Gretchen McKay

This is Pittsburgh Food: Wholey’s Fish

Jim Wholey, right, greets a customer at Wholey's in the Strip District. Jim Wholey is one of four brothers who operate the business, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

For most Pittsburghers, some things are as sure as the sun rising each morning.

You root for the Steelers.

You don’t, unless you absolutely have to, cross rivers.

And you buy your seafood at Wholey’s in the Strip District.

It’s impossible to think about fish in this city without also thinking about Robert Wholey Co., one of the first retailers to set up shop in this popular shopping district in the late 1950s, and a fixture with its jaunty red-and-white striped awning on Penn Avenue ever since. (It’s pronounced wool-y, not hole-y, in case you forgot.)

To push through the store’s swinging red doors is to encounter so many varieties of fresh seafood that if you surrendered your eyes to your nose, you just might think you’re standing dockside near the ocean instead of inside a century-old warehouse.

The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and plans on thanking customers by handing out free hats, holding raffles and offering retro pricing on certain products. The family also is collecting stories and photos for a “100 years contest” (monthly winners get a $25 gift card) and in August it will begin a 100-day countdown to a giant party that will be thrown sometime in September. Everyone is invited.

A hit with shoppers from the get-go, Wholey’s does fish bigger than anyone else in the city, selling 40,000 pounds of it fresh each week in addition to tons of frozen, canned, smoked and prepared seafood.

It’s especially crazy during the six-week Lenten season, which kicked off yesterday and runs through April 7, when sales typically increase by almost 40 percent, says president Jim Wholey, one of four third-generation brothers now running the business.

Got a hankering for one of the crispy, deep-fried cod sandwiches the store cranks out on meatless Fridays (and every other day of the week, all year long)? You better get there early, because the line starts forming not long after breakfast. Folks line up, too, for with the tuna and other rolls at Andy’s sushi bar inside the front door.

For home cooks, there’s everything from frozen whole octopus and canned scungilli (a large marine snail) to clean-it-yourself bronzini, and wild-caught mussels, oysters and little neck clams to fresh salmon — six varieties on any given day.

Not too shabby for a city that’s landlocked.

“It’s actually worked to our advantage,” says Mr. Wholey, “because it makes us draw from so many ports. The East Coast, Great Lakes, the Atlantic, the Pacific.”

A display of prickly green sea urchins is a great example of the store’s reach: they are flown in live, and still wiggling, from Patagonia.

 

A Saturday morning tradition

Maybe because it grew organically, the store — which in 1976 became a full-service market, with many of its items locally sourced — is like a food-related theme world, a maze that ensures you see a little bit of everything. On Saturdays, the crush of shoppers pushing through the front door often backs up under the awning, and standing in front of the fish counter can be chaotic. Tickets in hand, folks try to edge past each other to get a view of the offerings.

Striped bass at Wholey's in the Strip. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Kids tend to make a beeline to the tall fish tanks at the rear of the store that are teeming with thousands of pounds of live trout, bluegill, largemouth bass and lobster, gill-to-gill against the glass. Drawn by the clink of knives and buzz of an electric scaler, most everyone pauses in front of the fish cutters’ station, where veteran “seafood butcher” Mike Hartman, hired in 1980, and his crew cheerily scale, gut and filet the week’s catch while yakking with customers. On a busy Saturday, they might go through as many as 600 fish; today’s bounty includes a 190-pound swordfish which Mr. Hartman is carving into thick, pink steaks.

You think it’d get old, all that cutting of fish. But where else can you work where every day is a new adventure? he asks. “I’ve probably met 100,000 people since I started here, and the cast of characters is always changing.”

And that’s just the fish room.

Cut left through a narrow passageway, and you’re suddenly in the meat department — beef, pork, sausage, lamb. Everyone is in a rush here, too, Another left, and you’re funneling past a table stacked tall with ice and chicken and into the deli department. Chickens roasting on spits give off a strong aroma and a clerk’s offering a taste of seafood bisque. Next comes cheese and fresh produce and then finally, the registers. Don’t forget to drop some coins into the enormous bronze piggybank at the door before stepping out into the sunshine on Penn Avenue.

