The Food Chain's Missing Link
335 University Ave. E., St. Paul; 224-1816
215 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 379-3018
211 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 222-3476
Delmonico's Italian Foods
1112 Summer St. N.E., Mpls.; 331-5466
The scene: a South Minneapolis yard, a lush lawn, elm trees arcing overhead, the smell of sweet barbecue smoke mingling with the breeze. One of those rare perfect summer nights. The players: Italian sausage selections from four of the Twin Cities' premiere sausage establishments, namely Cossetta's, Buon Giorno, Kramarczuk, and Delmonico's. The contest: to pit sausage against sausage in a fiery battle; that is, to determine who makes the very best Italian sausage in the Twin Cities. The methodology: a portion of each sausage was grilled at the same time, and transferred, unlabeled and unidentified, to a serving plate. The tasting panel (four adults and one 6-year-old girl) sampled each in complete silence, scribbling their comments on slips of paper. After all sausages were tasted and tested, a sausage debate--with notes waving, passions high--determined the winner. In short, an Italian sausage Olympics conducted in as objective and scientific a manner as possible--or as close as one could come on a perfect summer night with an icebox full of beer.
The impetus for this experiment was two-fold. First, whenever I work on the editors' choices for our annual "Best of the Twin Cities" issue, I'm plagued with second-guesses. Yes, I'm entirely certain that Madame X makes the very best chocolate mousse, but I always wish I could time-travel back to every single mousse experience I've had over the years to assure utter objectivity and completeness. Second, I just like sausages. They're ugly little piles of cast-off parts, embroidered with herbs and spices and years of know-how. They remind me of quilts--rags turned to riches through ingenuity, though not half as picturesque.
Frankly, they're ugly: lumpen, fleshy, stuffed into intestines or things that resemble intestines. To tolerate sausages you've got to have a strong stomach, an expansive imagination, or a love of the cuisine of regions traditionally loath to throw any food away, like southern Italy, where they've developed some of the most interesting sausages in the world. Fresh (preserved through neither cooking, drying, nor smoking) Italian sausage is a nice compromise between the Midwest and Italy--our balmy backyards with their flavors.
But who makes the best? Knowing that Italian sausage depends on the play between the earthy meat (traditionally pork); the sweet high notes of fennel and herbs; the bright points of heat from garlic, chili peppers, and peppercorns; the hand of the maker (overworking meat can make it tough); the quality of the ingredients; and the personal tastes of the sausage-eater, I tried to find out.
Cossetta's has nothing to prove. As a St. Paul institution with a devoted following they are confident in their abilities and recipes, and so they only make one variety of sausage, which you can get in casings or loose. It grills up well, and looks pretty on the grill in its long, tight coil. It's a light, smooth sausage, and definitely the most herb-filled of those tasted. Oregano, basil, fennel, garlic, peppers, and possibly celery seed make this fine-ground sausage delicate, even genteel. (Never ask a sausage maker for the details of the recipe. It's like asking an angler about his favorite fishing spot: You get either lies, evasions, or "I'll tell you, but then I'll have to kill you.") Cossetta's is a perfect sausage for serving with a pesto or stuffing into a white lasagna, but grilled on its own it seemed a bit week-kneed, and didn't stand up for itself.
Delmonico's is a family-run Italian market staffed by the Delmonico brothers--two of the sweetest men you'll ever meet--hidden away on a charming little park in Northeast Minneapolis. They make two sorts of sausage: hot and sweet. Theirs is a sausage with a high beef content, which makes it slightly drier and mealier than the other sausages that had a higher pork percentage. Roundly spicy and peppery, these sausages were distinct for their deep mellowness and subtle strength. If Delmonico's sausages had a voice it would be raspy and straight-shooting. Said one panelist: "This is my dad's sausage. It's like a long, spicy burger." Unfortunately, I felt these lacked lightness and zing, and more than any other sausage called out for lots of sauce and peppers (which I provided after the initial tasting). By the way, all the places listed here also sell good homemade tomato sauce, rolls, or bread, and other distinctive treats. Delmonico's is notable for their extraordinary hot or sweet pickled peppers.
It might seem odd to include Eastern European Kramarczuk in an Italian sausage contest, but I think they make some of the best sausage in the country, and so it's only fair to compare their Italian to others' Italian. They make two sorts, a smoked and a fresh. The first is a magnificent beast, smoked a golden brown, ground silky smooth, meltingly soft, fine, delicate, and plump, but not fatty. The fresh Italian was similar, but slightly coarser, sold in great big links, and sweeter, lighter, and fluffier from the lack of smoking. The two Kramarczuk sausages were far and away the top choice of the 6-year-old, who responded, I think, to the overall mellowness and the lack of visible spice or differences from bite to bite. Kramarczuk's smoked Italian would be my choice for simultaneous chef and unadventurous-crowd pleasing. It is, however, in texture and lack of distinct herbs and spices more like a German sausage than an Italian--it's also the only sausage reviewed here that wouldn't seem weird covered with mustard and sauerkraut, which is why it doesn't get my final vote for best Italian sausage overall: I think Italian sausage should be rustic, the individual spices should be recognizable, and the sausage should stand up and throw some punches of its own. It should be feisty.
Which brings us to Buon Giorno. Buon Giorno is an Italian market and deli nestled in the shadow of 35E on University Avenue, and it's a treat in every way. They have marvelous bread, cheeses, and a variety of smoked and fresh meats, and they also, shockingly, have a great number of Italian wines and liqueurs, as well as other wines, beer, liquor, and soda--making it an anomaly in our land of puritanical liquor laws. We sampled two of Buon Giorno's sausages, the sweet and the Sicilian, which is hot.
Buon Giorno's are the coarsest sausages; if you cut them open you see chunks of meat, tiny pieces of fat, and big specks of seasoning. Since the filling is not minutely minced, different bites reveal different notes of flavor, the fennel strong in one, garlic strong in another. This rustic coarseness made it seem the most handmade, and Buon Giorno's are the sausages that would stand up best to a plate of plain pasta with olive oil, for they were fierce little individuals when naked on a plate.
Buon Giorno's Sicilian was by far the hottest of all the sausages tried--as one of my panelists put it, "I feel like the whole boot of Italy is in my mouth," which I don't think she meant in a good way. For my money a hot sausage should stand up alone, or against a whole mound of fried peppers, tomato sauce, and cheese, which Buon Giorno's does, making it the ideal sub-sandwich sausage as well. I think that sausage should be like one of those throwback ditties we all know--like, say, "Ring Around the Rosie"--harmonious, embraceable, yet also slightly mysterious and incomprehensible, suggesting, above all, human effort and handiwork. Buon Giorno, to my mind, is the last word in sausage, and their coarse, feisty, spicy links capture the crown.
Of course, off-paper I rarely get to have the last word. On the night of the great sausage tasting I didn't; the debate raged into the night, and the Cossetta and Kramarczuk partisans became quite fierce. Further, I don't doubt that there's some Delmonico's lover out there quivering with outrage. Carrying out a taste test of sausages is fun--though logistically difficult--and a lot more family friendly and affordable than an evening of single-malt Scotch tasting. (All sausages here cost less than $4 a pound; a pound generally is four brat-sized links.) And above all it's a memorable way to make use of a summer night, a grill, and dreams of Italy.
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