PRINCETOWN — One family’s mission to make a great Italian sausage continues the same as it has for the last 98 years.
The production facility is sparkling new and spacious, but the links that it produces — up to 10,000 pounds a week, sweet and hot — are straight out of old-time Schenectady.
“If I change the recipe one little bit my customers will notice,” said Michael Sindoni Sr., son of Vito Sindoni, namesake of the Vito A. Sindoni & Son Packing Company, now operating out of Princetown.
Sal Sindoni, born in Sicily, started selling sausage in 1920 out of a home on Genesee Street in Schenectady. In the 1950s, his son Vito was working for General Electric and took over business. He built it from a few hundred pounds a week to a tons-weekly operation selling to many stores and restaurants across the region. In 1991, Vito handed it over to Michael Sr., who continues to run it today with sons Michael Jr. and John. They will take it over if Michael Sr. ever retires; Michael Sr.’s daughter, Lauren, is a nurse.
It’s a familiar and popular sausage in the Capital Region, one of those locally made products that locals know and appreciate. Beyond a 20- to 30-mile radius from Schenectady, people don’t know the name as well. So the company focuses close to home, where it can run its delivery truck every day and expect that its sausage will sell out when it goes on the shelf.
The secret to its success isn’t any great mystery, it’s just consistency. The same guy makes it the same way, day in and day out for decades at a time, and the same family puts its name on it for nearly a century.
Pictured: Mike Sindoni Jr. uses a casing machine for sweet sausage links. (Marc Schultz)
Mixing machines not needed, corporate wholesale customers not wanted.
“Every piece of pork in this shop is hand-touched by a Sindoni,” said Michael Jr.
The tradition is in his hands now, literally: He’s the one who seasons the meat and stuffs it into casings. Because the sausage production is not automated, it’s especially important that he do it essentially the same way each time.
The production line works like this:
- Pork is delivered in airtight packages.
- The meat cutters remove bone, gristle, cartilage and heavy concentrations of fat by hand with boning knives.
- They cut the good meat into similarly sized and shaped strips and heap it up on a table.
- Michael Jr. sprinkles the top of the heap with seasonings.
- Someone wearing an apron and elbow-length gloves on his thick forearms rapidly tosses the hundreds of pounds of pork until the seasonings are evenly distributed.
- The pork strips are fed into a grinder; the ground pork is loaded into the drum that feeds a stuffer.
- Michael Jr. compresses a sausage casing — a length of hog intestine — onto the nozzle and triggers the stuffer with a foot pedal. The machine fills the casing with startling speed, making a 4- to 6-foot rope in a few seconds.
- A co-worker catches, coils and packages the rope, and it is soon back in the cooler awaiting shipment.
- Within a few days it will be on the shelves in Capital Region supermarkets; in kitchens at restaurants and pizzerias; and on display right next door at Sindoni’s Country Deli, which is owned and operated by John’s wife, Sash.
The three Sindoni men have nine people working for them, all of them part-timers except the delivery driver.
So about that blend of seasonings … any chance of a peek at the recipe?
“My force fields are always up,” said Michael Jr. “I don’t try to disrespect anybody … there isn’t any huge secret, it’s just the way I am.”
We know fennel seeds and pepper are in there, because both are visible in the mix. (Red pepper for hot sausage, cracked black pepper for sweet sausage.) A sprinkle of salt can be tasted as well. The label on the package says there’s paprika, but it’s apparently in fairly subtle quantities, because it doesn’t impart a heavy flavor or distinct color.
Don’t bother asking if there are any other seasonings.
Almost at once and talking over each other, Michael Sr., John and Michael Jr. say:
“It’s a simple recipe.”
“It is quite a simple recipe.”
“This whole thing is simple, that’s all there is to it.”
Michael Sr. speaks last: “It’s based on quality.”
That, he says, is the secret of the Sindoni family’s longevity in the sausage business: Quality ingredients, which are nothing but hog casings and trimmed pork butt. (Plus the seasonings.)
Pork butt (which is actually the pig’s shoulder) can be a fatty cut, but Sindoni pays extra for select pieces with less fat.
“We buy supertrim butts,” Michael Sr. said. “If it comes in a little chubby, we start throwing fat away.”