 

First things first

Fish hasn’t always been the catch of the day at Wholey’s.

When Robert Leo Wholey traded his horse-drawn peddler’s wagon for a small storefront on Chartiers Avenue in McKees Rocks in 1912, seafood had yet to catch most home cooks’ imaginations. His McKees Rocks Butter and Egg fed a different sensibility, live poultry and dairy products, along with sausages, meat and coffee. Even after his son Robert “Bob” C. Wholey took the reins after his return from World War II, and in 1951 moved the business to a stand inside the former Diamond Market House, Downtown, the focus remained on poultry.

The men of Wholey's: From left, Robert III, Sam, Dan, Matt, Robert Sr. and Jim, circa 1995. Post-Gazette

When the city decided to demolish the market house to make way for the new Market Square, Mr. Wholey braved relocating in the Strip, which in 1959 was a still a sleepy network of wholesalers. Not that he was worried his burgeoning poultry biz might flounder: if anything, moving it to the squat brick building at the corner of 17th Street and Penn Avenue would allow him expand and he did — eight times over the next 50 years.

“He was very, very intuitive about business,” says his wife, Lois, who for many years was in charge of public relations and at a vibrant 88, still writes ditties for the newsletter. Besides, the Strip wasn’t exactly foreign territory. While studying at Duquesne University, her husband made regular 4 a.m. runs there to buy fruits and vegetables for the food stands he ran in Crafton and Brentwood to pay for tuition.

The fish that would turn Wholey’s into a household name starting arriving around 1960, almost on a lark. Mrs. Wholey remembers her husband telling a man who traveled often to Baltimore for bushels of blue crabs, “Buy some for me and I’ll put them in the store.”

He did, the crustaceans ended up selling like hot cakes, and “then of course people realized fish was healthy and easy to cook as well as delicious.” Soon the bespectacled Mr. Wholey was importing a variety of fresh and frozen seafood. And the rest, as they say, is Pittsburgh history.

His family grew along with his business, eventually welcoming nine children, all of whom who worked in the store while they were growing up. Four of his five sons were hooked for life, following their dad — who always made it home for dinner, no matter how busy — into the family business. A fourth generation, which includes 27 grandchildren, waits in the wings.

“When I was in college, I thought, ‘No way,'” says Jim Wholey, who started working there full-time in 1975, after a short stint as a concert promoter. “But then I put one foot in front of the other and surrendered.” Now, he can’t imagine doing anything else, and most days he’s on the floor for at least part of the day, talking with customers, joking with the staff, sometimes handing out samples.

Like the city he calls home, Wholey’s is “all about family and relationships,” he says.

Agrees Bob III’s daughter Bella Wholey, “Grandpa was all about the people. He saw Wholey’s as much more than revenue. It was a place where anyone could feel at home because of the authentic family values the market was built around.”

Until the late 1950s, Wholey's was located in the Diamond Market in what is now Market Square.

 

Larger than life

You don’t build Pittsburgh’s largest fish market without a great deal of entrepreneurial skill, long hours and dedication to customer service. But Robert C. also was the ultimate showman, a people person who understood that it wasn’t enough to simply get shoppers in the door, you also had to maximize the experience with lots of activity.

One way he set the pace for fun was with a steady stream of promotions. One of the most famous capitalized on the shark mania following the 1975 movie “Jaws.” Figuring landlubbing Pittsburgh would be thrilled to come face-to-face with one of those killers, he put out a call for the world’s largest shark. A fisherman in South Africa took the bait, and in 1977 a 2,400-pound Great White (dead, and packed on ice) was on its way to the Strip. The only problem was, the longshoremen who unloaded the giant fish off the boat in New York couldn’t resist helping themselves to souvenirs. So when it arrived in Pittsburgh, it was absent its teeth.

Needless to say, a gummy shark ain’t scary. “So Dad hired a team of dentists to make an exact replica of the teeth,” with insurance footing the $10,000 bill, says Jim Wholey. An immediate crowd pleaser, the shark stayed on display in a glass-front trailer for years, with the $1 each person paid to see it going to charity.

Over the years, shoppers also have oohed and aahed over Andy the World’s Largest Pig and Bubba the 100-year-old lobster, traipsed through a petting zoo in the parking lot, been serenaded with accordions, charmed by animated cows and penguins and plied with endless free samples, says Lois Wholey.

