By Sandy D’Amato
My favorite Sicilian street food is sausage and peppers, but how I got there is filled with detours.
Even though sweet peppers are used in many different countries and varied cuisines, the first country that comes to my mind is Italy. You could think that I’m biased, being of Italian decent, but I grew up with a distaste for peppers—a distaste that bordered on repulsion.
It actually had nothing to do with fresh sweet peppers but with the aroma of pickled banana peppers that my cousin, who lived next door, would taunt me with. He would plunge his whole fist in the jar, extract a prime specimen, and proceed to wag it in front of my face, dousing me with the toxic juices. Then he’d pop it in his mouth and chew it to a pulp, swallow, then push me on my back and kneel on my outstretched arm to perform the requisite breath-blowing.
It’s also very clear, to those who know me, that I love hot dogs. As with most young children, to me the basic wiener was king whether eating at home or out at the car-hopped drive-ins of the time. In our backyard summer gatherings, when all the grown-ups were relishing their steaks and hamburgers, all I saw were the dogs tattooed with their golden grill marks.
At the age of eight, my world was about to change. St. Rita’s church, which was two blocks from my Dad’s grocery store, had a yearly outdoor fest during the summer. I could see the festival start to evolve on the street from the front window of the store. My anticipation was overwhelming—from the first sight of the Ferris wheel construction on Wednesday up to the opening on Friday.
By Friday afternoon I was a raging lunatic asking my dad every 1.3 seconds when we could go. He patiently ignored me and as 7pm rolled around and he locked up the grocery store for the night, we finally started walking toward the festival—actually, I was running like a gangly gazelle and my dad was calmly not keeping up.
Once we got there it was great: pitching pennies on plates, throwing rings over Coke bottles, and actually getting to throw dangerous metal darts at balloons to win a hanging provolone. Life was good.
Along with all the games was the food: giant slices of sfinciuni, baked mostacciolli, every imaginable kind of Italian cookies, and the luscious filled-to-order cannoli.
But the centerpieces for me were the open grills blanketed with links. These weren’t the familiar pink hot dogs. They were ruddy, charred sausages surrounded by leaping flames and tended by massive men in sleeveless T-shirts looking like shiny, hulking brown bears in the mist as the mixture of fat and ash glistened on their hairy arms and shoulders.
My dad walked me over and said “With or without.” I asked “With what?” Grilled green peppers, of course. My face scrunched as my head was shaking “no”. But as I watched my dad reveling in each juicy, bursting bite, I caved and asked for a taste. No ketchup, no mustard—just pristine, perfectly grilled fennel and garlic-infused sausage and charred-yet-firm-and-substantial green pepper that became one as their combined bright juices infused into the crispy, yielding oval bun. We walked and ate until the napkin was empty. I was euphoric, and then a little sad, lamenting the waste of my previous seven years of life without this combo. A new era was born in my sausage repertoire––I found out the wiener was not the lone king.
From that day on, the intoxicating aroma of charcoal-seared pork and peppers has always set off an emotional reaction that strikes me to the core. From my first prepubescent whiff of the wafting manna at St. Rita’s through my years in New York City at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy, the aroma is always as welcoming as a family dinner.
At this time of year you can really taste the varietal difference between the various colored local sweet peppers. So, being inspired by the Valley’s market bounty, this is the perfect time to make my zesty Grilled Red Pepper Soup. It is generously garnished with quickly grilled or sautéed garlic-infused green peppers and spicy sausage. A real key is to grill (or fire-roast) the peppers very quickly so that you retain the individual textures of the peppers—high heat is imperative. Also procure (or make) a quality Italian sausage.
With a few slices of grilled country bread glazed with extra-virgin olive oil, you’ll have an elegant dish with an elite street food pedigree that is certainly worth sitting down at the table for.