Some dining experiences simply can’t be packaged into a single pithy sentence — such is the case with biting into the fried mortadella sandwich at Buddy, the new-ish Mission restaurant and bar. In it, engulfed in a solidified, crunchy layer of American cheese and punched up with escarole, pickled cherry peppers, and dijonaise, mortadella — normally thinly sliced and outshined by prosciutto on your run-of-the-mill charcuterie plate — becomes a smoky, pillowy revelation.
Thick-cut and fried to perfection or piled high on a plate, mortadella is having a Bay Area moment. In addition to Buddy’s creation, it’s been popping around town everywhere from pizza shops to trendy delis. While the obvious vehicle is the sandwich — at Newkirk’s the California Chrome marries it with chipotle aioli and grilled kale and at Palm City paper-thin mortadella mingles with arugula and ‘nduja mayo — it’s been also lending its genius to other mediums. More versatile than ever, it’s been leveraged to elevate the occasional salad or perfect an appetizer, as a pizza topper, and a breakfast improver.
Take the golbaengi muchim salad at Queens, for example. Since the beloved Inner Sunset Korean deli debuted its lunch menu in October 2021, the salad — a mix of Burgundy snails, mortadella, perilla, cucumbers, hot peppers, and scallion ribbons, tossed in a garlicky hot and tangy gochujang vinaigrette — has been a standout. “It’s a traditional Korean dish often served as pub or drinking food,” co-owner Clara Lee says.
The salad is usually made with Spam; the earthiness of the snails marries nicely with its salty richness, Lee says, but at Queens, Lee and co-owner Eddo Kim decided to go with Dorsia Provisions mortadella. “Both our snails and mortadella are very high quality imported products from France and Italy, so the flavors are particularly spectacular,” Lee says.
At Valley Bar and Bottle in Sonoma, mortadella makes a couple of appearances. For dinner, the menu simply states “mortadella,” and if you order it, a plateful of slices will arrive. For lunch and brunch, it’s a mortadella sandwich on a potato bun with aioli and a spicy relish. “Mortadella is something we bonded over when we met, and we have since eaten it together memorably on vacations in New York and in Italy,” says co-owner Emma Lipp, referring to Stephanie Reagor, her partner in life and in business (Valle’s other co-owners are Lauren Feldman and Tanner Walle). “The texture is so delicious.”
For Buddy’s chef Sean Thomas, creating the iconic sandwich was coming “full circle.” Thomas used to serve an appetizer of mortadella, fondue, and fried bread at Blue Plate back in the day. Most customers, he says, “are either familiar with mortadella or have come around to it by realizing, ‘Oh, it’s fancy bologna.’” Fried bologna, needless to say, was a staple of Thomas’ home growing up.
To pretend mortadella is a hot new item would be, of course, naive. Lately, its humble cousin, bologna, has been weirdly trending on social media as a face mask courtesy of Oscar Mayer, but that alone couldn’t possibly explain its local food scene popularity — right? “We have noticed an uptick in mortadella being featured in the contemporary food scene at large,” Valley’s Emma Lipp says. “Perhaps millennial pink has something to do with it? And it is beautiful, like terrazzo marble.”
Beyond the meat’s sudden aesthetic relevance, for some it’s all about nostalgia — or, rather, the opportunity to give the beloved product the attention it’s always deserved. “I think many folks never gave mortadella a chance in the past,” Lee says. “In the present, people find velvety pink sheets of meat particularly Instagramable. And so in the Bay Area, where chefs are particularly mindful about sourcing, storytelling, and sharing really good ingredients, it’s exciting to be able to put mortadella on a menu and know that folks will be excited to try it.”
The less romantic answer to the mystery: the Bay Area has always been a home to excellent, artisanal mortadella, and it’s time for the next generation of chefs to rediscover it. “We end up with commonalities in this town, because we shop from the same vendors,” says Thomas, who had sampled the local mortadelas of Molinari and Fra’ Mani, before settling on an outsider — Olympia Provisions from Oregon, chosen for its flavor and perfect, sandwich-appropriate size. “I’m always baffled by what becomes a trend and why. Mortadella would be a more unlikely one.”