And don’t forget about the 28-foot-long Fishmobile that made its debut in 1995, or the O-gauge train that circles the fish room above customers’ heads. It runs 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to the delight of children and grown-ups alike.

“I remember asking Dad, ‘What’s that got to do with fish?’ ” recalls Jim Wholey. “He just laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a hit.’ ”

He was right, and today the miniature locomotive is so popular that the store has to keep four spare engines.

Many of the “surprises in every aisle” sprang from trips to Stew Leonard’s chain of Connecticut grocery stores, or the family’s travels. But not all. Bill, the white-coated black bear that greets shoppers at the front door, was oldest son Bob III’s idea. So was Rachel, the giant solid bronze pig by the exit that’s a clone of the porker at the opening of the famed Pike Place Market in Seattle. Coins slipped between her shoulder blades have raised thousands for The Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill since 1994.

“They’re such a destination for the Strip and Pittsburgh,” says Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip. “You go in there, and it’s an experience, an adventure in shopping.”

 

Customers come first

Stunts aside, the main focus throughout the years has always been making shoppers happy. People gravitate to someone they trust, Lois Wholey says, and so each generation has worked to embody the motto carved in stone outside the front door: Rule No. 1. The customer is always right. Rule No. 2. If the customer is ever wrong, re-read Rule No. 1.

Maybe that’s why there is no typical Wholey’s shopper, but instead a clientele that includes all ages, colors, races and backgrounds — from hipsters with lip piercings and grandmas in sensible shoes to dads with young sons and regular customers who shopped there as children with their parents, such as Ed Lancia of Beechview, who on a recent Tuesday was in search of lobster tail, shrimp and fresh flounder.

“My mom and dad used to drag me along,” he says with a smile, “And now I come at least once a month,” usually with his wife, Andrea.

No one’s sure which of Robert Wholey’s grandkids, nine of whom are in college, will step in to guide the store into the next century. But already, the brothers are working with the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business to develop a plan. Which is a good thing not just for Saturday destination shoppers but also city residents who shop there every day.

“People don’t realize they service a lot of Downtown neighbors, from the Hill to Lawrenceville to Oakland,” notes Ms. Rodgers.

“It’s a neighborhood staple.”


 

Tasty Fish Rolls

“With fish,” says Lois Wholey, “the simpler the recipe, the better.” And if you can work in a few veggies, all the better.

  • Vegetable spray
  • 1 cup Pepperidge Farm seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup cooked spinach
  • 1/2 cup cubed fresh tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dried tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallots
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons melted butter, divided
  • 8 flounder fillets, skinless and boneless
  • Lemon slices for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray a baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Combine all ingredients except fillets in a bowl, reserving some of the melted butter. Lay fillets in baking dish and divide stuffing on top. Roll fillets up and arrange seam-side down in pan. Drizzle with remaining butter.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until fish can be flaked with a fork. Garnish with lemon slices.

Serves 4 to 6.

— Lois Wholey


 

Baked Nutty Fish

PG tested

  • 8 boneless, skinless fish
  • fillets (flounder, whiting or sole)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 beaten egg white
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter
  • Cubed avocado and lemon slices for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Sprinkle fish lightly with salt and pepper. Dip fillets in beaten egg white, then pat both sides in almonds. Lay fillets in a pan or cookie sheet sprayed with vegetable oil. Drizzle with melted butter.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until fish can be flaked with a fork. Garnish with avocado cubes and lemon slices.

Serves 4 to 6.

— Lois Wholey

 

Chilling out at Quebec’s Hotel de Glace: a night on ice

Since its debut in 2001, more than 700,000 people have visited Hotel de Glace in Quebec City, the only hotel in North America made completely of ice and snow/ Gretchen McKay

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec — I’m not going to lie. My husband thought I was nuts when I suggested spending my January birthday at Hotel de Glace here in Canada.

Our winter getaways typically are spent someplace warm, preferably with a sandy beach, always with a pool or waterfront bar that serves fruity cocktails garnished with colorful paper umbrellas.

