“You'd have to be crazy to do this!” Volpi Foods president Lorenza Pasetti jokes. “You don't just wake up one day and go, 'Gee, I'd like to start a prosciutto plant.' It's a long process.”

Long, indeed. Volpi opened its doors two full years before vendors first made the ice-cream cone popular at the 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park. The prosciutto, genoa salami, coppa and other meat products the company is famous for require fresh, superior cuts of meat and lots of time and patience. There's nothing quick, easy or efficient about producing high-quality, aged artisan meats, and the term “shortcut” is not in the company lexicon.

John Volpi came to America in 1900 and opened his store on Daggett Avenue (named Uno, Italian for One) on The Hill two years later with partner Gino Pasetti. Volpi married Gino's sister Maria Pasetti in 1905. Maria kept busy as a midwife, while the men made and sold dried, aged meats.

Armando Pasetti joined them in 1938 at age 14, living upstairs from the shop and learning the business from the bottom up, first cleaning the shop and tying salami, then as an apprentice. In 1957, after John and Gino's passings, Armando became president. Daughter Lorenza took over the presidency in 2002.

Armando, now 88 and far more spry than his years would suggest, still runs the retail shop at the original building. “He's the perfect, critical customer,” Lorenza says. “I know deep down in his heart he wants everything to be as good as it can be. That's our marketing research facility, that storefront.”

The 110-year-old family business has not only weathered economic storms but has expanded into additional buildings near the retail store:

  • Due, where the company's popular prosciutto rules
  • Tre, where its 8-oz. deli “chubs,” wine salamis
  • Un Mondo brand salamis are produced and packaged
  • a warehousing and storage facility next door to Tre on which the company recently broke ground and is on pace to open in the first half of 2013

Production coordinator Peter Hambrecht shows off Uno's Drying Room 3, where Volpi's signature flavor is most evident in the co-mingling aromas of antique, wooden beams and dry-aging meats. Throughout Uno, roughly 2 dozen specialty meats are suspended in just the right conditions for aging. Over the course of several weeks, the meats absorb the character of the building, taking on a musty, slightly smoky flavor on the back end.

“I think this smell is unique to us,” Hambrecht says. Coppa, an air-dried whole pork shoulder butt, benefits greatly from this atmosphere. “It's our specialty product and you can kind of taste the room.”

Volpi Foods uses only fresh meat, all of which comes from producers who operate within 350 miles of the facilities. Freezing – if it must be done – is limited to two days. Any longer, and the tissue begins to crystallize, affecting the quality of the final product. Meat, usually pork, is ground at a low temperature into large chunks, then chilled again before a second grind.

“Grinding is done this way to prevent smearing the fat,” Hambrecht explains. If ground too warm or too vigorously, partially melted fat could coat the inside of the natural casings and prevent the meat from drying properly.

Many other factors can influence proper drying: fat-to-meat ratios, pH, temperature, room humidity and molds. Meats are shuffled around different locations in the drying rooms according to what level of air flow is needed for each piece of meat at the time. When weather conditions permit, workers use outside ambient air to dry. Other times, they adjust the drying room temperatures to keep the rate of drying in check.

“We don't artificially bump up temperature to process meats faster,” Hambrecht says. “It takes much, much longer, but we know it's worth it.” For example, where other companies may age pepperoni at higher temperatures for 14 days, Volpi's pepperoni is aged at cooler temps over 40 days. Prosciutto, one of Volpi's most in-demand products, takes a laborious nine months to reach perfection.

In addition to keeping the traditional process alive, Lorenza is constantly brainstorming products she hopes will earn new customers. Rotola (pin-wheeled mozzarella, prosciutto, sun-dried tomato and hot salami with basil), wine salamis and the international flavors of Un Mondo salamis sprouted out of experimentation.

“We experiment all the time,” she says. “We have lots of food people and lots of ideas; it's just corralling that.”

But Armando says the Genoa salami, mortadella and prosciutto are still closest to his heart, and he still enjoys them: “I like to eat a little bit before I sell it.”

He's served countless regulars and he's constantly seeing new faces. Tourists regularly stop in. “Now days, people walk around and like to try something new,” he says. “At least more people get to know you.”

And love you.

Volpi Foods, 5263 Daggett Ave., The Hill, volpifoods.com

More Feast Magazine | Inspired Midwest food culture covering St. Louis, Kansas City and mid-Missouri articles.