We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
When Luigi Fiorella was 19 years old, he left his parents' farm in Foggia, Italy, to try his luck in the New World. He gathered his savings, booked passage on a transatlantic ship, and landed in Philadelphia in 1892. Like many other Italian immigrants in South Philly, he began working as a butcher.
In 1904, he purchased the building at 817 Christian St. - a three-story masonry structure that had been constructed for the express purpose of hosting a butcher shop. A giant scale was built right into the foot-thick cement floor, and a hand elevator ran from the basement to ground level, making it easy to transfer animal parts from one story's large ice box to the next. Above the store was an apartment, where Fiorella and his wife could raise their seven children.
Concentrating only on pork sausage turned out to be a solid choice, and the establishment just off the busy Italian Market strip prospered. When Luigi died in 1925, his eldest son, Michael, took over, and soon after was joined by two of his siblings. To indicate there was more than one proprietor, they renamed the shop Fiorella Bros. Sausage.
The brothers continued to run things through 1968, when Michael's son Louis retired from his job as a Philadelphia police officer. He became the sole third-generation owner, and changed the business name back to Fiorella's. In 1980, Louis retired for a second time, and turned the shop over to his own two sons, Dan and Eddie. With a pair of fourth-generation siblings in charge, Fiorella Bros. once again became the shop's official moniker.
Louis stayed involved in his sons' business, making sure the natural-casing, zero-preservative sausages stayed up to par, all the way up to his death in 2008. Eddie died two years after his father, leaving Dan to run the business - now again just "Fiorella's" - on his own.
But Dan, 67, isn't entirely alone. His wife, Trish, helps manage the sales side, and his 90-year-old mother, Connie, lives above the shop. Standing between a butcher block dating to the 1930s and a National Cash Register made in 1901, he described what makes his sausage special, explained why his store has never been robbed, and recalled how he got introduced to the South Philly mafia.
Ever think about a different career?
I came to work with my dad when I was a sophomore in high school. I liked the money, so I decided to follow him into this business. I was never forced into it. My dad said, "You're not going to get rich, but at least you'll have something to eat every day. You'll make a living." And I believe I did.
How often are you here?
Every day except Monday, when we're not open. I start around 7 a.m. and stay until we close. My wife works here some days, and I have a fellow who helps me in the back. But I make all the sausage. So if you liked it yesterday, you're going to like it again today. Because the same person's doing it.
How many varieties of sausage do you make?
I make a hot and a mild, and I make it with or without fennel, so that's four. I also make liver sausage, cheese sausage and a breakfast sausage, so that's seven altogether.
Same recipes as when your great-grandfather started?
For the hot and sweet and the liver sausage, yes. We use pork shoulder butt; that's the only cut we buy. It has more movement, so there's not a lot of tendons and nerves in it. And it's a leaner piece. We grind it coarse. Regular sausage gets salt, either red or black pepper and with or without fennel. The liver sausage was my great-grandmother's recipe. It has orange peel - that neutralizes the acid in the liver - plus a little bit of garlic and red pepper.
We added the other two varieties later. There was a guy who helped us out one time; he was from New York, and he said cheese sausage was real popular up there. So we started making that, with provolone cheese and a little parsley. The breakfast sausage, my brother and I started. I don't like the taste of sage, so we make it without. Now, for a minimum order of five pounds, I'll make it any way you want. Extra fennel, extra this, extra that - any way you want.
Your personal favorite?
The hot with fennel. I enjoy that. I have one guy that calls every six weeks or so. He wants extra hot, extra fennel. Whenever he calls up, I make a little extra for me.
So you're not sick of it?
Well, somebody has to check and make sure that it's still up to quality. So I'm the quality-control guy, I guess. I'll have it Sundays with the macaronis and all, and then once during the week I'll have it fried. Just to make sure everything is going the way it's supposed to.
Has business gone up and down?
In the late '70s, the business was the best. It's been on the decline ever since. People don't eat like they used to. They don't do a lot of cooking. The most we ever sold in one day was 1,200 pounds, on the Saturday before Christmas back in the '70s. This year on that day we did 900 pounds. On average now, I make 500 or 600 pounds a week. The holidays are always good. It's the rest of the year I have to survive.
How long does the sausage take to make?
At my best, I can put out 75 pounds every 20 minutes. That's with three people working in our little production room, which is 66 square feet in total. Our meat grinder is from 1969.
Who were some of your most memorable customers?
I remember the first time [mafia bosses] Angelo Bruno and Phil Testa came in. I had just started working here. One of them orders the sausage and then turns around and says to the other guy, "Pay the man," and he takes out a huge bundle of cash and pays. When they left, I turned to my dad and shrugged. He says, "You don't know who that was?" I didn't. I grew up in West Philadelphia. My dad grew up in South Philly; he knew. I guess this is a big mob-infiltrated area. But I had no idea.
Ever had a robbery here?
No. You know, the thing with a butcher shop, there's always a lot of knives around. And you don't know where they're at, and I do.
Your cash register is impressive.
It's from 1901. My great-grandfather bought it from a car dealer. It's one of the biggest that National made, solid brass. It weighs 220 pounds. An appraiser came in once and tried to get me to sell it to him. Said in his estimation, it's worth around $5,000. I said, you're not buying that for $5,000. He said, how about $6,000? I says, it's not for sale! He said, everything has a price; give me a number. I said, OK, pay for my daughter's wedding. And he didn't say nothing after that.
Have the signs around the shop always been here?
I painted them. Art was my second love. When I was in high school, I had an art class one year, and the teacher said, you should pursue this field, I can see something in it for you. But if I had to do it for a living, I might not enjoy it. I have my own workshop at home - woodwork and all that. The wooden pig in front of the store, the American flag on the side of the building, I made those.
Do you have a succession plan?
My daughter doesn't need this. She's a dental hygienist. She makes a lot better money than I do. But her husband is showing a little bit of interest. So we're going to sit down and have a little talk, me and him, and then we'll see. Maybe I can retire a little earlier than I thought. They just had a baby four months ago, so now I have a grandson. Another generation to run the shop. He would be the sixth.
817 Christian St., 215-922-0506