Sausage-and-pepper sandwiches have always been a staple in my family, especially during my summer visits to New York and Rhode Island. On the East Coast, it’s rare not to find a sausage-and-pepper sandwich on the menus of casual eateries, and you can always get them at Italian festivals and fairs, as well as at beach boardwalks. Here in San Francisco, you can find sausage-and-pepper sandwiches at the classic Italian spots like Capp’s Corner, Molinari Delicatessen and US Restaurant, but by and large, it’s not a West Coast thing.
One of the major differences in East Coast and West Coast sausage-and-pepper sandwiches is the choice of bell peppers — on the East Coast they use green bell peppers, and on the West Coast it’s more common to find red, yellow, or orange peppers, and sometimes a mix of all three. Green bell peppers are harvested before they are fully ripe (if left to mature, they turn yellow, orange, and finally red, hence the more expensive price tags for these varieties). Because they’re less ripe, green bell peppers are not as sweet as their colorful counterparts, and I prefer their flavor, as do most East Coast Italians, for both sausage-and-pepper and steak-and-pepper sandwiches.
A sweet, soft roll, preferably square and flat (like ciabatta), is the best option for this sandwich; when you cut the roll, don’t slice it all the way through — that way you can hold it in your hand like a hot dog bun to load your sausage and peppers.
The most important ingredient, of course, is the sausage. For an old-school East Coast Italian sausage sandwich, you want a coarsely ground sweet Italian sausage in a snappy casing. My grandfather made his own sweet Sicilian fennel sausage, but when I don’t have time to recreate his recipe, there are a number of places (listed below) in the Northside where I go to buy first-rate fresh Italian sausages. Vegetarians don’t have to miss out, either — Field Roast Grain Meat Co. makes a delicious vegan Italian sausage that has a coarse texture and robust flavor (it’s as close to meat sausage as you’ll find), and you’ll find them in better supermarkets in the vegetarian deli case.
If you have a KitchenAid Artisan mixer, you can buy the meat grinder attachment and the sausage stuffing attachment and make your own (it’s not hard once you get the hang of it). If you want to learn how to make sausage, Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats teaches classes (http://4505meats.com, 415-255-3094).
Here’s a tip for quickly and easily cleaning and preparing bell peppers: Using a sharp chef’s knife, slice off the top and bottom; slice through one side of the pepper and slowly roll it out, using the knife (facing away from your body) to remove the seeds and spongy membranes as you go until the pepper is lying flat on the cutting board and all seeds and membranes are removed.
OLD-SCHOOL EAST COAST SAUSAGE-AND-PEPPER SANDWICHES
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 to 3 medium-sized green bell peppers
4 uncooked coarsely ground sweet Italian sausages
4 soft, sweet sandwich rolls
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cut the peppers into small pieces (about one-inch square). Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium skillet (10-to-12 inch) over medium heat. Add the peppers; reduce the heat to medium-low, and cover the pan.
Meanwhile heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in another medium skillet over medium heat. Slice each sausage lengthwise but not all the way through the casing. Open sausages and lay flat in the pan, casing side up. Place a bacon press or another skillet on top of sausages to keep them flat (otherwise they will curl slightly as the casing shrinks). Cook for 5 to 7 minutes until golden brown, then turn over and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes on the casing side.
While sausages are cooking, occasionally lift the lid from the peppers, allow condensation to drip into the pan, and stir. Replace lid and continue cooking until soft (about 10 minutes).
Slice rolls in half but not all the way through. Holding the roll in one hand like you would a hot dog, add a sausage and, using a slotted spoon, add ¼ of the bell peppers. Repeat four times. Set sandwiches on dinner plates or in shallow pasta bowls open-faced, and drizzle the remaining liquid from both pans over the sandwiches. Close the roll, pick up the sandwich with both hands, and enjoy!
WHERE TO FIND THE BEST ITALIAN SAUSAGE
1 Ferry Building #21, 415-433-6500, www.boccalone.com
The brain child of acclaimed Incanto restaurant’s master meat man and star chef Chris Cosentino and Incanto’s owner-founder Mark Pastore, Baccalone’s artisan sausage is made of all-natural heritage-breed pork, coarsely ground and seasoned with restraint using fennel seed, garlic and pepper.
LITTLE CITY MEATS
1400 Stockton Street, 415-986-2601
The only surviving old-school meat market in North Beach, Little City Meats is the real deal, and so is their house-made Italian sausage — coarsely ground and spiced just right.
373 Columbus Avenue, 415-421-2337
Another classic North Beach institution, Molinari makes some of the best sausage in the Bay Area. The fresh Sicilian-style sausage made with fennel seed and spices reminds me the most of my grandfather’s.
These coarse-ground handcrafted sausages are made with the finest pork seasoned with fennel or anise seed and garlic then stuffed in natural casings. You will find Fra’Mani at the following locations (call first for selection):
Lucca Delicatessen: 2120 Chest-nut Street (at Steiner), 415-921-7873, www.luccadeli.com
Mollie Stone’s: 2435 California Street (at Steiner), 415-567-4902, www.molliestones.com
Cheese Plus: 2001 Polk Street (at Pacific), 415-921-2001, www.cheeseplus.com
Bryan’s Grocery: 3445 California Street (at Laurel), 415-752-0179