppose that didn't happen. Had it, you would have, like I did, see the man as he closed the plant he literally built with his bare hands. Now, I'm no weekend sausage maker or a fox that is terrible with punctuation, but the look on the man's face when I said thank you and shook his hand showed me all I will ever need to know about his character, his intentions and his love for what he does. The hug I got from Jenna sealed the deal. These are good people doing a hard thing. Leave it alone.


The city of Denver, regardless of your Open Letter and myriad questions, lost a great contributor to our food scene. The students he has taught, the consumers he has reached, the passion with which he throws himself into his work....that is the fabric of what makes the food industry a vital part of our national identity. Mark personifies what it means to love what you do. To question that is to never have met him.


So write what you want, but in my opinion, he doesn't owe you any explanation. However, knowing Mark, he will take the time to get back to you with a thoughtful and engaged response. Because that's the kind of guy he is.

Mantonat topcommenter

 @Jon_S Yes, I think it's definitely a vast sausage conspiracy. Strange things are afoot.


Honestly, I think the guy who wrote the letter is putting a little too much brain power into "getting to the bottom of this." The one thing he fails to mention in any of his questioning is that all of IMV's options for meeting the USDA's updated requirements involve actually changing the flavor of the product. Sodium nitrite, even in the very small quantities needed to be effective as an anti-bacterial, changes the flavor and appearance of the product. It doesn't need to be about fear of a chemical or questions of the dangers of using it; it just tastes different. And that's OK for some consumers and some producers. Acidulation to lower ph also affects the flavor, as does increase in salt. 


In the end, the margins are probably incredibly tight on a small-batch specialty product like this. It's probably not as easy to sell because the palates of store and restaurant buyers have been trained to like more commercial products, so they may not get that the dry sausages are firmer than they are used to or don't beat you over the head with salt. They may balk at the price. I don't know why $7000 seems like a trivial amount to some, but to a young specialty business like this, it can be a huge amount of money. And I got the distinct impression that this wasn't going to be a one-time expense but rather an ongoing expense for each new batch.





I believe I read that you worked for Mark at Il Mondo on the previous thread.  So kudos to doing the butchering thing.  Sodium nitrate -can- but does not always change the flavor.  It depends on so many factors and I've done tests in which people couldn't detect.  


100% agree on salt and acidulation, however, the reference was to the reluctance as if it were bad or against old world methods.  That is, along with the use of nitrates, 100% false as a broad statement for old world methods. It's just not black and white, the beauty of the craft is the opportunity for interpretation.  That openness also prevents from a single method being "right" or "wrong".  It's the purpose for me sticking to science over the opinions of a lot.


As for the $7,000 point, no need to really beat this drum here, Mark is planning a response and will address it.  I do agree that it's not nominal for most, but the process of making a USDA approved product isn't either and it's a to be expected cost.  Also note that I have several folks that I know of who did a challenge without that price tag.


In any event, this is a fun discourse and one that I know Mark is excited to continue discussion around.  His passion in undeniable 

Mantonat topcommenter

@eatthepig no, I never worked at IMV and I am not a butcher. Just a fan of good food. Expected costs of doing business are just that: expected. If the rules change it can deeply effect your monthly budget.

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