This weekend's German American Fest will be one hell of a sausage party, but why stop there when your stomach can travel the world?
When thousands of revelers converge upon a single block of Leland Avenue this weekend for Lincoln Square's German American Fest, they'll grip their plastic steins of beer in one hand and shove traditional German sausages in their faces with the other. But if your stomach is into exploring, why stop with Germany? We traveled the world via Chicago for the best stuffed stuff around.
George Nottoli learned how to trim meat when he was ten years old. While other kids were out playing stickball, he was working under the watchful eye of his father in Nottoli & Sons Sausage Shop (7652 W Belmont Ave between Overhill and Ottawa Aves, 773-589-1010), his family's butcher store just off the Italian-dominated strip of Harlem Avenue. And while plenty of other butchers simply unwrap their meat and throw it in the grinder, Nottoli continues meticulously trimming the shoulders ("the Cadillac of meat," as he calls it) that go into his Italian sausage. His philosophy is simple: "I basically want the sausage made as if I'm going to be eating it," he says. Because, after all, he does.
People have been eating Nottoli & Sons sausage since his grandfather immigrated to the States from Italy in the '40s. They were first sold from his grandfather's cart as he peddled his way around Chicago, but the sausages caught on quick. In 1950, the first Nottoli & Sons store opened on Chicago Avenue in Humboldt Park. The sausage makers couldn't have known then that a more appropriate name would have been Nottoli & Son & Grandson.
Or maybe they could. "There was no getting out of it," Nottoli jokes about his taking over the business. Not that he'd feel comfortable selling the family secrets. All we could get out of him regarding recipes is that the pork is mixed with fennel, salt, pepper and other "secret ingredients" before it's stuffed into an all-natural casing. But while he's mum on the details—the spices that go into his garlicky northern Italian sausage and extra-spicy "triple-X" sausage are kept under wraps, too—he's not above making Nottoli a household name. He just made a 64-foot-11-inch-long Italian sausage, which will go into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006. And he trimmed every ounce of meat that went into it.
Harry Vizethum will make 20,000 brats for this weekend's German American Fest.
We repeat: 20,000 brats.
And that's in addition to 10,000 Thuringer links, 1,000 pounds of leberkase (German meatloaf) and 250 pounds of German potato salad he and his staff at the Black Forest Market (8840 N Waukegan Rd, Morton Grove, 847-965-3113) will prepare.
"That's why they use me," he says of his eight-year relationship with the fest. "We do everything by hand. Hand-linked, hand-cooked—I don't have them frozen."
That would explain why the week before the fest is extremely hectic for Black Forest. While preparing the order, Vizethum also runs his deli—specializing in German meats and groceries, as well as your everyday steaks and chops, since 1951—and the adjoining restaurant, a mecca of schnitzel and strudel.
To fulfill his commitment to the fest, Vizethum and his crew will work day and night to deliver the brats on time. The recipe they use came to Black Forest via a German sausage maker named Erich Crist. Crist retired about ten years ago, around the same time Vizethum took over the business from his uncle, but the brats—a combination of veal, pork, salt, pepper and various secret ingredients—remain the same. The workers will continue chopping, grinding, stuffing and linking throughout the weekend to make sure they have enough for their Saturday and Sunday shipments. It's tough, but it's the reason the brats are so good: They're only hours old.
For Vizethum, having his brats served at the fest is just as much about feeding his fans as it is about making new ones. As the Morton Grove neighborhood he's in becomes less and less German, he notices his clientele is made up of a lot of the elderly hangers-on. He wants a new generation to understand a good brat. Or, as he puts it: "We're trying to get young people involved in the brat and beer technology." Sounds like the Lincoln Square blowout is a perfect opportunity.
The German American Fest is on Leland Ave between Lincoln and Western Aves Fri 9 5–11pm; Sat 10 noon–11pm; Sun 11 noon–10pm.
