By Cristin Nelson / Photos by Michael Piazza
In mid-January, two and a half months after opening day at Moody’s Delicatessen and Provisions in Waltham, the frigid Boston winter froze a pipe in the deli’s back room. Owner Joshua Smith walks underneath the gaping hole in the ceiling to point out a tiny hole in the offending copper pipe, through which gallons of water had leaked overnight. Men in work boots tromp past him, examining the damage; the deli has lost hot water and an entire wall needs to be replaced. Yet Smith is optimistic, retaining a seemingly boundless energy. He zips around the cozy, well-lit space like a pinball—bounding over the burnished wood floors to chat with customers; then through the door into the back room to consult with his wife, Tracy Jolles; then over to the small, open kitchen to reprimand a staff member for a recipe digression made to a recently-served Bánh Mì sandwich.
Smith calls the damage “the best case of a worst-case scenario,” as the relatively small leak was stemmed by early discovery, and they got started on a fix right away. This is one of the perks of living in a tight-knit community. When a man in a sweatshirt sticks his head in the back door, Smith points at him, enthusing, “He’s my plumber, and he’s my neighbor. I love this town!”
One hears this sentiment often when spending time with the Moody’s owner, a North Carolina native who is prone to emphatically expressing his love for what seems to be most people and most things. He speaks very quickly—even more so once he gets a cup of coffee in his hand—and, when seated, his leg never stops jiggling. “[Smith’s] mind is always cranking,” says Jesse Dionne, Moody’s General Manager. “I don’t think he sleeps.”
And on his mind is the deli, of course, and charcuterie. The Moody Street storefront had been home to another deli, Salem Foods, for nearly four decades, and longtime Salem Foods customer Smith jumped at the chance to establish what he calls “a little front for my meat empire.” The crown jewel of the Moody’s menu, its raison d’être, are the meats, which are nearly all housemade under Smith’s New England Charcuterie label. There is the smoked lomo: local pork loin rubbed with paprika, bay, salt, sugar, lemon zest, slow-cured for five months, then smoked for 48 hours. There is the loukaniko, a tangy number made with orange zest, fennel seeds, and Grand Marnier, which is cured here but which is usually sold as a fresh sausage. There is the bresaola, tender cured beef with a concentrated meaty flavor. There is the “Weston ham,” a take on prosciutto that is cured for two years. There are the country paté, the rabbit paté, the headcheese, and the liverwurst. And there is the ‘Nduja, a fiery, spreadable sausage made with Calabrese chili paste, cured for a minimum of two months, with a creamy texture and a lingering bite.
In a category all its own is the mole salami, made with chocolate and ghost pepper in an homage to the complex Mexican sauce of the same name. This salami is sweet, tangy, spicy, and salty in equal measure, and highly addictive; the flavors are clear and bright. Jesse Dionne, the general manager, considers the mole salami to be one of Moody’s best sellers. Around Christmastime, the mole sparked a gift-giving frenzy, meaning some junkies couldn’t get their fix. “We didn’t have the mole for a couple of days,” Dionne says. “I got a lot of stern looks.”
Experiments with meat are routine, such as the Sriracha salami, flavored with lime, cilantro, sugar, and fish sauce, as are experiments with fermentation, like the saffron turnip pickles on offer one day. Smith says that recipes for the standard deli meats, like bologna, smoked ham and turkey, and roast beef, are constantly being tweaked. The meaty flavor of housemade pastrami, another best-seller, is allowed to shine by itself, without its typical salty bite. Says Dionne: “When everything you put in is a quality product, you don’t have to burn someone’s tongue off with salt.”
But Smith doesn’t play favorites among his creations. “It’s like, which one’s your favorite kid, right?” he laughs. “The thing is, I’m really proud of everything we do.” At this, he launches into a story about curing roast beef for six days. Give the man an idea, and he could take off in a hundred different directions, each one fueled by an intense dedication. “It’s been my dream, since I was 19 years old working at Dean & Deluca, to do charcuterie,” Smith says, recalling how his interest was piqued by turning trim and scrap meats into something that people loved. It “set off the powder keg,” he says, and the idea continued to percolate throughout the years he spent hitchhiking and working in kitchens across the country. Unable to afford culinary school, and excluded from the military for his asthma, Smith learned on the job, filling notebooks with notes and recipes. He often worked two jobs; for a stretch in Denver, he worked simultaneously at a luxury hotel, and at a Quizno’s, toasting sandwiches.
At the time, sources for domestic charcuterie were few and far between—nearly everything was imported—and, in culinary circles, there was little interest in a change. “In the mid-90s, people laughed at me,” says Smith. “They told me, ‘No one does charcuterie; it’s a dying market.’” At one restaurant, Smith says, a chef asked him, “Why would you make it, if you can buy it?” He can supply dozens of anecdotes of people who told him his idea would fail. Finding little support for his passion, Smith would go into work on his off hours in order to make tureens or patés, to make sure they stayed on the menu.
