Homemade Sopressatta, A Tradition Filled With Love

ISDA Member Anthony J. Colega shares a beautiful story about a special tradition.

This article is written by Anthony J. Colega.


Note: This article (edited slightly) originally appeared in the ISDA Unione in March 2014.  It involves a sopressata-making party at Leon Panella’s house.  Unfortunately, Leon passed away on October 10, 2015.  This article is now posted to the ISDA website in Leon’s memory.

Remember the old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial from the 1980’s when Fred the baker drags himself out of bed every morning and says, “Time to make the donuts” in a trance-like manner and walks to work almost like a zombie?  Well, on Saturday, January 11, 2014 for me, it was time to make the sopressata!  Now, I didn’t have to drag myself out of bed like Fred the baker and walk off like a zombie.  I leapt out of bed as soon as the alarm clock went off at 7 AM with all the glee and anticipation like that of a child waking up on the day that they are to go to an amusement park. (NOTE:  Since I am a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts [ACE], a group whose members try to ride as many roller coasters in as many different parks as possible, I still leap out of bed with glee on a day that I am to go to an amusement park, but that is another story for another article!)  My wife Cheryl and I were planning to leave our house at 9AM so that we would arrive at Leon Panella’s house in Prospect, PA by 10AM for Leon’s 13th annual “sopressata-making party.”

Now, how did I come to get involved in this adventure? Let’s turn the clock back to Thursday, January 26, 2012. I was reading that day’s edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where the front-page story of the Food & Flavor section had a headline that read: “When it’s cold, we make sausage.” Right under that headline was a huge color photograph of Salvatore Merante (more about him later) holding a freshly made sopressata. Under the picture, it read: “Local Italians gather to preserve meat as well as traditions from the Old Country,” followed by an article written by Gretchen McKay. As I started to read this article, it mentioned that this sopressata production takes place in Leon Panella’s garage in Prospect, PA. There is also an accompanying video of the event and you are invited to go to the post-gazette’s website to view it. (Maybe you’ve already read this article or saw this video like I did.) As I started watching the video, I recognized Leon as someone that I met at a Duquesne University alumni event in 2010. Leon and I both attended the Duquesne University School of Pharmacy, although many years apart. I was so enthralled with this article & video, that I sent it out via email to all my Italian friends and relatives. In February of 2013, I sent Leon an email asking him what the date was for the sopressata party for that year.  Unfortunately, I was about one month too late as it had just taken place that January. Leon did give me the date for the 2014 event and I quickly wrote that on my calendar (an entire year in advance!). On December 14, 2013, Leon sent me the following message: “Sat Jan 11th 2014, the day we make sopressata, start 10 AM, some of the best Italian food around 2 PM, lots of wine, bread, & cheese. Come on up, love having you and your wife. Bring your favorite wine and an Italian dish of some kind. Also, bring an apron. Tons of fun, lots of Italians.” So, there it was. I had my “official” invitation to this event that I first read about in 2012, and now I was going to be a part of the “action.”  (Note: If you didn’t read the Post-Gazette article, maybe you saw the WQED television show, Memories from the Table. One section of this program shows Leon’s sopressata- making party from 2013.)

Now, before I get into the specifics of the day, let me stop here and explain what sopressata is (to the two or three people reading this who may not know). Sopressata is a dry-cured Italian sausage made from pork. The casing can either be synthetic or natural. A natural casing is cow intestine. It is stuffed with coarsely ground pork along with salt, pepper, and other seasonings. Different people make sopressata differently. Some sopressatas end up looking like salami, others look more like dried sausage. For me, my late Great* Aunt Teresa D’Amico’s sopressata was the best that I ever tasted.  (*I mean “great” in both senses of the word.)  It was always a treat to go to her house to visit, knowing that at some point she would bring out the sopressata she had made for us to enjoy. I have never tasted any sopressata better than my Aunt Teresa’s. For me, Aunt Theresa’s sopressata is the “gold standard by which all others shall be measured.” Since Aunt Teresa passed away in 1987, I have tasted numerous other sopressatas…some store bought, and some homemade. While some have tasted very good, none have ever matched the taste and quality of hers. When you buy sopressata in the store, sometimes you have a choice of hot or mild. With Aunt Teresa, there was only one choice…hot!

