Making sausage: Local Italians gather to preserve meat as well as traditions from the Old Country

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The mercury has dipped to 18 degrees when Leon Panella pads into his garage in Prospect, Butler County, at about 8 a.m. on a recent, snowy Saturday. Still, he smiles.

In an hour or so, things will warm up as close to two dozen male helpers -- friends, friends of friends, Duquesne University fraternity brothers -- start knocking on the front door of his big log cabin in the woods, eager to roll up their sleeves and get busy. The task at hand: Transforming 12 giant pans of pork resting on folding tables into foot-long sticks of air-dried sausage.

It's an old-country tradition that will take the men the better part of a day, after which they'll celebrate with a sprawling Italian meal. Mr. Panella's wife, Karen, in fact, has been in the kitchen since dawn.

Mr. Panella, who is 68, had grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from Calabria and Abruzzi. "In September, Italians think about grapes and make wine," he says. "When it's cold, we make sausage."

PG VIDEO: MAKING SAUSAGE

There's already been some prepping. Two days earlier, the men coarsely ground 460 pounds of boneless pork butt and pork sirloin from Jefferson Poultry in New Castle into the beginnings of an air-cured salume known as sopressata -- or "supra-sot," as he and his old-time Italian friends call it. Mr. Panella, a semi-retired pharmacist, also has washed and carefully untangled several hanks (a bundle measuring about 100 yards) of natural edible casing into manageable lengths. The pig guts come packed in salt, and have to be flushed clean and then soaked in warm water so they soften and become tender.

Pushing the fist-sized pieces of meat, bit by bit, through the grinders' blades was easy enough, taking the crew just under two hours working on three machines. Seasoning it to tongue-tingling perfection with the right blend of spices, canned red pepper paste, Morton's salt and Two-Buck Chuck red wine was a bit more involved, and definitely messier. For that, Kate DeComo of Adams -- the sole woman in the annual sopressata-making operation -- had to stick her hands deep into bowls of cold meat and squish the ingredients together between gloved fingers.

"He trusts me," she said of Mr. Panella, who a few years ago was merely the friend of some friends with whom she took an Italian class. Today they consider each other family.

The Panellas' motto is "the more, the merrier." So when Mrs. DeComo expressed an interest in learning how to make sopressata four years ago, she was warmly welcomed into the fold, even though the women traditionally support the men in the kitchen. (More on that later.) She was moved up to Head Seasoner last year, she joked, "when I showed aptitude."

Recipes vary according to family tradition, but sopressata always includes cayenne and red pepper for heat and paprika to give it its distinctive red color. Mr. Panella's recipe, which originated in Calabria, a region in southern Italy that's known for the sausage, also calls for 11/2 pounds of salt per 40 pounds of meat for curing. As for the red wine?

"If I tell you," quips Mr. Panella, "I'd have to kill you."

Truth be told, the recipe isn't his own but one he got from his friend Nick Clemente of Donora, who in turn got it from his neighbor Ray Sasselli. The process is dear to his heart. Growing up in Ellwood City, he watched his father, Leo, make sausage while drinking beer with his friends at the Working Men's Social Club on Division Avenue, a fraternal organization populated by steelworkers of Italian descent.

"He loved the fellowship," he says.

A part-time butcher who also loved to speak Italian, the elder Mr. Panella was strictly old-school, deboning the pork by hand and using a hand-cranked meat grinder and stuffer. Any excess sopressata was sold to friends, three pounds for a dollar.

Sopressata's a bit more expensive to make in 2012: the meat alone cost $820. Which is why everyone involved chips in, and not just with money.

Says Mrs. Panella, "If you want it, you gotta work; if you don't work, you don't get."

Fatty, spicy and insanely tasty, the homemade sopressata is culinary gold: Mr. Panella, who's been making it for two decades, says you only share the spoils with people you "really love" or want to impress, such as your Italian doc.

"When we pay, we give them a supra-sot," he says. "And we get service like you wouldn't believe!"

