There's an old adage that goes:
Meaning, basically, it'll taste better if you don't know what's in it.
I'm a longtime fan of sausage – most any old kind will do. But after trying a handmade bit of heaven for the first time at Little City Market in North Beach, I wanted to know how to do it myself at home
– the old adage be damned.
So I got in touch with the father-son team behind the shop, Mike and Ron Spinali, and asked for a little behind-the-scenes action. By the time I left their shop, I realized the naysayers don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s nothing like watching all ingredients – meat with a nice chunky texture (none of that finely ground processed garbage), specks of fresh spices for every bite – come together for a perfect handmade link.
Sitting at the corner of Stockton and Vallejo streets, Little City Market has windows plastered with signs advertising such carnivorous treats as “fresh Sicilian sausage” and “meatballs.” The room is full of antiquities, old meat grinders, tenderizing mallets, and an assortment of meat hooks. When I first came upon the place, it felt like I was taking a trip back in time to an era when neighborhood butchers knew everyone by name. Ron and Mike were manning the counter, as they've been doing for the past several decades, and they know almost all of their customers on a first-name basis.
Little City Market has 35 different sausage recipes, but while I was there, I watched them make only three:a traditional sweet Sicilian, the Stockton St. (with a pinch of Anchor Steam), and a polenta sausage.
The day of my lesson, Ron and Mike jumped right into things, starting by pulling out a huge slab of pork butt shoulder (shoulder blade) from the walk-in. Mike sliced the shoulder up into smaller chunks and cut off excess fat. He then moved over to the meat grinder and put the cuts through twice, careful not to grind too much so the ground texture stays intact.
They then put the meat into a large plastic bin and mixed the ingredients vigorously by hand, throwing in a little white wine, herbs, and spices. Their measurements very exact, down to the milligram. These sausage vets worked seamlessly as I watched, anticipating each other’s moves as they measured salt, pepper, fennel seed, and other spices for a 30-lb. batch of sausage. Ron later related, “It’s easy to make great sausage, but it’s very difficult to consistently make great sausages over many years."
After the sausage was thoroughly mixed Mike and Ron put the filling into a sausage casing stuffer, a hand-cranked machine. The meat filled the long tube and was pushed out onto a long wooden table. Ron worked fast as he chatted with me about his old camera gear and Giants games, all the while pinching and tying the sausages with an overhand knot. Before long we had a 30-lb. stack of sausages sitting before us.
At the end of the day, the Spinalis sent me home with a few varieties of fresh sausages, with instructions to keep them refrigerated for the next 24 hours and then dig in. A day later, I put them on the grill and let them slowly cook over a medium heat for 20 minutes without moving them much. They came out super juicy and fresh tasting, with the spices popping on my taste buds, and lots of texture inside. I think I’ve found my favorite handmade sausage in the city.
Want to buy handmade sausage in SF? Try Little City Market, Falleti Foods, Avedano’s, Guerra’s, or Drewes Meats.
Want to make your own sausage? Try these recipes, from Wedliny Domowe. And here are some details I picked up along the way while learning how to make my own sausage.
Prior to making the sausage, make sure your equipment is cold. Grind your chosen meat (it’s good to have a meat/fat ratio of about 80/20) and make sure you don’t grind it too fine. Add spices, choose a liquid binder (water, wine, fruit juice, cream, beer), mix all together. Run through stuffer to fill casings and then pinch and tie off with overhand knot in the lengths you choose.
Then refrigerate for 24 hours or so.
Get creative with your ingredients – dried fruits, game animals, curry, spinach, cilantro, really anything you want to dry in a sausage can be added, and who knows you may invent the next big foodie “thing” for SF. Veggies can get in on this too by using polenta and a collagen casing.