Tricks for Making a Better Italian Sausage Sandwich
"You want a sassidge sangwitch? I'll give you a sassidge sangwitch."
Tony Soprano, grabbing his crotch, outside Satirale's Pork Store in New Jersey
I never got inside Satriale's Pork Store, but then I guess nobody other than the cast of the Soprano's ever made it there either. And some never made it out. But if you look at the window of the famous fictional New Jersey butcher shop while the boys were sitting out front, there's a huge neon pig pushing the Italian Sausage.
In Italy there are many many salsiccia and salame, and each region has its specialties. The most famous are Genoa salami, mortadella, cotechino, and soppressata. Interestingly, there is no bologna sausage in Italy, the local sausage in the town of Bologna is mortadella. There is most definitely no such thing called "Italian Sausage".
But the term "Italian Sausage" has emerged in the US, and it has a specific flavor profile. Called sosizza in the language of the mean streets, restaurants, and in Italian-American kitchens, it is a thick tube of coarsely ground pork sausage in natural casings made from pork intestines, usually 15-25% fat, with a distinctive flavor from fennel seed. It is sold raw by butchers, not cured or smoked, and it can be bought in 5 to 6" links, in coiled ropes, or loose like burger meat. It comes in three flavors, sweet, mild, and hot. The main difference is the amount of hot pepper added, although some of the sweet blends include basil, and the heat and other seasonings vary significantly from butcher to butcher.
Italian Sausage is a versatile ingredient and it commonly shows up on pizza, in red sauce with mostaccioli, in bean soups, and in bread stuffings. But it is in its greatest glory in sangwitches with peppers and onions on a soft spongy roll dripping with olive oil.
It has grown in popularity in recent years, spreading citywide in towns with substantial Italian-American populations like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. In 1895 G. Pasquinelli started making it in Pittsburgh, and within a few years founded the now defunct Italian Sausage Company. There are a few national brands like Johnsonville but I have not been impressed by any of them.
The origin of the recipe is uncertain, but Judy Witts Francini, a cookbook author, teacher, and culinary tour guide based in Italy, tells me that there is something similar in Sicily, which makes sense since Southern Italy is where most Italian-American immigrants originated.
Here in Chicago, Italian Sausage Sandwiches are sold in hundreds of restaurants. The Italian Beef stand is common, a local tradition specializing on Italian Beef and Sassidge Sangwitches (as the locals pronounce it). Many of the countless hot dog stands sell them, too. A popular version is the Combo, where the sausage is nestled in with Italian Beef on a wet roll.
The classic Italian Sausage Sandwich is grilled and topped with griddle fried onions and sweet peppers, and often anointed with giardiniera, a spicy hot blend of chopped hot peppers, carrots, cauliflower, celery, olives, herbs, salt and pepper, all packed in oil and/or vinegar. Some places offer it with a marinara sauce and melted mozzarella.
Raw sausages freeze well for a month or two, but can get funky after much longer. You can cook Italian Sausage links in a frying pan or in the oven, but the best flavors come on the grill. The trick is to cook them over medium to medium high heat, in the 325°F to 350°F range. Any hotter and the skin splits easily. When the skin splits, the insides can spill out and the fats drip on the fire causing flareups and soot deposits on the meat. Another trick is to let the sausages sit at room temp for about 15 minutes so the skin warms a bit.
For an off the wall variation on the theme, try my inside-out Italian Sausage Bomb, a meatloaf made from Italian Sausage and stuffed inside with the usual toppings.
The Classic Italian Sassidge Sangwitch
Makes. 4 sandwiches
Prep time. 30 minutes
Cooking time. 20 minutes
Eating time. Nothing flat.
Serve with. Italian red wine and sauteed bitter greens
4 links fresh Italian Sausage
2 green bell peppers
2 red bell peppers
2 large onions
4-6 tablespoons olive oil
4 (6" long) slices from a long skinny loaf of Italian bread or 2 oblong Italian bread rolls
Optional toppings. Spoon on some giardiniera (Scala's sells theirs online). If you wish, you can top it with marinara sauce, and/or shredded mozz, and melt it on indirect heat on the grill or under a broiler. But never use mustard.
About the olive oil. That's about twice as much as you think you need, but in Chicago they load up the sangwitch and make sure plenty of the oil gets on the bread and sausage. If there's any of tis flavorful elixir left, fry your eggs in it the next morning.
About the bread. Italian bread is a spongy high gluten loaf with a medium hard crust. You can cut it from a large loaf, or buy it in pre-formed rolls. In Chicago, Turano Bakery and Gonnella are the standards.
1) Take the sausages out of the fridge and let them sit at room temp for about 15 minutes so the skins warm a bit. This helps keep them from splitting, spilling their guts, and dumping oil on the fire causing flareups and soot on the food.
2) In Chicago, those in the know use a special breed of skinny, thin walled, sweet green variety called Melrose peppers, hard to find outside Cook County. But colorful bell peppers are commoin too. Split the peppers in half cutting through the stem. Pull out the stem and the seed pod. Rinse it inside and out. Cut lengthwise into 1/4" strips. Set aside. Slice the onion in half, pole to pole. Peel off the skin and the tough outer layer. Lay them on the cutting board cut side down and slice off the top and discard. Keep slicing across the layers making half moons working towards the root. Discard the root.
3) Heat the grill to medium high, about 325°F to 350°F, and leave the lid open. Put an 8 to 12" frying pan on the heat, add the olive oil, and swirl to cover the bottom. Add the peppers and onions. Stir to coat with oil.
Note. You can grill the peppers and onions if you wish, and that's how I usually do it, although it is not exactly traditional. You can cook the peppers and onions a day in advance, indoors if you wish, and just warm them before serving.
4) The sausages are usually pretty curved. Bend them gently to try and straighten them slightly. Lay them on the grill between the rungs of the grate. I know this seems weird, usually you lay the across the grates. But if you lay them between the rungs, you can roll them from rung to rung, making a 1/4 turn each roll, and get each side nice and dark brown with some dark grill marks, and you won't burn them. The stripes will look goofy running lengthwise, but nobody will argue with the results. Cook with the lid open so you can watch them to prevent burning. Do not poke them to drain the fat! This just dries them out and causes flareups and soot. If you are so concerned about the few extra calories, then grill yourself a carrot. They must cook until they are 160°F in the center to be safe. There should be no pink. If you cook them longer they can dry out. Usually they are well cooked after 2 or 3 sides are browned.
5) While they are cooking, stir the peppers and onions and cook until wilted, slightly browned, but not burned. You can take them off and let them sit at room temp when they are done.
6) If you wish, you can split the buns and toast them. Most folks don't. Just nestle the sausage in, top liberally with sausage and onions, make sure some flavorful oil gets into the bread, and serve. Capiche?
This page was revised 5/18/2011
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