The Sunday before Christmas, Frank “The Sodfather” Balestri deftly scattered fistfuls of fennel powder, crushed red pepper, cayenne, paprika, salt, and Calabrian chile paste over 50 pounds of raw, coarsely ground pork butt and some sirloin. He splashed it with wine, then he and a pair of old pals, Ron Ranola and Phil Speciale, plunged their hands into the cold meat, kneading the spices into it and plucking out chunks of white fat.
“You sure you didn’t come off the boat, Frank?” asked Ranola. “I feel like I’m with my grandfather over here.” Balestri, a 48-year-old Chicago police officer, was in fact born in the same Bridgeport neighborhood as Ranola, an airline pilot, and Speciale, who runs the website Great Chicago Italian Recipes. But Balestri’s grandfather did arrive in America by sea, via Cosenza, Calabria, and it was from there that he brought the annual cold-weather tradition of grinding, stuffing, and hanging spicy oblong soppressata, or “supersod,” as it became known.
“If they wanted to eat the same way as they did in the old country they had to do it here,” says Balestri. “When they came here, stores didn’t offer it, or the quality they were used to.”
Speciale and Ranola grew up helping their grandparents with this tedious task, born out of the annual pig slaughter, when the weather was cold enough to safely preserve the meat. But they weren’t given much more responsibility than pricking holes in the stuffed casings to help press out air pockets. Over the years Balestri graduated to more advanced tasks, and he’s done it almost every year of his life. Now an evangelist of the ritual, he was showing the two how the rest of the process goes. He doesn’t grow his own peppers and herbs the way his grandfather did—he orders them online or buys them from J.P. Graziano on Randolph. But he still grinds his own meat four to five times annually.
And he’s taught dozens of people to make it—he says interest grows every year, even among those who didn’t grow up with it. Many enter his annual contest, which in its fourth year this October attracted about 350 attendees who waited impatiently in Park Place Countryside Banquet Hall for 12 judges to sample 40 presliced entries. Bill King of Wauconda was there—his sticks have taken second and third place two years out of his three. He holds a yearly supersod party attended by some 50 people. Last January he and his pals ground and stuffed 1,500 pounds of sausage. Two of those sticks from different recipes placed fourth and ninth.
The winner, a Balestri protege, was 44-year-old Jerry Soukal. He only started making it ten years ago, hanging his sticks in one of the greenhouses his family runs on Archer Avenue in Garfield Ridge. “My wife’s Italian but I’m not,” he says. “Her side of the family always teases me saying I’m a wannabe Italian. I tell them they’re just too lazy.”
This winter, for the first time, Balestri almost took a break. His father died in the fall, his mother suffered a heart attack not long after, he had surgery to remove skin cancer from his nose, and a basement flood shorted out his $550 cast-iron Italian-made meat grinder. He wasn’t in the mood. But “I just got the bug,” he says. “I said, ‘I can’t stop.’ Especially with the kids. I didn’t want them to think I was quitting.” So shortly after Thanksgiving—which usually marks the beginning of sod season—he stuffed his first batch, and his two boys, Dominick and Frankie, each made 50 pounds of their own. A 100-pound forest of meat hung in his garage from wooden beams. Below them, a homemade press sandwiched another 200 pounds.
On this day, to make the task easier, the group fortified itself with glasses of Balestri’s sweet homemade Carmenere and dry pinot grigio, and snacked on a platter of his home-cured olives and two varieties of last year’s supersod, one spicier than the other. Speciale brought over a majestic taganu d’Aragona, a breaded baked drum filled with meatballs, sauce, cheese, and eggs—his Sicilian grandmother made one every Easter Saturday. The Christmas tree was lit, the Rat Pack crooned from the stereo, and Balestri’s wife, Denise, chatted on the sofa with Ranola’s while the kids played video games.
With his grinder out of commission, Balestri had the pork ground at Russo’s Wholesale Meats in Alsip, a restaurant supply company that makes its own brand of cured sausages but will also mix and stuff a spiced pork formula to your specs. This year Balestri sent about ten people there with a copy of the master recipe he uses at home.
Once the spices were mixed, Denise fried up a test batch and passed it around. This recipe was a bit of an experiment, a lot spicier than most—about how Balestri’s mother likes it—and relatively lean, at a 90-10 meat-to-fat ratio. “The old-timers like it fattier because they grew up through the depression and I think they don’t like to waste anything,” he said.
Speciale handed over cannonballs of pork that Balestri packed down the barrel of a stuffer. He slipped long, slick tubes of beef intestine over the stuffer’s nozzle, and while I turned the crank, the meat inflated the casing and was delivered unto the Sodfather’s hands like a glistening newborn. Ranola stood on the other side, tying off sausages in six-inch lengths. As he stacked them at the end of the table, we poked holes in the casings. After three hours the pile grew to 50 sticks, which we hung in the garage among the older batches.
After one week Balestri loaded them onto the shelves of the press and turned the long screws that ran down through the wood. After another two weeks, during which they flattened and their air was expelled, he hung them back up again to dry. Balestri maintains his garage between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit with an air conditioner, a space heater, and eight strategically placed fans. Protective of his sod, he keeps a security camera trained on the sticks and has been known to visit the garage at three in the morning to check on them.
If all goes well, after eight to ten weeks total, weather depending, the sticks lose about 30 percent of their weight in moisture. When Balestri thinks they’re ready he’ll take one down and cut it in half. If it’s still too raw, he’ll fry it up with some eggs for a snack and wait another week before testing again. Once they’re ready, he submerges them in buckets of oil to stop the curing process. They can be preserved this way for years.
Some guys are stingy with their sod. Rinalo says he asked his cousin for one and was made to feel as if he’d demanded his firstborn. Balestri knows another guy who sells his for $18 a stick. But he gives his away to friends, family, and fellow officers, partly in the service of recruiting new sod makers to keep the tradition alive.
At the end of the long day the table was cleared and Denise laid out a fresh spread of mostaccioli with sauce, two preparations of Balestri’s fresh sausage (baked with potatoes and peppers and cooked in the gravy), two preparations of meatballs (in gravy and fried), salad, and bread, and the group sat down to eat.
“I don’t mind sharing,” says Balestri. “Some people are secretive. To me it’s not a big deal. I’m not in it to make money. I’m in it to have fun.”