The Panellas have been hosting the sopressata event for 11 years now, usually the first weekend in January. That's when pigs most commonly are slaughtered in the Italian countryside, but more importantly, that's when it's cold enough to safely preserve the meat without cooking it. These guys see this gathering as a way to keep the sausage-making tradition alive while passing it down to the next generation. That, and the male bonding it inspires.

Making sopressata is the ultimate guy thing.

Feeding everyone who shows up, conversely, is a girl thing. Mrs. Panella has been cooking for days, starting with the homemade sausage and meatballs and penne she served after Thursday's meat-grinding session. Today's menu includes Italian greens and beans and fried hen of the woods mushrooms she foraged herself, along with fried smelts and a garlicky shrimp scampi. Friends also bring enough cookies, cake, pie and tiramisu to feed a small army.

Some might see the division of labor as sexist, but not Mrs. Panella, the daughter of a knife sharpener and occasional butcher who grew up on Larimer Avenue in the East End.

"In the house, we get a chance to talk," she says. "We pick on everything we put out and swap recipes. We can sit down and enjoy the fire in the fireplace."

The men are barred from the kitchen, she adds, because if they come in and start to eat, "they get lazy and then the work in the garage doesn't get done."

Many of the day's dishes are included in a self-published cookbook whipped up last year to endow a scholarship for their husbands' Italian fraternity. Already, "Home Grown Italian Recipes: A Legacy For Our Family and Friends" has raised $10,000 for Alpha Phi Delta.

But, first things first. Before anyone eats, there's all that sopressata to finish.

The group has been at it long enough that the process is boiled down to a science, with small groups assigned to each step: grind, stuff, tie, net, poke, hang. By 10:30 a.m., the now-toasty garage -- two propane heaters are cranked up in one corner -- is buzzing like a beehive. Some of the men are feeding the seasoned pork into grinders outfitted with "sausage horns" that guide the meat in the gooey casings, blowing them up like balloons; others work to encase the tied-off sticks in a "Jetnet" sock, and then poke tiny holes to prevent air pockets from forming. There's not a slacker among the bunch.

It's a lot of work, but it feels very much like a party. From the box of Oram's donuts that greet workers at the door, to the bottles of the Panella's homemade Chardonnay and Alicante Bouschet that keeps everyone lubricated, to the platter of last year's sopressata served with assorted Italian cheeses on a makeshift table, to the playful banter between the men -- it's all great fun.

Calabrian-born Salvatore Merante is especially cool to watch, and not just because his white handlebar moustache, which curls to the bottom of his sideburns, is so old-school Italian. Now 80, "Uncle Sal" has been making sopressata and other sausages for more than 50 years, just like his mother taught him back in Italy, with no preservatives and strict attention to the details.

Rather than use a wooden pestle like the others to push the pork through the grinder, for instance, he uses his fingers. He also can eyeball the amount of stuffing to the exact quarter-teaspoon -- stretching the casing tight, but not so much it bursts.

"You don't want to choke it," he says.

His Uncle Sal's hot and sweet Italian sausages "have been sold all over the country," he adds, including Groceria Merante in Oakland, which his father, Pasquale, opened in the 1950s.

The sausages will shrink to about half of their original size as they dry hanging on hooks in the ventilated wine cellar the Panellas had specially designed when they built the house in 2000. Depending on the weather, it'll take between six and eight weeks to cure. Some store the finished sopressata in big buckets of oil, where it'll keep for years. Mr. Panella prefers to vacuum-seal it.

In all, it takes a little over three hours to make the dozens of sticks Brian Kopp of Monroeville, a cop with the University of Pittsburgh and friend of Uncle Sal's, carries down to the basement wine cellar -- a record, Mr. Panella declares with a proud smile. Now, only after then men have scrubbed clean the work surfaces and equipment, it's time to eat!

After ringing the dinner bell, Mrs. Panella asks everyone to lower their heads for grace.

