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Story - Food

Nov 28, 2017 5:02 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Butcher Steven Colabella Creates Innovative Sausage In Southampton

Butcher Steven Colabella at work making sausage at Peconic Prime Meats in Southampton Village. DANA SHAW
Nov 29, 2017 9:21 AM

There are women the world over who long for a man to gaze at them with the ardor Steven Colabella directs toward a stack of freshly made sausage.

For Mr. Colabella, the executive butcher for Peconic Prime Meats in Southampton Village, sausage is as much art as lunch.

Sausage is just one cog in the meat machine that is a butcher shop, but it’s the one that sets his imagination alight.

“There are endless possibilities in sausage,” he said. “There’s a freedom to it. A steak, you can only cut it so many different ways. But I can come up with 130 different flavors of sausage over a couple of years, and it’s never done, because food is always evolving.”

On any given day, sausages on display at the shop are likely to include sweet Thai chili, both hot and sweet Italian, and bourbon bacon. Along with parsley and cheese ring sausage and a couple of varieties of breakfast sausage, these are the workhorses. But depending on the time of year and the creative fancy of Mr. Colabella, a shopper might find a chicken and waffle breakfast sausage, a beef pastrami sausage—or a pumpkin pie sausage.

“I made that one a couple of weeks ago, and someone came back and said it tasted a little like graham crackers, but it was good,” he said. “I tried to incorporate everything that goes into a pumpkin pie into a sausage, but the graham cracker overpowered the pumpkin, so next time I’m going back to the drawing board.”

That drawing board is a busy place, with ideas continually being conceived, tested, refined and tested some more before they make it to the meat case. “It’s a lot of trial and error. I’ll get an idea for a specific sausage and then keep trying to make it over and over until I get the texture and the flavor that I want out of it. Like the sweet Thai chili one—we made that six or seven times to get it right. I’ll put the experimental ones out as samples so customers can tell me when I’ve got it right, too.”

Some of his other varieties include a Cuban sandwich pork sausage, seaweed sake shitake blend, and chicken Parmigiana.

Mr. Colabella said he gets ideas for new sausage flavors from everywhere. “I’ve learned from chefs how to make certain dishes, from different butchers how to make different styles of sausage. I learned from my father and his uncles how to do the Italian sausages.”

Prior to being hired by Peconic Prime Meats owner Robert Corton five years ago, he had a gourmet meat market in North Carolina. “There was this spice and tea shop in our same plaza, and it was like going into a candy shop for me. They helped me develop a lot of my ideas and showed me how to mix spices together. There are certain ratios, and you can keep adding flavors in and altering it slightly until you get the flavor just perfect.”

Some of the best ideas have come from other shop employees. “We had been doing wings for the Super Bowl, and I made this bourbon sauce that I couldn’t for the life of me sell,” he recalled. “I was going on vacation, and I told the guy, ‘When I come back, just make sure this stuff is gone.’ I assumed he was going to throw it out. No, he made Bourbon bacon sausage out of it and I haven’t been able to stop selling it since.”

Anthony Rotella, a childhood friend who has long worked in food service with Mr. Colabella, added a Carolina-style barbecue sausage to the roster. “I let them be creative,” Mr. Colabella said. “There’s never anything where I’m going to say no to trying it.”

Mr. Colabella insists that the sausage-making, itself, is something anyone can do—basically, take ground-up meat (usually pork butt) and mix in seasonings and other flavorings to get the desired result.

But the creative bent that drives him to try new varieties isn’t as common—although it does seem to be a family trait. When he was a teenager, he worked with his father, Steve, at Fairways, a high-end grocer in Plainview. “He wanted to do a chicken cordon bleu sausage,” Mr. Colabella said. “We spent days figuring out whether to put Dijon mustard or Hollandaise sauce in it. He decided on Dijon.”