Yet ever since watching a documentary a few years ago on how the igloo-like structure springs to life from December to March, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of making like an Eskimo (or Inuit, since this is Canada) and staying there. I’m not the only one: Hotel de Glace — the only hotel in North America made entirely from snow and ice — has welcomed more than 700,000 visitors since it opened in 2001. About 30,000 adventurous souls have actually checked in, one third of them families.

Make that 30,002, thanks to a whole lot of sweet talking.

Here’s what I can tell you about it: It’s breathtakingly beautiful. Exotic and unique. Worthy of any adventure-seeking traveler’s bucket list.

And here’s what it most definitely is not: Action-packed. Comfortable. Cozy, save for the time spent sitting in the hotel’s sauna or soaking in one of three spas set up under the stars.

It’s also far from a bargain. Expect to pay $30 for the 10-minute cab ride from downtown, and $9 for those yummy (but tiny) vodka cocktails in the Ice Bar. As for the cool, but surprisingly spartan rooms, they start at about $440 a night for two, even when purchased with a Groupon.

But oh, what a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It takes six weeks, 50 people and about $3 million to build the 30,000-square-foot Hotel de Glace (pronounced oh-tel de glass). Work begins sometime around Thanksgiving, when the temperature falls to a constant 23 degrees. Snow from the sky is too dry and airy to be used as a building block, so giant snow blowers are brought on site to create the 15,000 tons of dense man-made snow needed for the structure; it’s blown onto metal molds shaped into arches and domes retained by wooden walls. After the molds are removed three days later, ice blocks weighing 500 tons arrive and a team of 15 sculptors carve columns, furniture and exquisite ice sculptures that will be lit with colored lights. The result is nothing short of spectacular.

The reception area in Hotel de Glace / Gretchen McKay

Graced with intricate wall etchings, 18-foot ceilings, a super-slick ice slide and a majestic ice chandelier, the Grand Hall is as fabulous as its name suggests. But the Ice Bar is pretty cool, too. Large enough for 400 partyers, it’s the hub of the operation, pulsating with loud disco music and flashing a wild kaleidoscope of colors all night long. You can get a beer, but most fill the 75,000 ice glasses the bar uses throughout the season with drinks made with Pinnacle vodka or Quebec cider.

As with Sweden’s ICEHOTEL, the Hotel de Glace is built around a theme; 2012 celebrates the First Nations of Northern Quebec. Each of the 36 rooms and suites is a little different, with the fanciest ones featuring elaborate designs carved into their thick snow walls. (Ours featured murals of trees and an Inuit canoeing and a life-sized ice Inuit in the corner.) A handful are equipped with fireplaces, but as our guide Sophie Vaillancourt pointed out, they’re there to warm the “heart and soul” instead of the body.

The air inside the hotel hovers in the 20s but feels more like 8 or 9 degrees, so guests typically gather in the bar or the heated Celsius Pavilion next door. That’s where overnighters leave personal effects in lockers, take showers, check email or the Internet, or relax on leather couches with an endless supply of free hot chocolate and coffee.

The hotel offers specially designed “romance packages” — a notion we found kind of ironic, because the last thing on your mind when you can see your breath in your bedroom is, well, you know. It’s tough to feel amorous when you’re afraid your nose just might freeze off your face.

That said, at least two dozen couples will get married or renew their vows this year in Hotel de Glace’s fairy-tale chapel (Quebec designer Corine Markey’s Marie-Ange collection of wedding dresses and coats keep a bride warm up to minus 22 degrees) and then spend the night in the deluxe honeymoon suite, which includes a private spa and sauna.

People also celebrate birthdays here, shoot ads, host happy hours and dance parties in the Ice Bar and use the hotel’s facilities for business meetings and corporate retreats (what better way to team build than with an ice sculpting workshop?).

Hotel de Glace is at the doorstep of historic Old Quebec, making it convenient for travelers who are just as eager to explore the walled city’s cobbled streets and stuff themselves silly with French food as spend the night on ice in a sleeping bag.

A room at Hotel de Glace / Gretchen McKay

That’s right: You zip yourself into an Arctic-rated mummy bag after wiggling, just so, into a cocoon-like fleece liner.