So, at 9 AM, my wife, Cheryl, and I got into our car armed with a bottle of Chianti and a crock-pot full of delicious greens & beans that Cheryl had made the night before to be shared at the 2 PM “feast.” The weather was on our side as the forecast called for highs in the upper 40’s/lower 50’s. This was a blessing considering that on Tuesday of the previous week, we Pittsburghers had to deal with temperatures of -10 degrees with brutally cold wind-chill factors. By now, though, all the snow on the ground in Pittsburgh had melted. However, after we exited Interstate 79 at the Portersville/Prospect exit, we started to notice that there was still a considerable amount of snow on the ground as we drove the 6 miles from Interstate 79 to Leon’s house. Having never been to his house before, I drove slowly as we were getting closer so that we wouldn’t miss it. It was easy to pick out Leon’s house as soon as we saw the large number of cars parked in and alongside the driveway. At this point, it was raining.  So, with umbrella, crock-pot, apron and wine in hand, we carefully trod up the still icy driveway to the porch. Along the way, we passed instructional signs Leon had put out such as “No parking past this point” and “Enter through front door only”. The number of cars (some of which had New York or New Jersey license plates), and all this signage told me that this was a major operation that we were about to encounter. I knew from reading the Post-Gazette article and watching the videos that the sopressata-making took place in the garage. So, as we walked past the garage and noticed the steamed-up windows, I knew that was where I was going to be spending my morning.

After entering Leon’s beautiful log home, Cheryl retreated to the kitchen with the women while I donned my apron and headed towards the garage. As I opened the door and stepped inside, I could see that the garage was already a hubbub of activity. It was almost like Dorothy arriving in Oz and throwing open the door of her black & white world of Kansas to the Technicolor world of Oz. I go up to greet Leon and he gives me a big, hearty welcome and invites me to try “some of the best Anisette you’ll ever taste.” After I taste it, I 100% agree with Leon! Also on the table with the Meletti Anisette bottle are numerous bottles of wine (some homemade) for us men to enjoy as we toil in the garage. I ask Leon where he wants me to work and he tells me to just jump in somewhere. There were already about 20 men in the garage all performing a variety of functions. Along the right wall were three “stuffing stations,” each staffed by five men. There were large tubs of ground, seasoned pork at each station waiting to be turned into sopressata. Leon uses a combination of pork loin and pork butt. Earlier in the week, another crew had ground the meat, added the other ingredients (cayenne pepper, paprika, roasted red peppers, wine, and salt), and mixed them all uniformly. Each of these stations had an electric meat grinder/sausage stuffer.  Each man had his own task: One to turn the machine off & on, one to load the meat into the hopper, one to place the casing over the stuffing horn, one to hold the casing as the machine pushes the meat into it, one to tie both ends of the freshly made sopressata with string, and one to cut the casing. After the sopressata has been made, another worker (me) transfers the sopressata to a tub on another table in the middle of the garage where yet another worker pricks numerous tiny holes in the sopressata so that the moisture can drip out. After the holes have been made in the sopressata, another worker loads the sopressata into a hollow tube (another one of my jobs) while another worker is at the other end of the tube to pull the “Jet pack” netting over the outside of the sopressata. The sopressata is now finished and is placed in a box with the rest of the “finished product” and then carried to another table in the garage.

At mid-morning, Leon’s wife, Karen, brings out a tray of last year’s sopressata (thinly sliced) along with cheese and focaccia bread. Each of us workers pause from our assigned tasks to enjoy this mid-morning snack and have a little more wine. The taste of the sopressata from last year provides us with edible proof of what we can all look forward to when we eat the sopressata in a few months that we are making today.