The family aims for a consistent 18 to 19 percent fat content in the sausage, enough to ensure it will remain moist when cooked but not enough to be greasy.
“My dad always wanted it under 20 percent; we’re allowed 35 percent,” Michael Sr. said.
“Allowed” is an understatement, if anything. The company is “required” to meet a huge checklist of conditions and rules, and has constant oversight from a federal inspector to ensure it does. Not going over 35 percent fat is perhaps the easiest to comply with — they don’t come close.
“Everyone I tell that to, we’re watched every minute of every day that we work, they can’t believe it,” Michael Jr. said. “That’s why our facility is spotless, and up-to-date, and perfect at all times, because a professional is there watching us, every move we make.”
The inspector is checking everything from the personal hygiene of the employees to the cleanliness of the facility, to any sign the pork came from a diseased animal, to storage and production temperatures, to whether the equipment and seasonings and even the cleaning supplies are USDA-approved.
GRIND JUST ONCE
The Sindoni sausage mix, whether it’s going to be made into links or sold loose for pizza topping, all goes through the grinder only once, on a coarse setting.
Single coarse grind and multiple fine grind both have their fans among sausage aficionados. What the Sindonis like about single coarse grind, aside from it being their tradition, is that it gives a better display of what’s in the sausage: 82 percent red pork and 18 percent white fat.
Some of the mass-production sausage factories use every edible part of the pig except the squeal, as the saying goes, and they double grind it all into a paste so the components are not recognizable for what they are.
Mike Sindoni cuts up shoulder butt pork for the day's sausage making. (Marc Schultz)
With a certainty born of his lifetime in the business and a distinct competitive streak, Michael Sr. isn’t shy about saying which is better.
Even his mom-and-pop competitors don’t always get it right, he said, let alone the factories.
“There’s several people that do it right, and I won’t mention their names. But most people don’t. The ones that do it right, they’re old-school. When the new generation takes over, they go to expos, they cut corners, and you know what, that don’t work.”
A NEW START
Even as the family kept its sausage unchanged, it did undertake a major change in late 2015.
Fed up with crime, the Sindonis moved their operation from its home of 95 years on Genesee Street in the city of Schenectady to semi-rural Princetown.
New equipment and more ro0m defines the production facility on Settles Hill Road; the layout is designed for functionality and has an abundance of open space, unlike the old shop, which was essentially a series of expansions of a Sicilian immigrant’s circa-1920 kitchen.
One thing that was nearly added to the new shop — Michael Sr. was on the fence about it — was an industrial-size mixer.
Ultimately, they stuck with what had always worked, mixing the meat and seasonings by hand. The heat of an electric mixer or even the friction of excessive hand mixing will soften the fat and move it to the surface, potentially altering the consistency of the mix and leaving a slime on the inside of the sausage casings, which no one wanted.
So with no automation, quality control and consistency are critical. Here again, Michael Jr. is hands on, doing much of the process by eye rather than with a measuring cup or scale.
“I am very meticulous about the size of the mix … every piece has to look like the other pieces,” he said. The process is efficient enough that the meat doesn't have time to warm, so the fat stays firm.
“Even with 400-pound batches, the last couple of times I stuff, it is still freezing cold.”
With production running on a choreographed routine, and the neighborhood outside the door clean and crime-free, Michael Sr. likes coming to work and has no plans to retire. He’ll pass the business along to Michael Jr. and John when he does, but until then, he’ll enjoy running it.
“When I was young, being born in the business and living in the front of the store, you came from school, you went in the back and made a little sausage with Dad,” he said.
“I left school because this is what I wanted to do. I gave my parents a hard time and they finally said OK. And I’ve been here ever since.
“What I’m saying is, this was in my blood, it really was. I had a passion for this, I still do.”
Michael Sr., now 62, formally went to work for his father in 1973, after going back to high school and then dropping out a second time.
Michael Jr. started at 19 and John started at 16. They’re only 42 and 41, respectively, so there’s many years before any members of the fifth generation take over.
It likely won’t be the oldest two, John’s sons Chas and Devin: They work part-time at the sausage business but one is a college senior and the other a graduate, and both have other career plans at this point.
“I have seven other grandchildren,” Michael Sr. said, “boys and girls. Who knows?”