There’s actually a method to the madness of bunking down in the Ice Hotel. Reservations come with a printed preparation and packing guide, and guests must attend a briefing full of “don’ts” before heading to their rooms so guides can explain the equipment and process. For instance: Don’t go to bed wearing the clothes you’ve had on all day because they’re full of moisture, which will allow the cold to “attack” you. Don’t forget to pull on dry, clean “sleeping socks” before tucking your feet inside the bag’s liner. And don’t snuggle your face inside the top of the sleeping bag — the moisture from your breath will turn it into a soggy, cold mess. Keep your mouth in the “hole.”

We were also advised to sleep on our backs (it’s difficult to make a mummy bag turn with you when you roll from side to side) and go to the toilet before turning out the lights. If you have to get up in the middle of the night to go, it’s a chilly five-minute walk to the bathroom.

Staff assured us only 1 percent of guests don’t make it through the night, and to be sure, only one person was sleeping on a couch in the pavilion when I got up at 4 a.m. to use the bathroom. But despite the hotel’s thick soundproof walls and candle-lit ambience, I’ll bet many guests don’t sleep like babies.

Many of the people we talked to the next morning, my husband included, claimed they were perfectly toasty. Not me. Save for warm hands and toes, I was acutely aware most of the night that the mattress was boxed in by ice. I wasn’t cold per se, but I also wasn’t what you would call warm. And my husband, who sleeps with his mouth open (I know, yuck) swore he woke up in the middle of the night with a frozen tongue.

You have to be out of the room by 8 a.m. so they can be cleaned before public tours begin at 10 a.m.

The main memory I took away was the sense of being cold — at the Ice Bar, where I had to keep moving while sipping my frozen cocktail; in the spa, where my hair turned into icicles and my towel froze to the hook; and in the room itself, where the chill seeped in through multiple layers of high-tech materials and got into my bones.

After the Ice Hotel closes on March 25, owners let it melt for a few weeks, then they bring in bulldozers to clear the area. Then next Thanksgiving, it rises again.

If you go
Getting there:Unfortunately, there are no direct flights between Pittsburgh and Quebec City. (Our early-morning flight connected through Philadelphia.) Depending on what day you travel, a round-trip ticket on Air Canada, US Airways or United starts at about $650. You’ll need a passport to enter Canada. 

The exchange rate for the Canadian against the U.S. dollar is almost even, so we didn’t worry about changing money, especially since most merchants accept American currency. Prices listed below are in Canadian dollars.

Checking in: Hotel de Glace is about 7 miles north of the city on the site of the former Quebec Zoo, in the suburb of Charlesbourg. This year the hotel is open through March 25.

If your package includes an auxiliary room at the nearby Four Points by Sheraton, there’s a complimentary shuttle service between the two hotels. If not, it’s about a 10- minute drive from downtown Quebec. The easiest way to get there is by taxi ($30 one-way or $40 from the airport). Alternatively, Old Quebec Tours (www.toursvieuxquebec.com; 1-800-267-8687) runs a shuttle five times daily from various locations in the city ($19.95 round trip/$12 one way, or $34.95 with a tour of the hotel). Or, save money with the bus (#801), though as our concierge pointed out, it will take you “all day.”

Rates start at $219 per person or $475 for a family with three children age 12 or under. It includes a welcome drink in the Ice Bar and breakfast — toast and jelly, sausage, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and cereals. And coffee. Everyone needed coffee.Guided tours cost $17.50 for adults. $15.50 for students/seniors, $8.75 for children or $43.75 for families.

Xavier Dachez

Nighty night: Rooms don’t open to guests until 9 p.m., and the lounge area in the heated Celsius Pavilion is quite small, so don’t arrive too early. Also, be sure to eat dinner beforehand or bring snacks, as the only food option is a small cafe serving forgettable soups and paninis until 8 p.m. (I’ve eaten better in a middle school cafeteria.) The hotel also can order in food.

To avoid any surprises or discomfort after crawling into your Arctic sleeping bag (rated to minus 22 degrees), all guests must take a mandatory “training session” before retiring. You’ll also get a preparation guide to help you with packing when you make your reservation. Essential accessories include warm boots, a hat that covers your ears, mittens and an extra pair of socks.

