With the green dome of the Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church as a backdrop, smoke emanates from an old wooden shed in the small backyard of an alleyway house in Marshall-Shadeland, practically pulsing out of the cracks between boards. It's 11 degrees on a crisp, sunny Sunday morning and the aromas of burning cherry wood and cooking meat can be smelled a few blocks away.
Inside the shed, coals glow an incandescent orange and fill the space with thick smoke. Suspended over the fires by a series of chains, racks of coiled kielbasa and slabs of bacon absorb the smoky flavor for hours, sweating juices that drip, crackle and hiss.
It's a back-to-basics way of curing meat, or what Jared Lordon calls "Bacon Unplugged."
Mr. Lordon and his close friend Kelly Patton, veterans of restaurant kitchens both locally and nationally, have been making fresh bacon and nitrate-free kielbasa under the banner of Allegheny City Smokehouse.
"I can't think of a better idea than going back to wood-fired -- back to the smokehouse itself," Mr. Lordon, 32, of Mount Washington, said. "It's a stripped-down process. I'm a big music fan and it made me think of the 'Neil Young: Unplugged' album. So we're calling it 'Bacon Unplugged,'" he said with a smile.
The idea came together in the fall when a bit of misfortune turned into fortune.
Mr. Lordon quit a job at popular Downtown restaurant NOLA last spring to be a part of the opening crew of Emiglia Romagna in the Strip District. But when that place abruptly closed after only five weeks, he suddenly found himself moving from the cooking line to the bread line.
A few weeks later, he popped into a favorite Downtown watering hole, Fat Tommy's Pizza. The owner, Tommy Balistreire, had just purchased a rental property that included an old shed that was outfitted for smoking and roasting meats. He invited Mr. Lordon to check it out.
"There are 11 spits connected to an electric motor. The previous owner did that for 25 years, roasting lambs on spits for church fairs and the ethnic day picnics at Kennywood," Mr. Lordon said.
An idea blossomed. Mr. Lordon called his buddy Mr. Patton, with whom he worked with at the prestigious Grove Park Inn in the resort town of Asheville, N.C. Mr. Patton, 35, from Acme, Westmoreland County, had been back in the Pittsburgh area for a few years as a sales rep for an Erie-based food supplier.
"I started thinking about the barbecue smokehouses from when we worked down South, but I also thought of kielbasa because we're in Western Pennsylvania," Mr. Lordon said. "It was like the sun shone down on me and I thought, 'Let's go with it.' "
Mr. Patton said Mr. Lordon has pitched him numerous schemes over the years. "This is like the 10th idea he's run at me and for once I thought, 'You aren't crazy -- you might actually have something here for a change.' "
Their first "executive meeting" came over a few beers and shots at Jack's on the South Side, and Allegheny City Smokehouse was born.
They've started with fresh bacon and nitrate-free kielbasa -- $6 a pound for each available via direct order -- using their own recipes. They hope to add whole hams in time for Easter. At present, the meat comes from a wholesaler in the Strip District, but Mr. Lordon is finalizing details to source it from a family farm near Burgettstown.
"Why get it from somewhere in the Midwest when we can get it from a place down the road?" Mr. Patton asked, adding that keeping things as local as possible is of paramount importance.
Each 12-pound pork belly must be liberally coated with a traditional curing rub of salt and pepper plus some flourishes they add. Then it sits for seven to 10 days while the meat and fat absorb the rub.
For the kielbasa, they'll grind pork shoulder with garlic, paprika, salt and pepper, and add mustard seeds that have been soaked in vinegar. The meat is stuffed into natural hog casings and sits for 24 hours so the pork and spices can mingle.
"Usually it's buried in MSG and citric acid," Mr. Patton said, contrasting their minimally processed meats to mass-produced brands. The kielbasa will keep for a week, the bacon two, before they need to be frozen.
On smoking day, they get their fires burning for at least two hours before putting the meat on the racks. Then they'll smoke them for about five hours.
Mr. Patton said that each batch is unique and that smoking is an art of trial and error.
"We go in and look at it and say, 'So whaddya think?'" he said with a booming laugh. "It's not scientific. It's a feeling. There's a lot of feeling to it."
"We have the times in our head, but it comes down to, How's it look? How's it taste? We're starting to get our mojo down," Mr. Lordon added.
Said mojo was on display this past Sunday when they hosted a "smoking party" for friends and family while they prepared a new batch of product. While their guests snacked on their smoked homemade mozzarella and sipped Penn Pilsners and Hot Toddys ladeled from a steaming stock pot, Mr. Patton and Mr. Lordon entered the shed -- adorned with a Terrible Towel for luck -- and tended to their meats. They examined and deliberated, exchanging a few "Whaddya think?"s.
The shed door opened, and cyclones of aromatic smoke twisted out. Mr. Patton emerged wearing a gas mask and goggles that made him look like Jesse Pinkman -- "Breaking Bacon," anyone? -- and presented racks of charcoal-flecked bacon and kielbasa, plus pork loin, lamb leg and a few chickens and ribs and displayed them on a pair of antique metal saw horses.
Friends and family closed in around Mr. Patton as he cleaved the meat for what felt like an excellent tailgate, minus the ballgame.
One occupational hazard: a lingering campfire smell. Mr. Patton said he needs to wash his hair at least three times to get it out. After one particularly long day in the smoke shed, Mr. Lordon stopped on his way home for a beer at Satalio's on Mount Washington. He said that a blind gentleman sitting at the bar alerted the bartender that something on the premises was on fire.
"I said, 'No sir, that's just me,' " Mr. Lordon said. "It sounds like a bad joke, but it's true."
Though their company is still in its infancy, Mr. Lordon said the endeavor has rekindled both men's passion for making food.
"We were both feeling pretty burned out by the restaurant business and were talking like, 'Why'd we start doing this anyway?' But we love it. And this is raw and pure. We're getting the sparks back."
And although a cheeky sense of humor pervades pretty much everything they do -- for example, company T-shirts paraphrase Jerry McGuire ("You had me at bacon") -- their guiding ethos comes from John Steinbeck's personal stamp, the Pigasus, with the Latin motto: ad astra per alas porci.
"To the stars, on the wings of a pig."
Allegheny City Smokehouse: http://alleghenycitysmokehouse.com or 1-828-231-9864.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @gigs412. First Published January 31, 2013 5:00 AM