Seriously Stuffed: Area sausage makers find art in their craft

For 50 years Manzo’s has made traditional Italian salsiccia from a recipe founders Pietro and Brigida Manzo brought in from Sicily. “The recipe hasn’t changed a bit,” said Pete Manzo, a member of the second generation of the south St. Louis sausage-making family. “I still mix the spices in small batches. I still make the meat in small batches.”

The sausage shop and wholesaler at the corner of Devonshire and Macklind in south St. Louis does a brisk business with its traditional salsiccia – an average of 4,000 pounds a month – but Manzo just can’t help tinkering in the kitchen. The 33-year-old goateed sausage maker, who joined older brother Paul in the business in 2001, enjoys inventing new sausage recipes for his friends. Last year he developed a Tuscan variety made with sun-dried tomatoes, Provolone and pepperoncini peppers. His friends enjoyed it so much, Manzo made up a batch for the Missouri Botanical Garden’s annual Best of Missouri Market. The Tuscan sausage was a hit. “It doubled the sales of anything else,” Manzo said. And thus the new variety joined the list of Manzo’s sausage standards.

This year, Manzo will be serving up samples of a new garlic-rosemary sausage at the Best of Missouri Market Oct. 1 and 2. The garlic-rosemary version is one of the 12 “sausages of the month” Manzo is offering as part of his company’s 50th anniversary celebration. Subscribers to his e-mail newsletter have the opportunity to order a different special sausage every month. Offerings so far have included a Provençal variety made with pistachios marinated in wine, a traditional Swedish potato breakfast sausage and a version made with kalamata olives and feta cheese.

The latter variety is not to be confused with Manzo’s Greek loukanika, one of the first new sausage flavors Pete Manzo added to the store’s lineup when the brothers started a wholesale business in 2002 to distribute the sausage products. The store already had a number of Greek customers, one of whom passed on to the brothers her recipe for the traditional Greek sausage made with garlic, wine and a hint of orange peel. “She was afraid she would die and no one would have the recipe,” Manzo said of the woman, who has since passed away. “She was very happy with what we did with it.”

Over the last five years sausage sales increased steadily along with the popularity of low-carb diets such as Atkins and South Beach, according to a 2005 study for the American Meat Institute. But while the low-carb craze seems to be waning, sausage sales haven’t slowed down, according to both Manzo and Janet Riley, president of the Hot Dog and Sausage Association of America. Riley said new sausage creations like Manzo’s fit with a trend her organization is seeing in consumer tastes for spicier, ethnic foods. “Consumers are looking for full flavor and convenience and sausages really fit that,” Riley said.

Bob Patton, the meat manager at Straub’s Market in the Central West End, and his staff makes about 250 pounds of sausage a week in nearly two dozen varieties. Flavors include a pickle, onion and mustard pork bratwurst he calls picklewurst and one with sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard he calls krautwurst. “We just try to come up with new stuff and see how it turns out,” said Patton, known as “the sausage guru.” He began experimenting with new recipes about a decade ago and added turkey and chicken varieties
more recently.

“I had a few little heart problems myself, so I started looking at leaner things,” said Patton, who has been making sausage for more than 25 years. “With people watching diets we’ve got about four turkey sausages, and we’ve expanded that into chicken – it’s all breast meat.”

Just about three miles south of Patton’s store, Gerhard Wanninger and his cousin Bob Wanninger are another second-generation set mixing up traditional family sausage recipes. The cousins operate G&W Sausage on Parker Avenue, tucked between car dealerships just east of Kingshighway. The pair began making an all-beef variety of Polish sausage last year after repeated requests from wholesalers and customers who don’t eat pork. In February, G&W began packaging its traditional German landjager sausage for sale as snacks in convenience stores to compete with beef jerky. Currently about 300 area stores including 7-Eleven, BP Amoco and Citgo carry the product.

About a decade ago a Soulard restaurateur asked G&W to come up with a Cajun andouille sausage. It was a hit. Today, the shop sells 1,000 pounds of andouille a month to just one distributor, as well as Mexican chorizo and Italian salsiccia. That’s in addition to 25 traditional Bavarian styles.

But not every local sausage maker feels the need to try new things. From the moment you catch sight of their shop at 4100 N. Florissant Ave. in north St. Louis, it’s obvious that the Piekutowski brothers are staying the course. The shop has changed little in the 75 years since their father inherited it from the original owner. (According to Piekutowski family lore, their father apprenticed for the original owner, who later jumped to his death from the Eads Bridge. The will bequeathing the shop to their father was written on butcher paper.) The brothers use the original 75-year-old stuffing machine and still smoke their sausages in built-in brick ovens in the back of the shop.

Ken and Ted Piekutowski continue to make their traditional Polish sausage and Krakow lunchmeat using their father’s recipes and note that it was good enough for Pope John Paul II when he visited St. Louis in 1999. They occasionally get requests for other types of ethnic sausage such as Mexican chorizo or Cajun andouille but have chosen to leave those varieties to others. The brothers are so comfortable with their traditions, that when Ken Piekutowski introduced a computer to help with record keeping, it was seen as wildly adventurous. “If it was up to him, we’d still have a rotary phone,” said Ken Piekutowski, gesturing toward his older brother.

Ted Piekutowski’s son, Ted Jr., and daughter, Connie, represent the third generation of the sausage-making family and have no plans to stray from the course set by their grandfather and father. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Ted Piekutowski Jr. “Customers come from all over to get our product.”