Cool activities: New this season is a 40-foot outdoor skating rink (skate rental is $7) and a 64-foot-long outdoor slide made of ice and snow. Hotel attractions include the Ice Bar and disco, which stays open until midnight, and access to the Nordic area’s outdoor spas and sauna from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Activities nearby include cross-country skiing, dogsledding, snowmobiling and massage and beauty treatments at the nearby Four Points by Sheraton Quebec.

More info: www.hoteldeglace-canada.com or 1-877-505-0423.

This is Pittsburgh Food: Sopressata

"Uncle Sal" Merante stuffs ground pork into natural casings to make sopressata. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

The mercury has dipped to 18 degrees when Leon Panella pads into his garage in Prospect, Butler County, at about 8 a.m. on a recent, snowy Saturday. Still, he smiles.

In an hour or so, things will warm up as close to two dozen male helpers — friends, friends of friends, Duquesne University fraternity brothers — start knocking on the front door of his big log cabin in the woods, eager to roll up their sleeves and get busy. The task at hand: Transforming 12 giant pans of pork resting on folding tables into foot-long sticks of air-dried sausage.

It’s an old-country tradition that will take the men the better part of a day, after which they’ll celebrate with a sprawling Italian meal. Mr. Panella’s wife, Karen, in fact, has been in the kitchen since dawn.

Mr. Panella, who is 68, had grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from Calabria and Abruzzi. “In September, Italians think about grapes and make wine,” he says. “When it’s cold, we make sausage.”

PG VIDEO

There’s already been some prepping. Two days earlier, the men coarsely ground 460 pounds of boneless pork butt and pork sirloin from Jefferson Poultry in New Castle into the beginnings of an air-cured salume known as sopressata — or “supra-sot,” as he and his old-time Italian friends call it. Mr. Panella, a semi-retired pharmacist, also has washed and carefully untangled several hanks (a bundle measuring about 100 yards) of natural edible casing into manageable lengths. The pig guts come packed in salt, and have to be flushed clean and then soaked in warm water so they soften and become tender.

Pushing the fist-sized pieces of meat, bit by bit, through the grinders’ blades was easy enough, taking the crew just under two hours working on three machines. Seasoning it to tongue-tingling perfection with the right blend of spices, canned red pepper paste, Morton’s salt and Two-Buck Chuck red wine was a bit more involved, and definitely messier. For that, Kate DeComo of Adams — the sole woman in the annual sopressata-making operation — had to stick her hands deep into bowls of cold meat and squish the ingredients together between gloved fingers.

“He trusts me,” she said of Mr. Panella, who a few years ago was merely the friend of some friends with whom she took an Italian class. Today they consider each other family.

The Panellas’ motto is “the more, the merrier.” So when Mrs. DeComo expressed an interest in learning how to make sopressata four years ago, she was warmly welcomed into the fold, even though the women traditionally support the men in the kitchen. (More on that later.) She was moved up to Head Seasoner last year, she joked, “when I showed aptitude.”

Recipes vary according to family tradition, but sopressata always includes cayenne and red pepper for heat and paprika to give it its distinctive red color. Mr. Panella’s recipe, which originated in Calabria, a region in southern Italy that’s known for the sausage, also calls for 11/2 pounds of salt per 40 pounds of meat for curing. As for the red wine?

“If I tell you,” quips Mr. Panella, “I’d have to kill you.”

Truth be told, the recipe isn’t his own but one he got from his friend Nick Clemente of Donora, who in turn got it from his neighbor Ray Sasselli. The process is dear to his heart. Growing up in Ellwood City, he watched his father, Leo, make sausage while drinking beer with his friends at the Working Men’s Social Club on Division Avenue, a fraternal organization populated by steelworkers of Italian descent.

“He loved the fellowship,” he says.

Sopressata traditionally is made in the winter. It takes between 6 and 8 weeks to cure. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

A part-time butcher who also loved to speak Italian, the elder Mr. Panella was strictly old-school, deboning the pork by hand and using a hand-cranked meat grinder and stuffer. Any excess sopressata was sold to friends, three pounds for a dollar.

Sopressata’s a bit more expensive to make in 2012: the meat alone cost $820. Which is why everyone involved chips in, and not just with money.

