I’ve been fixated on the fragrant coarse-ground Greek sausage loukaniko since a visit last summer to that Greektown funhouse the Parthenon. A group of us headed in for the offal sampler on an oppressively humid evening that made digging into the leaden liver, sweetbreads, meatballs, and feta cheese a chore, and I didn’t expect much in the way of surprises from the alleged birthplace of flaming saganaki anyway. But the folks at the Parthenon ought to be bragging less about that dubious achievement and more about their lovely house-made sausage. 

Loukaniko is commonly a lamb and pork sausage flavored with fennel and orange peel, which gives it a bright citrusy aroma. The scholars at Wikipedia claim there are linguistic relationships to Portuguese linguica, Spanish longaniza, and Bulgarian lukanka, though I don’t see many similarities as far as spicing and texture go. It shows up on the menu at some other Greek restaurants around town, including the relatively new Mythos in Lincoln Square, which has a pretty good one. The other night at Nia, I had a terrific house-made version with their sausage sampler (big ups to the morcilla too). I began to wonder why such a seemingly popular sausage wasn’t available in stores right next to the brats, Polishes, and Italians.

Mythos’s loukaniko isn’t house made and when I asked co-owner Toni Di Meola who ground it for her she laughed at the very idea of giving up her source. I’d heard Athens Grocery on Halsted had it, but they offer it frozen in three- pound lumps. I thawed one a few weeks back and grilled it, but it tasted flat — there was plenty of orange peel but none of brilliant fragrance that distinguished it from any old Italian sausage. Nevertheless, I figured this was due to the deadening effect of the deep freeze, and the folks at Athens had no problem telling me where they get it.

Olympic Meat Packing is a relic in the market district, a tiny Greek butcher shop with all the custom carving and flexibility that entails. I called them on a good day last week — they’d just made a fresh batch of loukaniko and told me I could have as much as I wanted. When I arrived, owner George Tsoukas disappeared into the back, where whole lamb carcasses hung waiting for their turn under the knife. He emerged with a plastic tub filled with a single rope of sausage, pulled out a length and asked me where to cut. When he told me he supplied loukaniko not only to Athens, but to many restaurants including Pegasus, Santorini, and Lincolnwood’s Psistaria, I figured I’d found the missing link (ouch).

I wish that was the happy ending. Olympic’s fresh, reddish-colored sausage looked and smelled more promising than the pallid frozen stuff. You could see bits of orange peel under the casing, and when it hit the grill it began to spit a tremendous amount of fat onto the coals, giving off a pleasing blast of orange and paprika and fueling bursts of flame that charred and split the skin. 

But the magic just wasn’t there. The sausage, though nicely textured and juicy, was very salty, which might have overpowered the more fragile orange and fennel notes. It wasn’t bad sausage, just not that different from your common, coarse-ground slightly spicy Italian variety.

The great Greek supermarket Minos Imports in faraway Addison makes their own, and though the package I bought there also had a deathlike pallor and bore the scars of freezer burn, it was a shade better than Olympic’s, with a mild floral perfume and the occasional, not unpleasant, bitter note from the orange peel.

Until I find a store-bought loukaniko that can rival the Parthenon’s, Minos’s is my favorite, though perhaps not worth the journey. I do like the looks of this recipe [pdf]

If you have a good source for loukaniko, please let me know. 

Minos Imports, 648 Lake, Addison, 630-543-0337

Olympic Meat Market, 810 W. Randolph, 312-666-2222 

Athens Grocery, 324 S. Halsted, 312-332-6737