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Papa Cantella and His Antique Sausage

June 29, 1997|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"People think you spent all day making this," says Caryn Cantella as her husband, Tom, ladles out bowlfuls of Sicilian sausage soup. In fact, she confides, the soup is so simple the ingredients go together in about 15 minutes.

Tom is "Papa" Cantella, founder of Papa Cantella's Inc., a sausage company in Vernon. The soup is one of 40 recipes in "The Ultimate Italian Sausage Cookbook," which he wrote with Caryn's help.

The Cantellas were showing off recipes from the book during lunch in the company's home-style kitchen. Gathered around the table were their son Tony, who is in marketing and sales for the company; daughter Rachel, who is promoting the cookbook; Tom's cousin Chris Stafford, who manages the plant, and a couple of visitors.

The cookbook, which evolved from recipe inserts in Cantella sausage packages, is one more product in a line that has expanded steadily since Tom started the company in 1980. His first plan was to build antique trucks and sell sausages from them at the beach.

At that time, he was in the antiques business and was looking for someone else to make the sausages. Then he decided to do it himself, using an adapted version of his grandfather's recipe.

That initial sausage was successful enough to get into Vons markets, and Tom gave up the idea of hawking his wares at the beach. From modest batches of 20 to 30 pounds of sausage a week, the output has grown to almost 50,000 pounds weekly sold at a variety of outlets. And from traditional Italian sausage, the company has branched out to make chorizo, weisswurst, bangers and other styles of sausage.

Soon to be introduced are chopped meat in adovado marinade and fully cooked gourmet chicken sausages. The word "gourmet," Tom says, indicates the addition of pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and other "fancy" ingredients.

This is a long way from Cantella's basic Italian sausage, which contains only meat and spices, no trendy additions. It does have one unique seasoning, though: cardamom. The amount is subtle enough to be undetectable. "If I eliminated it," he says, "I think I'd be the only person that would know it."

Tom commutes to the plant from his home in Santa Ynez. For a couple of years in the early '80s, he dabbled in restaurants but gave that up to concentrate on the fledgling sausage business. "We'll make you a sausage you can't refuse" is the company motto.

The sausage meat at Cantella's facility is chopped, not ground, in a machine that can handle 200 pounds in two minutes. Dry ice and regular ice cool the meat and seasoning mixture before it moves on to the stuffer, where it gets a final chop before being stuffed into natural hog casings from Denmark. "[The Danes] butcher hogs at a younger age," Tom says, "and their casings are a little more tender [than the casings from other countries]." The sausages are then hand-packed, boxed and shipped.

Cantella sausages are made without preservatives or animal byproducts. Meat is brought in fresh each day and processed, and the sausages are shipped the next day. "We don't inventory anything," Tom says. "We don't even have a freezer in the building."

Italian sausages are made with pork, with a combination of beef and pork, with chicken or turkey or a blend of both. All-pork Italian is the biggest seller and "probably the most flavorful," Tom says. The cut used is pork butt, which is boned on the premises. Other meats are purchased boned.

The fat content of Italian pork sausage is about 23%. "If it's too lean, it becomes too dry when you cook it," Tom explains. Chicken and turkey Italian sausages contain just 8% fat and must be cooked carefully to avoid over-drying.

Once a year, the company makes a slender Sicilian Christmas sausage that contains imported aged Romano cheese. Unfortunately, this goes only to business associates, friends and family. Even they do not get enough of it, laments daughter Rachel.

The chief market for Cantella sausages is Southern California, but some of the bangers go to Samoa. Tom says he has no idea who buys them there. The sausages are marketed under the names Papa Cantella's, which is the premium line, and Uncle Vinny's and Paesano, which are the food service lines. The company also makes private-label sausage for supermarkets. And if a great sausage recipe lurks in your family, you can have it produced for a minimum order of 50 pounds. "We consider ourselves kind of a custom sausage house," Tom says.

The plant is not all state-of-the-art equipment. A striped awning sets off the entrance, and inside is a colorful replica of an old popcorn cart that is used for sausage demos. In Tom's office are remnants of his antiquing days: a '20s radio and '40s pin-up art, as well as a sample of the stained glass he used to make.

And, of course, there are stacks of the cookbook. Self-published, the book is as glossy as if commercially produced, thanks to professional photography, art direction and food styling. Some of the props in the photos come from the Cantella household.

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