Says Mrs. Panella, “If you want it, you gotta work; if you don’t work, you don’t get.”

Fatty, spicy and insanely tasty, the homemade sopressata is culinary gold: Mr. Panella, who’s been making it for two decades, says you only share the spoils with people you “really love” or want to impress, such as your Italian doc.

“When we pay, we give them a supra-sot,” he says. “And we get service like you wouldn’t believe!”

The Panellas have been hosting the sopressata event for 11 years now, usually the first weekend in January. That’s when pigs most commonly are slaughtered in the Italian countryside, but more importantly, that’s when it’s cold enough to safely preserve the meat without cooking it. These guys see this gathering as a way to keep the sausage-making tradition alive while passing it down to the next generation. That, and the male bonding it inspires.

Making sopressata is the ultimate guy thing.

Leon Panella of Prospect, Pa., has been making sopressata for more than 20 years. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Feeding everyone who shows up, conversely, is a girl thing. Mrs. Panella has been cooking for days, starting with the homemade sausage and meatballs and penne she served after Thursday’s meat-grinding session. Today’s menu includes Italian greens and beans and fried hen of the woods mushrooms she foraged herself, along with fried smelts and a garlicky shrimp scampi. Friends also bring enough cookies, cake, pie and tiramisu to feed a small army.

Some might see the division of labor as sexist, but not Mrs. Panella, the daughter of a knife sharpener and occasional butcher who grew up on Larimer Avenue in the East End.

“In the house, we get a chance to talk,” she says. “We pick on everything we put out and swap recipes. We can sit down and enjoy the fire in the fireplace.”

The men are barred from the kitchen, she adds, because if they come in and start to eat, “they get lazy and then the work in the garage doesn’t get done.”

Many of the day’s dishes are included in a self-published cookbook whipped up last year to endow a scholarship for their husbands’ Italian fraternity. Already, “Home Grown Italian Recipes: A Legacy For Our Family and Friends” has raised $10,000 for Alpha Phi Delta.

But, first things first. Before anyone eats, there’s all that sopressata to finish.

The group has been at it long enough that the process is boiled down to a science, with small groups assigned to each step: grind, stuff, tie, net, poke, hang. By 10:30 a.m., the now-toasty garage — two propane heaters are cranked up in one corner — is buzzing like a beehive. Some of the men are feeding the seasoned pork into grinders outfitted with “sausage horns” that guide the meat in the gooey casings, blowing them up like balloons; others work to encase the tied-off sticks in a “Jetnet” sock, and then poke tiny holes to prevent air pockets from forming. There’s not a slacker among the bunch.

It’s a lot of work, but it feels very much like a party. From the box of Oram’s donuts that greet workers at the door, to the bottles of the Panella’s homemade Chardonnay and Alicante Bouschet that keeps everyone lubricated, to the platter of last year’s sopressata served with assorted Italian cheeses on a makeshift table, to the playful banter between the men — it’s all great fun.

Hanging sopressata to dry. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Calabrian-born Salvatore Merante is especially cool to watch, and not just because his white handlebar moustache, which curls to the bottom of his sideburns, is so old-school Italian. Now 80, “Uncle Sal” has been making sopressata and other sausages for more than 50 years, just like his mother taught him back in Italy, with no preservatives and strict attention to the details.

Rather than use a wooden pestle like the others to push the pork through the grinder, for instance, he uses his fingers. He also can eyeball the amount of stuffing to the exact quarter-teaspoon — stretching the casing tight, but not so much it bursts.

“You don’t want to choke it,” he says.

His Uncle Sal’s hot and sweet Italian sausages “have been sold all over the country,” he adds, including Groceria Merante in Oakland, which his father, Pasquale, opened in the 1950s.

The sausages will shrink to about half of their original size as they dry hanging on hooks in the ventilated wine cellar the Panellas had specially designed when they built the house in 2000. Depending on the weather, it’ll take between six and eight weeks to cure. Some store the finished sopressata in big buckets of oil, where it’ll keep for years. Mr. Panella prefers to vacuum-seal it.

