Soppressata king does it his way

PHOTOS: DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER This is Joe Sernicola's homemade soppressata, ready to be judged in the showdown on April 26.
PHOTOS: DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER This is Joe Sernicola's homemade soppressata, ready to be judged in the showdown on April 26.
Posted: April 11, 2014

ANYONE well-versed in contemporary commerce will tell you that while credit is convenient, cash is king. Unless you're in South Philadelphia, where an ancient form of currency holds even loftier influence, and goes great with a little cheese.

The painstaking art of hand-making soppressata - the heavily spiced, cured pork salami closely associated with southern Italy - is not lost, but it's not exactly easy to find. That's why anyone armed with a bucket of the stuff - "super-sod" past Snyder Avenue, "soupie" in coal-mining country, a thousand colloquial variations everywhere else - might as well be strutting down the street with a wallet fatter than a hog set to slaughter.

Need to get stuff done? Spread a few "sods" around and watch how fast your to-do list dwindles.

"When you give somebody a bottle of homemade wine, you get a lot of favors done for that wine. It's the same thing with soppressata. You give someone one of these, [the reaction] is immediate. 'Oh, my family used to make it!' " said Frank Valloreo Jr., who, with his father, Frank Sr., has been producing his own vino and salumi for 30 years.

"People come to expect, when you're going over their house for a party, you're bringing some with you," said Joe Sernicola, whose involvement with soppressata has led to the creation of a fast-growing salumi smackdown - the Sernicola Soppressata Showdown. It's a spirited contest designed to suss out the most super of South Philly's proudest super-sod specialists.

Garage band

Sernicola, who works in IT for Independence Blue Cross, lives in South Jersey but was born and raised in South Philly, where soppressata was a household staple.

He didn't attempt to produce it himself until 2008, when friends came over to school his family on the multistep, multiweek process, an all-hands-on-deck period of assembly that culminates with him stringing up in his garage enough pork to feed several football teams. "When my wife parks her car, she has to wade through 120 soppressata hanging from the ceiling," he said.

It's this slow-and-steady course of action, starting with grinding and seasoning pork butts, stuffing them into casings, then tying them off into individual "sticks" that are alternately air-cured and pressed under weight, that holds strong nostalgic appeal for Sernicola's clan and others.

Historically, in the southern Italian regions of Basilicata and Calabria, soppressata is prepared in the dead of winter, when pigs are fattest and the air is chilly enough to ensure that the pork cures without molding or spoiling. It's still done this way by many modern Italian families, but for different reasons.

"It's an annual ritual," said Nick Macri, head chef and butcher of Border Springs Farm, in Reading Terminal Market. He grew up making soppressata with his Calabrian immigrant parents in Toronto. "It's more of a family gathering than it is the actual need to cure or preserve anything."

The showdown

The importance of this ritual is what led Sernicola to organize last year's inaugural Sernicola Soppressata Showdown, which was held at Jiminy Cricket's Club, near 16th and Mifflin, in South Philly. "Everyone that makes their own thinks theirs is the best," he said. "So I came up with the idea of having a competition."

With the help of his daughter, MaryJo, Sernicola successfully attracted a dozen super-sod makers and a capacity crowd so eager to eat through the field that people were turned away at the door. The evening raised nearly $800 to support relief efforts in Oklahoma after tornadoes devastated the Great Plains last spring.

This year's contest, scheduled for April 26, has a bigger venue - the Bocce Club, at 25th and McKean - and room for close to 200 attendees. Tickets are pretty much sold out. Sernicola hopes to quadruple charitable funds to benefit this year's cause, the Delaware Valley chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

Competitive edge

The competition is still a few weeks out, but the strategic super-sod maneuvering has already begun. "When you see all the contestants, they're all different with their consistency, look and flavor," said Sernicola.

Frank Valloreo Sr., last year's champion according to a panel of judges, took home the ultimate prize: a trophy topped with a pig. He won't switch up his approach for 2014. "I'm making it exactly the same," he said. He and his son cure their soppressata over wine barrels in their cellar. "I've been doing it for the last however many years. Why am I gonna change it? If it's good last year, then it's good this year."

Known to be more of a tweaker, Sernicola resurrected an unusual variation for his latest batch. Uncovering a recipe that originated with his maternal grandfather, he crafted an offering using roasted pine nuts, orange zest, raisins and brandy, producing results sweeter than soppressata made with chilies and hot spices.

Frank Valloreo Jr., an engineer based in the Navy Yard, also has taken up recruiting duties. After getting a taste of a killer homemade soppressata from a work buddy, he tracked down its maker - Mike Giuliano, a fellow Navy Yard engineer based in another building - and encouraged him to enter.

A Stamford, Conn., native who now lives in Delaware County, Giuliano spends the week before every Super Bowl in New England with a group that cranks out 500 pounds of soppressata at a time. He's very particular about texture and fat content.

"You can buy it in a store," he said, "but it doesn't taste like this stuff tastes."


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|