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9:57 am
Mon October 8, 2012

Family prosciutto business growing in Burrillville

PROVIDENCE, RI –

There are only three prosciutto makers in the United States and one of them is located in the rolling hills of northwestern Rhode Island. "Made in Rhode Island" takes an in depth look at Daniele Foods.

There are only three prosciutto makers in the United States and one of them is located in the rolling hills of northwestern Rhode Island. Daniele Foods is housed in a long low white building on a wooded lot in the Pascoag section of Burrillville. Inside some 300 men and women dressed in lab coats, hair nets and plastic gloves labor at machines that cut pork, grind it up with spices and stuff the gooey mixture into sleeves.

Making salami, prosciutto and dozens of other cured Italian meats isn't for everyone. Most of Daniele's workers stand on their feet all day in rooms cooled to 40 degrees to deter the spread of bacteria. Company officials say some people can't take it and leave after a day or two. But plant manager Katie Howard says you can get used to it.

"How do you keep warm?" asks Rhode Island Public Radio reporter Flo Jonic. "It's very cold in here but you get used to it," says a bundled up Howard.

Daniele Foods is a Rhode Island success story. Despite the recession, it has doubled sales every five years since its founding in 1977 and is preparing to expand its workforce with a brand new plant that will double production capacity. Even in hard times people will cough up an extra four bucks for a small package of prosciutto, says company co-owner Davide Dukcevich.

"People will sometimes cut corners by not buying a new TV or not going on vacation," says Dukcevich. "They can reward themselves at the same time when they go to the supermarket with a $3.99 package of prosciutto."

Almost half the sprawling plant is dedicated to drying rooms. In vast well ventilated rooms thousands of salted pigs' legs hang from large metal racks where they will remain for up to two years. That's how long it can take for enough moisture to be removed to turn the ham into prosciutto -- an oily, uncooked meat that is usually served thinly sliced. Daniele has a quarter million hind legs drying, says Dukcevich with pride.

"Prosciutto is one of the easiest things in the world to make in terms of ingredients. All you need is the leg of a pig -- a ham -- and salt but it's the hardest thing in the world to get right because you need to understand how much salt has penetrated, how much water has left and you need to constantly make adjustments."

Daniele Foods was founded in 1977 but its roots go back to Croatia where, after World War II, a wealthy horse trader named Stefano Dukcevich lost everything he had to the newly installed Communist regime. He and his wife, Carolina, fled to the nearest Italian city -- Trieste. There in a kitchen Carolina made sausage which her husband would deliver to restaurants on a bicycle. The business grew and by the mid 1970's was one of Italy's largest food processors. But Stefano and Carolina's son, Vlado, was restless. He wanted to start a prosciutto business in the United States. So with his parents blessing and financial backing, he did.

Davide Dukcevich says his father chose Rhode Island for several reasons. "The biggest reason," says Dukcevich, "is it's well placed. You know it's near New York and Boston -- two large centers with a lot of Italians. At the time the governor -- Governor Garrihy -- was offering a nice deal because of all the blue collar work that was leaving Rhode Island. So Rhode Island welcomed us with open arms at that time. And we've been growing here since."

Those early years were tougher than Vlado Dukcevich could have imagined. America was still a Wonder Bread country. Many Americans were unfamiliar with the Italian delicacy and thought it was pronounced "proskootoh". Davide says he seldom saw his Dad in his youth.

"We had a house maybe five miles down the road. He'd wake up, be in the factory by 4am. He'd check his products -- the hams, the prosciutto, and then he'd drive to New York, get orders from the local delis in Brooklyn because apparently no Americans had heard of prosciutto back then."

But Americans are adventuresome eaters and in time prosciutto caught on. The company's growth today is attributable in part to the Food Network, which has given Americans an expanded appetite for exotic foods and recipes to use them in.

Although whole leg prosciuttos were once the company's stock in trade, today most products are sold in small packages of sliced meat. It's all about convenience, says Dukcevich.

"People didn't want to wait to have their prosciutto sliced behind the counter anymore. It's much more convenient to pick it up. You didn't have to wait in line. Especially with the modern lifestyle of most shoppers where the mother is working ... they don't have time to wait."

Over the years, Daniele has had many suitors. Economic development officials from Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York have at different times tried to lure the company away from Rhode Island. But Dukcevich says they've stayed because it's home.

"Yeah, Rhode Island isn't really a competitive environment. We chose Rhode Island because this is where we live. This is our home. Definitely we're hearing the siren song of other places but it's where me and my brother grew up, where we went to school, where my brother has kids. It's our home so we chose to stay."

Daniele Foods is a family-owned business that every year ships over 23 million pounds of cured meat to countries around the world. Vlado Dukcevich and his two sons will soon break ground on the company's new 50 million dollar plant in Burrillville -- an investment that should guarantee the company's presence in Rhode Island for years to come.

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