Alameda’s Sausage People Create Links to Italian Heritage
The concrete birdbath is the first clue that you’re probably at the right place. Rising from the center of the water-filled bowl and providing a good perch for diving in and drying off is—you’ll never guess, so I’ll come right out and tell you—a concrete pig. Two more pigs, these ones larger, do sentry duty from opposite sides of the short staircase that leads to the front door. This is the home of Frank Filice and Marilyn Schlagel, becoming known Island-wide for their Italian-style prosciutto, coppa and sausage-making classes, dinners and team-building affairs. Proof of their growing fan base came when they were at Oakland International Airport recently. About to board a plane, they were accosted by a hearty: “Hey! You’re the sausage people from Alameda!”
Indeed. They’re also the couple who met online 10 years ago, not on a dating site, but (20 guesses?) playing cribbage. And they’re the couple who manage to harvest 200 pounds of vegetables and herbs a year from their 20-by-15-foot backyard veggie garden. “We eat from it year-round,” says Schlagel.
Back to the pigs. There’s a veritable invasion of them in Filice and Schlagel’s Craftsman-style home, ranging from porkers with wings to piggybanks and a porcine clock. They’re artfully placed, so as not to be intrusive. And they all point to the real thing; that is, the well-seasoned pork shoulder that Filice is feeding into the grinding machine in the kitchen of the backyard granny cottage that was key to the couple buying this particular property four years ago. They saw it as the perfect place for the sausage-making parties—these days followed by a hearty Italian meal—that have been Filice’s trademark since his student days at Chico State in the ’70s.
It was only this year that he succumbed to arm-twisting from friends who encouraged him to schedule formal classes and demonstrations. He and Schlagel named their artisan weekend business Traditions in honor of the Italian immigrant grandfather who gave Filice his first lesson in sausage making at the age of 6. It was from this grandfather that he inherited his passion for making sausage and Italian cured meats—and also the equipment the old man used to laboriously turn out 900 pounds of sausage a year.
In those days, the family raised the hogs and butchered them on the farm near Gilroy where Filice was born and raised. “He’d hang the ropes of sausage from nails hammered into the rafters in the barn,” recalls Filice, who these days buys his cuts ready to season with one of his several blends of spices. “I like pepper in the sausage. It gives your mouth real excitement,” he says as he adds a tad more.
Once the meat is marinated and ground, he hand-cranks his grandfather’s Enterprise sausage and fruit press, which dates back to the 1930s, forcing the chunky ribbons of pork (“you need about 30 percent fat”) into casings of hog intestines that, preserved in salt in the plastic containers they come in, look like homemade pasta. “This is the one thing that makes some people squeamish,” says Filice, whose classes are hands-on and sometimes include couples, “which can be fun to watch—how they do, or don’t, work together!”
After his aproned students have tied the strands of sausage into links, he demonstrates the curing process. In brief, use enough salt to float a ship plus a sprinkling of sodium nitrate; pack it around the joint and refrigerate for seven days; wash with wine vinegar; then hang for four months. This recipe has created the platefuls of thinly sliced coppa, from the neck of the pig, and prosciutto, from the picnic shoulder, that students are invited to chew on. (He shows and tells using a large laminated card that deconstructs a pig into butcher terminology.)
“The art of sausage making and curing meats the traditional way has largely disappeared from small Italian villages,” says Filice. “Immigrants like my grandfather took that era with them when they left Italy. Over time, things have evolved in new ways.” Alameda’s significant Italian heritage supports an evolutionary preservation of tradition right here.
In his day job, Filice is manager for capital planning with San Francisco’s Department of Public Works. “That’s what I do,” he says. “And this is who I am.” He manages to integrate his business and organizational background with his passion in sausage-making team-building classes. “Getting people working together around food is a great learning tool,” he explains.
Filice and Schlagel’s pig passion brings to mind the joke about the egg-and-ham breakfast where, to paraphrase the gag, the egg was involved and the pig was committed. Like many in Alameda, they were involved in living the principles and philosophies of the Slow Food movement long before the name was coined. Joining Slow Food Alameda at its inception and keeping alive the artisan sausage tradition confirms their commitment.
For more information on Frank Filice and Marilyn Schlagel’s Sunday dinner, demonstration and sausage-production classes and team-building events, e-mail traditions. firstname.lastname@example.org or call (510) 814-1878.
—By Wanda Hennig
—Photography by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover Photography