In the back room at Moody’s, fennel salami, or finnochioni, hang in a curing chamber, which looks like a stainless steel wine cooler, but with a long chain of sausages hanging where the bottles would be. Through careful manipulation of the environment—variables like airflow, temperature, and humidity—inside the chamber, harmful bacteria are killed off, while good bacteria can flourish. The first step is lowering the pH of the meat, which is done by allowing bacteria to eat the sugars, like dextrose or the sugars from wine, within the salami. The type of bacteria, along with the temperature within the chamber, will determine the rate of fermentation. When the sausages are ready to leave the curing chamber, they are hung over the deli counter in the front room; all of the sausages hang in various stages of readiness, waiting for their water content to drop below a certain point to prohibit bacterial growth, when they can be called shelf-stable. In general, the longer they age, the more interesting and complex the flavor will become.
The red-brown links of finnochioni are speckled with white: it’s Candida flora, Penicillium nalgiovense, an edible mold that will protect the salami and lend it flavor. Empty sausage casings are inoculated in a water-mold spore solution before being stuffed, and now that the mold has been introduced to the chamber, it also lives within the crevices of the chamber itself. Most of the salamis, as well as some whole-muscle cured meats like bresaola, will be covered in it.
Because of the raw ingredients and variables involved in curing meat, the process must be meticulously clean and documented. Smith walks through the back, pointing out the wall of clipboards covered in fastidious notes, plans, and corrections. He is in his element: a perfectionist with a mind for science. He’s the type of person who gets excited about things like wall fans that can reverse polarity, and about smokers—the one at Moody’s is computer-controlled and with remote-monitoring capability, and Smith calls it the “Rolls-Royce of smokers.”
The Moody’s team buys whole animals and uses as much of each animal as possible. Moody’s meat is all domestic, preferably local and heritage breed, if available, and much of the pork is Berkshire pork. “We want to be sustainable, as local as possible,” Smith says. “I wanted to create a space that features, as best as possible, local artisans. We try to have everything have a purpose or a story behind it.” Once the meats are ready, they might become the centerpiece of a charcuterie plate, alongside a housemade paté, a selection of mostly domestic cheeses, and accompaniments ranging from olives and cornichons to candied pepitas. Or, meat might be sliced and stuffed into a sandwich, perhaps served alongside some truffle potato chips, fried in local grass-fed beef fat (these are popular enough that they usually run out during lunch), or with a spicy pepper or pickled green tomato. For breakfast, there are lovely sandwiches with soft golden egg curds piled onto a fresh English muffin, with melted cheese and the meat of your choice (the thick-cut bacon, with its distinct smoky flavor, is highly recommended). At one table, a woman sneaks a bite of her companion’s breakfast sandwich, chews thoughtfully, and says approvingly, “We should come here for lunch.”
The cold cases boast mostly housemade savories like Sriracha pork belly, frozen soups and stocks (chicken, rabbit, pork), and beef fat. There are Iggy’s croissants, and pasta, cookies, and chocolates from Steve “Nookie” Postal, chef at Commonwealth in Kendall Square. Meanwhile, in the basement are large crocks fermenting sauerkraut, pickling beets, and aging hot sauce. There are also a lot of items named for someone called Dave—kimchi, full-sour pickles, and bread-and-butter pickles.These are the creations of Dave Viola, Moodys’ production manager. (“He is just a magician,” says Smith, and adds, unsurprisingly, “I love that man.”) Smith describes his vision for Moody’s as a hub where local artisans can showcase their products, and adds, “If you know anybody interested in experimenting with cheese making, let me know.”
Not too long ago, the idea of an entirely local plate was unheard of. Smith observed the way the artisan cheese movement accelerated around 20 years ago, when local cheese makers began to crop up all over the country, experimenting with terroir and with technique. Quality domestic cheeses took their rightful place beside the classic imports, and, Smith says, “Over the last several years, you’re seeing the same thing start to happen with meat. Meat is now where cheese was 10 years ago.” There are differences, of course; there is a certain danger involved with making your own meat products, and navigating regulations can be a challenge. But Smith notes the rise in demand both for local meat and for artisanal products, and he lauds the growing community of colleagues, which allows for collaboration, brainstorming, and networking. The field for the underdog artisan is gradually becoming level, and Moody’s, a brazen tribute to creative, as-local-as-possible foodstuffs, flies in the face of imported heavyweights. Two nights before the grand opening, Smith says, he sat in the deli space drinking a glass of wine, with tears in his eyes. “Most people had laughed at me,” he says, “and my dream was coming true.”
Moody’s Delicatessen and Provisions 468 Moody Street, Waltham
Cristin Nelson is a freelance food writer whose recipes and writings have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, Vegetarian Times, and Edible Boston. Cristin also writes The Four Seasonings, a blog about seasonal eating. She lives in Boston with her husband and her enthusiastic appetite.