A couple weeks ago, when I was at Perennial Virant and the sous chef, Carlo, was ferrying all kinds of delicious sausage to our table (one of those times when being a "sausage blogger," as he called me, comes in rather handy), he told me that if I was going to write about encased meats there was a place I had to visit. It was pretty far away, he said, but "worth the trip." When a cook tells you to eat somewhere, you listen: and that's how I found myself driving six miles west on Belmont Avenue, just inside the limits of the city of Chicago, to a little Italian market called Nottoli & Son.
Nottoli & Son has the feel of a place that's been around for some time, a place that's gotten its selection of products down pat and the regulars that come in often to buy them. It's charming and relatively unassuming.
And it remains that way until you start to notice the walls, which are covered with magazine articles and other accolades (a highlight is the lengthy feature in Rugby magazine about the son of the owner, George Angelo Nottoli II, who is also a professional wrestler in addition to his inherited title of sausagemaker). And then you get talking to the staff and hear a pretty surprising figure: that in the summer months, Nottoli & Son makes up to 3,000 pounds of sausage per day. That's when you start to realize you're in the presence of greatness.
While that sausage is mostly to supply restaurants—the tiny storefront would have to be a revolving door just to approach that volume of sales—that staggering number can only lead to one conclusion: that these guys know how to make sausage. More importantly, it's not a factory; they make it by hand, with hand-trimmed pork shoulder (the fact that it's hand-trimmed is one reason they claim their sausage is especially good). What does one learn after making 3,000 pounds of sausage a day? By what increment does it get better?
Nottoli offers several kinds of fresh sausage; it's in lengths of casing curled up in the case, to be portioned out according to how much you order. They also sell the sausage in a sandwich, served in a chewy sub roll with mild or spicy housemade giardiniera. At $3.25, it's a ridiculous deal, though the ratio of bread to meat is pretty off. So I'd recommend ordering two sandwiches but skip the bread on the second. With two sausages and a heap of giardiniera stuffed into one roll, it becomes a fine sandwich indeed. And I can't help but add a sidenote: this giardiniera is some of the best I've ever tasted.
I also made off with 1/2 pound of their mild, spicy, and famous garlic sausages, which I slow-cooked on the grill before crisping up over a hot flame (they also sell an extra-spicy sausage, a mild without fennel seeds, and a simple salt-and-pepper only). The sausages are notable for their coarse grind of pork and fat, and their exceptional juiciness; they have a primal, chewy quality so different from more common finely ground, homogenous varieties of Italian sausage. In that way they feel exceptionally "homemade." And the spicing profile, especially on the garlic, was just about perfect.
Chicago has plenty of Polish and other Eastern European sausage shops, but the truly excellent Italian shops are fewer and further between. Nottoli & Sons deserves a spot on that short list.