It isn’t every day you’re called on to dive into a pool of beer to rescue a human-size sausage, but Amis chef de cuisine Drew DiTomo had come prepared.
On this particular visit to Victory’s Downingtown brewery, where the Vetri crew was slow-cooking a giant mortadella in advance of its debut during the Great Chefs Event afterparty on Tuesday, the 27-year-old Overbrook native wore his swimming trunks — just in case.
“We couldn’t get it out,” DiTomo says. He’d left the 2-foot-diameter, 7-foot-long tube of ground pork cooking in a 155-degree Prima Pils and water bath for two days. He needed to remove it so it could dry off and cool. But “we just didn’t have the leverage.”
The big bologna’s journey had started several days prior, when DiTomo and Vetri culinary director/original mortadella-master-in-chief Brad Spence had lugged 335 pounds of heritage Berkshire pork shoulder over to Brauhaus Schmitz. There is a meat grinder at Amis, but its output is puny compared to the mechanical wonder in the German bierhall’s below-ground kitchen, which can whir through 250 pounds of meat at a time. (Brauhaus butchers use it to put out more than 1,000 links of sausage a week.)
Once the meat was ground — multiple times, to get mortadella’s signature fine texture — and mixed with pistachios and hunks of flavorful fatback, it was time to stuff the casing. Sausage is traditionally encased in salt-cured intestine, but how do you get one big enough to hold that much bulk?
Marc Vetri’s answer: “We know a guy.”
That “guy” is a reclusive animal farmer in West Virginia who apparently delights in the challenge of sewing together several dozen cow bungs and colons to create what DiTomo refers to as “a sleeping bag made of skin.” DiTomo should know, since he ended up climbing inside the thing to help pack the meat down as it was filled on one of Brauhaus Schmitz’s steel tables. The filling process ended taking up at least eight hours — and then there was tying it off, an endeavor that used up 500 feet of butcher twine.
Inviting the Vetri folks over was a bit of a logistical hassle, says Brauhaus chef de cuisine Henrik Ringbom, but one that was totally worth it. “They were in the way big time, but that crew is just so full of energy. It was great, we were all eating sausages and trading war stories.”
Some of the war stories were about previous Vetri mortadella adventures.
Spence has been going whole hog on the afterparty centerpiece since 2011, when he came up with the idea in order to impress the collection of renowned chefs that descend on Philadelphia for the annual Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Vetri Foundation fundraiser.
Some perspective: That year’s “giant” sausage weighed a meager 60 pounds — around one sixth the weight of the 2016 edition. It was easily cooked in a bathtub, instead of needing to be hauled out to Downingtown and forklifted into one of Victory’s unused “coolship” fermentation tanks.
The mortadellas have gotten consistently larger each year, but there’s solid reasoning behind trying for ever-more massiveness, Spence says — and not just because it’s fun.
“The bigger the the mortadella the more complex the flavor,” he explains. Indeed, butchers in the region of Bologna, Italy, regularly put out humongous versions of their signature salami — festivals feature tables groaning under the burden of mortadellas weighing 400 pounds or more. However, most of the colossal sausages in Italy are stuffed and/or tied using a machine. Not so the Vetri version, which is done entirely by hand.
Marc Vetri thinks this year’s creation is probably the biggest handmade mortadella in the world — and he’s kinda pissed off that he won’t get the chance to prove it.
“He really screwed up,” Vetri says, pointing accusingly at DiTomo. “He didn’t tell me it would only cost $1,500 to get the Guinness Book of World Records inspectors out here to certify this thing.”
“I thought it was too expensive!” DiTomo returns. “Plus, that’s just to get them here. Then you have to cover their housing and food and—”
“Are you kidding?” Vetri says. “I’d pay up to $5k to get our mortadella in Guinness.” Then he laughs. “Oh well. Next year.”
It’s just as well the inspectors didn’t show, he admits, because moving the hulking tube out of Brauhaus’s kitchen proved to be a somewhat sketchy process, with more than eight people pitching in to hoist it up the narrow staircase.
“We’re using a gurney next time,” Vetri says. “A real hospital stretcher.”
Once safely extracted from the basement, it was driven out to the brewery. For several days, Victory staff kept watch on it, every so often texting updates to DiTomo. “It’s floating!” said one — a good sign.
And then, time to pull it out. At least five Vetri staff members, including Marc Vetri and Brad Spence, clambered atop the coolship and heaved and pulled, but no dice. After one attempted tug almost tore the bologna in half, DiTomo knew it was time. He glanced over at Marc, got an affirmative nod, tossed his wallet aside and jumped in.
Success. Standing in his swimsuit chest-deep in beer, DiTomo pushed from the bottom and the sausage was dragged out. It’s now waiting in a walk-in cooler, where flavors are intensifying even more.
On Tuesday night, it’ll be paraded into the Great Chefs afterparty tent, then sliced up and served as sandwiches — but not before guests have a chance to snap a selfie with the biggest handmade mortadella in the world.