Following in his father’s footsteps wasn’t a difficult career decision. “It’s something my father has done all his life, and I was always helping him out. He taught me when I was young, and I developed a love for it. ‘I’m teaching you a dying trade,’ he would say. I learned recently that someone on my dad’s side of the family has been in the business for five generations, starting in Italy and then over here.”

Food service is very much the family business. “My brother’s a grocery manager, and my mother was a deli manager and store manager,” he said. His great-uncles had butcher shops in New York City.

Mr. Colabella was 10 when he started going to work with his father. “For Thanksgiving, I’d hand out turkeys, and I’d clean up on tips. I thought it was the best thing ever. I was spending time with my dad and I got to see all this crazy stuff that most kids that age are scared to touch.

“I worked with my dad through high school, and went right to work after graduation as a butcher. I landed the job as head sausage maker at Fairways when I was 17. We made 1,000 pounds of sausage every two or three days.

“Now, my kids come in, and they help me.” Mr. Colabella and his wife, Cynthia, have three boys, Brent, Dylan and Dean, and one girl, Annamarie, ranging in age from 6 to 15. “The little guy and the older guy are interested,” he said. “The middle two want nothing to do with the meat business, but my daughter, who’s 8, has the same passion for cooking that I do, and we do a lot of cooking and baking together at home. The middle guy just wants to eat.”

Sausage is sometimes held to be the resting place of lesser cuts of pork and scraps. Not at Peconic Prime Meats. “We source heritage breed pork from the Carolinas,” he said. “It’s chosen based on stewardship of the animal and the specific marbling of the meat. And we only use pork butt, no scraps.”

The casings he uses are also top-notch. “I’m actually using the only natural sausage casings produced in America. They’re from a company in Syracuse.”

While sausage may be Mr. Colabella’s raison d’être, the shop also carries a wide selection of beef, pork and chicken, both au natural and marinated.

“I’m insanely picky about my beef,” he said. “When it comes to steak, I really want that flavor, and I want it to taste soft in texture, but I also want to know where it comes from. I want to know what it ate. I never get any corn-fed beef, or corn-finished. I’ll never have anything in the store that’s ever touched an antibiotic. And I don’t buy beef from overpopulated farms or anyone who’s been fined for mistreatment or other animal welfare violations.”

He works closely with his meat packer to source his beef from small farmers. “A lot of the big guys, their smallest herd is 700 to 800 animals,” Mr. Colabella explained. “They don’t test every animal, they’ll test maybe 10 or 12 out of the whole lot. I want smaller batches so there’s greater consistency. I want a guy who only does herds up to maybe 200 animals. Most of my product is coming out of Nebraska, and my rep has been out there to visit the farm personally for me.”

He’s also wary of the organic label. “Organic means it’s technically on land that’s tilled organically for three years or more. But they’re not necessarily getting fed anything different. And with organic you can slip in grain as long as it’s an organic grain.

“There’s also a big trend toward grass-fed beef lately, but I’m not really too into it. The difference between 100 percent grass-fed and prime or natural beef is minuscule. It just means that the last six weeks of its life it grazed on grass, and that’s what makes it 100 percent grass-fed.

“There’s a really big misconception that prime beef isn’t eating grass at all, that it’s just being fed grain. But it grazes on grass all its life until it goes to the feedlot, then they’re giving it grain so they can get a grade of prime. Grass-fed beef doesn’t have a grade, so there’s no check on the marbling.”

Even with no advertising and the business growing strictly via word of mouth, Peconic Prime Meats is a busy place, especially in the summer when Mr. Colabella might make 1,000 pounds of sausage a week with the small hand-press he uses. But with customers from Manhattan urging him to bring his skills closer to the city, he’s looking into the possibility of extending his talents to reach a larger market.

“We’re still working on how to do that,” he said. “I would go in and show the supplier my recipe, and we would have them make it until it tastes just like I made it. That’s an avenue I’ve never been down before, so we’re just testing the waters. But that’s probably the only way we’re going to get our stuff into the city. We do fresh sausage, and that’s just not something you can get most places.”

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