My Tribune column, on the Hill and its variations on Italian sausage, is here.
This is the story of how I found myself sitting in an idling car next to an abandoned warehouse in St. Louis. I’d come to the Hill for the good stuff, and now I was getting my fix. I kept an eye out for witnesses, pinching folds of thin-sliced Genoese salami into my mouth with my bare hands. I’m not sure why I felt like a junkie — after all, I’d paid for the salami, and as far as I’m aware, it’s legal to eat in your car — but the guilt was there.
Whatever it was, I might have relieved my cooler of the salami in that alley, but there were plenty of other goodies to have made its presence useful: a giant tin of hard-to-find cerignola olives, two pounds of caciocavallo cheese, a stick of sopressata and pounds and pounds of hot Italian sausage. I had been first nabbed by the sign outside DiGregorio’s on Daggett Street. “Best hot salsiccia on the Hill,” it read. Never one to shy from statements of culinary pre-eminence, I decided to test the claim. And then I did the same at Volpi Meats before completing the triumvirate with a pound from J. Viviano and Sons. By way of absolution, I decided, I’d prepare all three at home and determine which I liked best.
DiGregorio: Looks a little pale for a hot sausage. Cooked, it smells of fennel. … I taste a little pepper, plenty of fennel, but little or no heat. Texture’s somewhat on the tough side.
If you care about food, you are probably no stranger to the Hill, with its modest, one-story brick homes and immaculately tended front yards. The grass isn’t the only immaculate element; large Madonna figurines peek out from many of the porches. Italians, primarily those from northern Italy and Sicily, settled in this portion of St. Louis near the end of the 19th century. They found jobs in the nearby clay works and smelting operations. More to our interest, they also began to open Italian food shops, delis and grocery stores at the beginning of the 20th century.
J. Viviano and Sons: The only loose — uncased — variety, it seems a little pasty as I roll up a ball to cook … like it was mashed rather than properly ground. Mild scent, but a nice, deep flavor. Not much heat … could be used as breakfast sausage.
A fierce, insular sense of community developed among the Italians on the Hill. Even today, homes rarely come up for public sale, and many of the businesses are run by the same families who first opened their doors. Reportedly modeled after San Ambrogio Church in Milan, Italy, St. Ambrose Catholic Church remains a powerful, unifying institution in the neighborhood.
Volpi Meats: Firetruck red, this actually looks like a hot Italian sausage. No fennel on nose, this one does have some heat to it. Doesn’t overwhelm the very nice flavor, however. Pleasant, fine texture and snappy casing. Slightly more oily than others.
Each of my three samples of Italian sausage would do; they were all far better than most mass-produced varieties. It might just come down to personal preference. Those seeking a breakfast-style sausage might go for J. Viviano’s entry; the links from DiGrigorio’s would actually work with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. But for everyday pasta and Italian meat sauces, the sausage from Volpi Meats was my clear favorite. Now all you need is an excuse to get to St. Louis, a cooler and someone to serve as a lookout.
Scott Rowson lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at showmeeats.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.