"We come together to share fellowship, love and for nourishment," her friend Camille Cash prays softly. "Thank you for the many hands that have prepared our food here."

Heads nod quietly in agreement, then it's back to business.

"Come in here if you want to eat," Mrs. Panella shouts to the stragglers. "Mangia!"

Within minutes, a line snakes from the living room to the kitchen, where there's so many dishes laid out on the center island you almost can't see the surface. No one's shy about seconds, especially when it comes to the long line of desserts on the dining room table.

In the basement, the sopressata they'll eat when they all gather again next year already is curing. And Mr. Panella is smiling.

"It makes the house nice and warm when we get together," he says.



Greens and Beans

This comes from "Home Grown Italian Recipes," a collection of (mostly) Italian recipes complied by the Ladies Auxiliary of Alpha Phi Delta, a fraternity founded in 1914 by a group of men with Italian roots. Order a copy for $25 by emailing twinkle@zoominternet.net .

  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, coarsely minced
  • Olive oil
  • 2 heads escarole, cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Water
  • 2 15.5-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Brown garlic in olive oil on medium-high heat in a 5-quart pot; add escarole and about 2 cups water, cover. Cook on medium heat until greens are tender. Add beans and heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve alone or over frizelle (dry hard bread).

-- Karen DeRiso-Panella in "Home Grown Italian Recipes"



Manicotti

Boxed manicotti shells are convenient, but you can make these light and fluffy Italian crepes almost faster than you can boil water. And there's no taste comparison.

For batter
  • 3 egg whites
  • 3 whole eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 cups water
  • 4 cups flour

Using a wire whisk, beat together egg whites, eggs, salt and water. Add enough flour to make pancake-like batter. Let stand 20 to 30 minutes. In lightly greased crepe pan, pour 1/3 cup batter and tilt until bottom of pan is coated. Cook on medium-low heat until batter is dry then turn out onto table. Do not let crepes brown. Crepes can be stacked if you used wax paper to separate them.

For filling
  • 3 pounds ricotta
  • 3 egg yolks
  • Grated parmesan and Romano cheeses to taste
  • 4 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix together ricotta, egg yolks, cheeses, parsley, salt and pepper. Spread about 2 heaping tablespoons of filling into the center of a crepe, roll up, forming a tube. Coat bottom of large baking dish with your favorite tomato sauce before adding filled crepes. Spread more sauce on top. If desired, add a second layer or start another pan, coating with sauce. Bake for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Makes about 20 manicotti.

-- Karen DeRiso-Panella in "Home Grown Italian Recipes"



Wands (fried Italian cookies)

"My mother and father made these for family and friends' weddings. They were always such a treat," writes Karen DeRiso-Panella. "They are very light and you can eat a lot of them before you know it."

  • 1 dozen eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup melted Crisco (vegetable shortening)
  • 2 pounds flour
  • Crisco for deep frying
  • Powdered sugar

Mix together eggs, baking powder, melted Crisco and flour into a nice soft dough. Roll out on floured board until about 1/16-inch thick. Cut into strips about 6 inches long. Drop dough strips in hot Crisco (they will make all kinds of configurations), fry until golden brown, remove and cool on paper towels. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve. Store in airtight containers.

-- Karen DeRiso-Panella in "Home Grown Italian Recipes"



Hot Sausage Specialty

Just in time for Super Bowl Sunday, this recipe is one you can eat either stuffed in a roll or on its own. If you don't like it spicy, substitute sweet Italian or mild sausage.

  • 2 green peppers, diced
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 2 12-ounce cans tomato sauce
  • 12 ounces water
  • 2 pounds hot Italian sausage

Saute green peppers, onions, salt and pepper in oil. Add sauce and water. Simmer 30 minutes.

Put sausage in baking pan and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Cut into pieces and put into sauce. Cook on low heat and simmer another 25 to 30 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- Giulia Merante Duranti in "Home Grown Italian Recipes"

food - recipes

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419. First Published January 26, 2012 5:00 AM


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