Armando Leon has a theory about chorizo, the spicy fresh pork sausage that's a staple in the Mexican community. "When my dad moved to the U.S. and he started working with the Chicago grocery chain Jimenez, he told me this story about the origins of the names of sausages," Leon recalls. "According to my father, the Americans themselves came up with the names 'chorizo' and 'longaniza"—chorizo for the small links and longaniza for the long links. Really, they should be known simply as Mexican sausage, but the terminology has seeped into Mexican culture, and so that's what it is now."
But what Leon knows isn't borrowed from Americans is the recipe used for the 750 pounds of sausage he churns out weekly for customers at Chicago Produce (3500 W Lawrence Ave at St. Louis Ave, 773-478-4325). His family recipe dates back 30 years to gatherings in his native Michoacan, Mexico. He claims that other places use waste in their sausage, but is adamant that he would never use anything other than a 75/25 ratio of pork to fat. To that he adds a combination of smoky guajillo chiles, green chiles, clove, pepper, oregano, salt and vinegar. Leon claims that half of his customers buy chorizo for grilling, and they hang them for three or four days before cooking them to let some of the fat drain and to concentrate the flavors. Others purchase fresh longaniza that can be sautéed with eggs, potatoes or beans and eaten with tortillas.
"The difference between our sausage and elsewhere is that we have extreme care for hygiene," Leon says. "My family consumes this, and other families do, too, so they have to trust that they're buying the best."
When the Thai Buddhist Temple in Bridgeview has a party, it calls Kritsana Moungkeow. No, she's not some hot DJ with a crate full of house beats—she's the owner of Sticky Rice (4018 N Western Ave between Irving Park Rd and Cuyler Ave, 773-588-0133), the northern Thai restaurant whose sai ua (sausage) is considered the best in town.
Moungkeow grew up eating the northern-style sausage in Thailand, and when she craved it here in the States, she devised her own recipe after a few batches of trial and error. The base of ground pork and pork skin gets an all-out assault of flavor from liberal doses of lemongrass, galanga (a relative of ginger), shallots, garlic, hot chile pepper, cilantro, fish sauce, sugar, turmeric powder, salt, red curry paste and kafir-lime leaves. Moungkeow then stuffs the mix into natural casings, drops them in vegetable oil until they're blistered, and serves them with fresh ginger and peanuts. The process takes about five hours, and her loyal sausage-crazed clientele goes through a 15-pound batch every two days, which means Moungkeow is back at it a few times a week.
It's the uniquely Thai marriage of sweet, salty, spicy and bitter flavors that make the sai ua memorable. But what prompts a group of 300 partyers to request Moungkeow's version above others? "I'm not really sure why," she answers modestly. "Maybe it's because I don't use MSG or because I make it in smaller batches so that it always tastes fresh. But for some reason, people always tell me mine is the best."
Roman Golaszewski brought three generations of Polish sausage making with him when he came to the States eight years ago. Both his grandfather and father were butchers, with sausage recipes galore. Add to that four years studying what Golaszewski calls "the business of meat" at culinary school in Bialystok, Poland, and you've got a guy who knows his stuff.
Since he immigrated, he's been at the helm of Szymanski's Deli (6016 W Irving Park Rd between Austin and McVicker Aves, 773-202-0886), where for 15 years relocated Poland natives have lined up for a taste of home. Golaszewski makes 15 different types of kielbasa, the smoked sausage for which Poland is revered, and sells roughly 3,000 pounds a week. The various types and distinguishing characteristics can get confusing, but not for Golaszewski, who knows the recipes by heart. Among them there's wiejska, a garlicky, lean, all-pork variety; swojska, made up of 20 percent beef, 80 percent pork and smoked on hickory; and "wedding sausage," the all-pork best-seller that gets smoked over cherry wood and gets its name from the tradition to buy the best available for wedding celebrations.
Every batch of kielbasa is made to Golaszewski's specifications. He's also in charge of the smokehouse where the links pick up their trademark flavor. After all, he's the one with a head full of heritage, following a calling that he says he "was born to do."