So, who are all these men working in Leon’s garage making the sopressata? They are friends, friends of friends, and Leon’s fraternity brothers from Alpha Phi Delta. This is an Italian fraternity that Leon joined while he was attending Duquesne University. Leon remained very active in his fraternity his entire life. So, besides some of his “brothers” that he went to school with at Duquesne, there are some much younger recent graduates and students working in the garage today alongside their older “brothers” from Alpha Phi Delta. You can tell Leon has a strong love for Duquesne University as evidenced by the Duquesne University flag, a picture of the Duquesne University ring and a Duquesne University license plate hanging along the inside wall of Leon’s garage. Another yearly ritual for Leon was to march with his fraternity brothers from Alpha Phi Delta in the Columbus Day parade in the Bloomfield section of the city of Pittsburgh.

There is another man working in the sopressata production in Leon’s garage that immediately draws your attention. That would be 83-year-old Salvatore Merante, a member of ISDA Brookline lodge, and friends with Leon since the mid 1960’s.  Sal is easily recognizable since he is the only one wearing a hat (a fedora). The other distinctive feature about Sal is his huge, white, handlebar mustache. Sal has won “best mustache” awards in Pittsburgh and has the plaques at his house to prove it. If you have been to any Italian heritage event in and around Pittsburgh, I know that you have seen Sal. You can find him at Italian Day at Kennywood Park, Little Italy Days in Bloomfield, the Columbus Day Parade (carrying the Italian flag), the St. Anthony Festa in the Strip District, etc., etc., etc. Besides his mustache, the other thing that sets Sal out from the crowd is his style of dress. The perfect word to describe Sal is “dapper.” No matter how hot the weather is, Sal will always be wearing a nicely tailored suit, shirt and tie and dress shoes. If the weather is really hot, Sal might take his sport coat off and carry it over his shoulder as he walks around. But besides his remarkable physical characteristics, SAL KNOWS SAUSAGE! Knowing that some of the gentlemen helping in Leon’s garage are professors from Duquesne University, Sal likes to call himself the “Professor of Sausage.” Sal is known to many as “Uncle Sal.” If you have ever been to Groceria Merante in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh or Merante Brothers Market in Canonsburg, PA, you found his famous “Uncle Sal’s sausage” for sale there. It is Sal’s recipe for sopressata that Leon is following today.

Stuffing the casings with the proper amount of filling is an art. You want the casing to be filled nice and tight so that the sopressata is nice and firm, however, too much meat and you will burst the casing. On the other hand, you do not want to stuff the casing too loosely, ending up with a limp, floppy, sopressata. Sal knows exactly how to “eyeball” how much meat to stuff into the casing. As Sal returns from a break, he passes by the other two stuffing stations and stops to offer constructive criticism as he notices some of the less experienced workers having difficulty in getting the casings stuffed just right. After a quick lesson from the “Professor of Sausage”, the problems are solved!

At about 1 PM, we have now finished the sopressata production. Our total? 600 pounds of sopressata have been produced this morning! A new record for Leon’s sopressata-making party! Is Leon going to keep all this for himself? Oh, no. All the men who helped make the sopressata this morning are now getting boxes ready to transport home their share of the sopressata (after a little monetary transaction takes place). Some men are taking huge amounts home with them; others are taking more modest amounts. Leon has a very strict rule about who gets to take the sopressata home with them. If you didn’t help to make it, you don’t get any! The sopressata that Leon is keeping for himself is taken down to his basement and hung from hooks to dry for 6 to 8 weeks. The garage and production equipment are quickly cleaned up, and everyone now enters the main area of the house to get ready for the “feast.” After spending the entire morning in the somewhat chilly garage (you don’t want the meat to spoil with a garage that is too hot), I head over to the large stone fireplace where a big roaring fire helps to take the chill off.   Before long, Leon’s wife Karen summons us into the kitchen area where all the food that everyone has brought is laid out buffet-style. Karen leads us all in saying grace and she then utters the magic word that we have been waiting to hear, “Mangia!”

After enjoying this delicious meal, everyone starts to get ready to depart and go their separate ways. As my wife and I drive back to Pittsburgh, I realize that there was a lot of love present at Leon’s house today. Love for good food, love for good friends, love for our Italian heritage, love for God, love for family, & love for Duquesne University. Was it “work” to produce 600 pounds of sopressata this morning? No, it was a labor of love that I will never forget!

Anthony J. Colega is the financial secretary of the Giosue Carducci Lodge #66.

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