You know we write about Italian food, specifically about Italian food in America. Sometimes, though, we get so involved in our food history that we miss something right around the corner. Well, better late than never to have found Piccolo Market(now in a larger space on Gulf Gate). For those of us moaning about the state of the economy, the price of gas, the sluggishness of the real estate market, or simply the Florida heat in July—Piccolo Market is just the place to revive sagging spirits.
A few days ago, we were drawn off the Trail by a sign that simply said, ‘Italian Market.’ We grew up in New England towns with vibrant “Main Streets” and confess to a bias against stores in strip malls. But we needed bread, and thought we should check out a spot that had previously escaped our attention. When we stepped inside, we were transported to a typical alimentaria anywhere in Campania or Calabria. Piccolo Market could very easily have been lifted, intact, from a southern Italian town and plunked down where we first found it, next to a vacuum repair shop.
We may have stopped in for bread, but once we’d gone through the door, we were drawn immediately to a 20 Lb.”teardrop” of provolone and the salume—sopresatta, salami, mortadella—all hanging above the refrigerated display case. The case itself held a number treasures: tiny artichokes marinated in olive oil, bocconcini of mozzarella with chopped tomato and basil. And we soon learned that the basil, not ordinarily part of the vegetation along Route 41, had been picked from pots right outside the store.
Shelves held all the requisites to keep an Italian-American household running smoothly: a wide variety of reasonably priced imported and domestic goods—dried pasta, arborio rice, polenta, and gnocchi. The stuff of great sauces was also in stock: San Marzano tomatoes as well as Pomì, a slightly thickened tomato puree Italians swear by for a quick, light tomato sauce. Americans call these products “gourmet;” Italians in Brooklyn, St Louis, Columbus and Italy, call them supper. We even found Italian bromides to relieve the occasional bit of agita. Or for pure refreshment, tiny bottles of Chinotto, a cola drink popular in Italy.
We did get our bread (wonderfully chewy loaves delivered that morning from Panetteria Clemente Corp. in St. Pete). But what really entranced us were the ropes of fresh sausage. Antonio Dirende, Piccolo’s affable owner, told us he makes sausages two nights a week. Taking note of our more-than-casual interest, he wrapped one up in butcher’s paper as a sample for us to cook at home. With it came an invitation to return the following evening to watch the mixing and stuffing of the next batch. This, as anyone who’s ever watched a Wise Guy movie knows, was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
The next evening, we kept our appointment and found Antonio dissecting pork shoulder. We met his wife, Josephine, carefully cleaning and preparing broccoli di rape for that night’s production of Piccolo’s signature sausage, which also includes Asiago and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Italian music from the 1950′s played softly in the background… we could smell garlic frying in olive oil… This, we concluded, was the real deal.
Antonio, who emigrated from Calabria to Brooklyn when he was seven, learned sausage-making from his father. He now supplies Sarasota with approximately 80 Lbs. per week, not nearly enough to meet the demand. On this evening, he was also provisioning a particularly loyal customer (who lives all the way down in Englewood) with 10 Lb. of his special broccoli di rape sausage. The customer was planning to take it back, on ice, to Boston the next morning. Anyone who knows the level of sausage connoisseurship in Boston, will grasp the seriousness of this compliment.
Very careful to remove all sinew, connective tissue, and most of the fat from the meat before he grinds it, Antonio has one technique that separates him from most other sausage-makers; he grinds the meat only once, through a relatively large (3/8″) opening in his meat grinder. The result is a stuffing with subtly balanced seasonings, pleasantly unctuous texture, and delicate flavor from the meat that has been so diligently trimmed. He adds no additional fat, and winds up with a mixture that contains approximately 15 — 20%. (Commercially prepared sausages are 25 — 35%).
The maestro used only his practiced eye and experience to measure all the seasonings except the salt, weighing that as a percentage of the mixture. Meanwhile, Josephine had blanched, drained, and sauteed the broccoli di rape with garlic; she had already grated the cheeses. These ingredients, too, were blended into the ground pork.
After combining everything and putting the mixture into the refrigerated case to chill and rest, Antonio suggested we take a break. We heard the welcome “whoooosh” of the espresso machine as Josephine brewed tiny cups of coffee. Piccolo serves the Danesi brand, which makes an especially rich espresso or cappuccino. Toto, we’re not at Starbucks any more…
A few minutes later, Antonio reconfigured the meat grinder, attaching the stuffing horn. He then removed several yards of sausage casings from their soaking water, and set about the business of making magic. With the cool aplomb of a poker dealer, he guided the seasoned meat into the casings, letting them drop to a stainless steel tray below and forming them into concentric circles. When the casings were full, he pinched off lengths of sausage, gave them a practiced flip to form them into links, and Presto! Salsiccie! At least one person in Boston and a few dozen more in Sarasota were going to be very happy…
In the meantime, we’re hoping that Antonio’s mother-in-law will let us watch her the next time she makes a batch of fresh mozzarella for the store.
Even if you can’t make it to Italy this summer, you can drop by Piccolo Market. In it’s new location, it’s only a hundred yards south of Stickney Point Road. But from the everyday scene of shrink-wrapped, mass-produced food—it’s a world away.
Antonio will also prepare traditional Italian specialties like lasagna, sausage and peppers, or pasta al forno, by the tray for your special occasions.
NEW ADDRESS! Even more great food made by the same skilled & loving hands!
2128 Gulf Gate Drive
Sarasota, FL 34231
Open Monday — Saturday, 10:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.
Visit Piccolo Market on the Web