In all, it takes a little over three hours to make the dozens of sticks Brian Kopp of Monroeville, a cop with the University of Pittsburgh and friend of Uncle Sal’s, carries down to the basement wine cellar — a record, Mr. Panella declares with a proud smile. Now, only after then men have scrubbed clean the work surfaces and equipment, it’s time to eat!

After ringing the dinner bell, Mrs. Panella asks everyone to lower their heads for grace.

“We come together to share fellowship, love and for nourishment,” her friend Camille Cash prays softly. “Thank you for the many hands that have prepared our food here.”

Heads nod quietly in agreement, then it’s back to business.

“Come in here if you want to eat,” Mrs. Panella shouts to the stragglers. “Mangia!”

Within minutes, a line snakes from the living room to the kitchen, where there’s so many dishes laid out on the center island you almost can’t see the surface. No one’s shy about seconds, especially when it comes to the long line of desserts on the dining room table.

In the basement, the sopressata they’ll eat when they all gather again next year already is curing. And Mr. Panella is smiling.

“It makes the house nice and warm when we get together,” he says.


 

Greens and Beans

This comes from “Home Grown Italian Recipes,” a collection of (mostly) Italian recipes complied by the Ladies Auxiliary of Alpha Phi Delta, a fraternity founded in 1914 by a group of men with Italian roots. Order a copy for $25 by emailing twinkle@zoominternet.net .

  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, coarsely minced
  • Olive oil
  • 2 heads escarole, cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Water
  • 2 15.5-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Brown garlic in olive oil on medium-high heat in a 5-quart pot; add escarole and about 2 cups water, cover. Cook on medium heat until greens are tender. Add beans and heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve alone or over frizelle (dry hard bread).

— Karen DeRiso-Panella in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”


 

Manicotti

Boxed manicotti shells are convenient, but you can make these light and fluffy Italian crepes almost faster than you can boil water. And there’s no taste comparison.

For batter
  • 3 egg whites
  • 3 whole eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 cups water
  • 4 cups flour

Using a wire whisk, beat together egg whites, eggs, salt and water. Add enough flour to make pancake-like batter. Let stand 20 to 30 minutes. In lightly greased crepe pan, pour 1/3 cup batter and tilt until bottom of pan is coated. Cook on medium-low heat until batter is dry then turn out onto table. Do not let crepes brown. Crepes can be stacked if you used wax paper to separate them.

For filling
  • 3 pounds ricotta
  • 3 egg yolks
  • Grated parmesan and Romano cheeses to taste
  • 4 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix together ricotta, egg yolks, cheeses, parsley, salt and pepper. Spread about 2 heaping tablespoons of filling into the center of a crepe, roll up, forming a tube. Coat bottom of large baking dish with your favorite tomato sauce before adding filled crepes. Spread more sauce on top. If desired, add a second layer or start another pan, coating with sauce. Bake for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Makes about 20 manicotti.

— Karen DeRiso-Panella in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”


 

Wands (fried Italian cookies)

“My mother and father made these for family and friends’ weddings. They were always such a treat,” writes Karen DeRiso-Panella. “They are very light and you can eat a lot of them before you know it.”

  • 1 dozen eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup melted Crisco (vegetable shortening)
  • 2 pounds flour
  • Crisco for deep frying
  • Powdered sugar

Mix together eggs, baking powder, melted Crisco and flour into a nice soft dough. Roll out on floured board until about 1/16-inch thick. Cut into strips about 6 inches long. Drop dough strips in hot Crisco (they will make all kinds of configurations), fry until golden brown, remove and cool on paper towels. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve. Store in airtight containers.

— Karen DeRiso-Panella in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”


 

Hot Sausage Specialty

Just in time for Super Bowl Sunday, this recipe is one you can eat either stuffed in a roll or on its own. If you don’t like it spicy, substitute sweet Italian or mild sausage.

  • 2 green peppers, diced
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 2 12-ounce cans tomato sauce
  • 12 ounces water
  • 2 pounds hot Italian sausage

Saute green peppers, onions, salt and pepper in oil. Add sauce and water. Simmer 30 minutes.

Put sausage in baking pan and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Cut into pieces and put into sauce. Cook on low heat and simmer another 25 to 30 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Giulia Merante Duranti in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”