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Multinational kielbasa boasts many flavors, spellings

Thursday, April 12, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Few genuine ethnic butcher shops have survived the glut of supermarkets and huge commercial meat-packing businesses.

Don Wojtowicz holds freshly stuffed kielbasa loops he made with sons Paul, left, and Tom, center, behind the meat counter of their South Side market. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

But Pittsburgh has Mission Market, a real Polish butcher shop where you can find genuine kielbasa, Polish sausage made in the Old World way -- and often the meat of choice for Easter.

Practice your parallel parking before you plan a trip to the market on the Slopes in the South Side, because you'll need it. On a street crowded with houses built into the hill, barely one lane is passable.

"We serve the neighborhood with produce, dairy and canned and dry goods, but our big draw is our sausages," says 71-year-old Don Wojtowicz (say, woy-TOE-vich), a sturdy-looking man dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, his face creased with laugh lines.

When it comes to this sausage, pick your spelling: kielbasa, kielbasi, klobase or kolbassi. Everyone in Eastern Europe seems to have a variation on this sausage as well as how to spell it. Poland's version is probably the best known, but don't tell that to neighbors from Lithuania or Slovenia.

The basic ingredients are ground pork, garlic, salt and pepper, which are combined, stuffed into sausage casings and smoked. Depending on the butcher, other ingredients and spices may be added such as ground beef, allspice and mustard seeds.

Wojtowicz learned to make kielbasa and other Polish sausages from his father.

"My dad, Peter, immigrated to this country through Ellis Island before World War I. His store was on Leticoe Street, just down the hill," he says. "I was stocking shelves and working in the shop with my dad as a boy. It was the only job I've ever really wanted."

As with all ethnic sausages, there is a bit more involved in kielbasa than ground pork, garlic, salt and pepper. "If 20 Polish butchers all made kielbasa and put them on a table, each one would taste different and have a slightly different texture," Wojtowicz says.

"Our sausage isn't too strong," he says. "If you eat sausage and it repeats on you, well, you won't eat much more. It's better to make it on the mild side. Then people will buy it again next time. We seem to have a formula that agrees with people.

"I used to make kielbasa by look, feel and habit. But now we have a standardized formula. When you're making 100 pounds, you want it to taste just like a 15-pound batch."

In the old days, the butcher smoked the kielbasa over hardwood -- cherry, hickory and other slow burners. But the sausages are no longer smoked at the market. "We send them out," Wojtowicz says.

Of his seven children, two work at the market, which is on Mission Street. Paul, 37, joined his dad right after high school. Tom, 35, joined the business in 1992. But first he earned a degree in finance from Duquesne University. He was headed for law school, but decided that spending more time with family came first. He loves the freedom of ownership and the ethnic food traditions.

How to cook fresh Polish kielbasa

Before cooking, prick the casing in 5 or 6 places with the point of a skewer or small knife. Coil the sausages in concentric circles in a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet and pour in enough water to cover them completely. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then simmer uncovered for about 40 minutes.

Kielbasa may then be sliced into rounds 1/2 inch thick, fried in a little oil and served with potatoes and sauerkraut. Large links may be browned on the grill. And pass the horseradish.

-- Marlene Parrish

For directions for the market, 2400 Mission St., call 412-431-0321.


"We all get along, more like friends than dad and brothers," the sons agree.

"Fresh, unsmoked kielbasa is getting more popular," says Tom Wojtowicz. "Most people have rarely had it fresh, that is, fresh pork sausage before it's smoked. We usually make it on Thursdays."

The fresh sausage should be simmered before eating to cook the pork thoroughly.

"We also make kieszka, a sausage ring made with liver and buckwheat. It's fully cooked and ready to fry," he continues. "We sell our own hams, which are made elsewhere to our specifications. And we have a retired fellow who makes homemade horseradish for us around the holidays. Horseradish is the condiment of choice with kielbasa. People go crazy for it."

Many Polish old-timers made small batches of kielbasa at home for their families. A few people still do. "They'll come in and buy pork butts, and we grind it for them," says Tom. "But when the old-timers pass on, many of them never leave a recipe. The young people just don't want to bother with making it, so they buy kielbasa from Mission Market, and it tastes just the same. It's a shame to lose the tradition, but that's how times are."

The family does no mail order, but there's a sign on the wall beside the meat counter titled "How Our Kielbasa Travels." Under it, a wall map is studded with pins in all 50 states. "The sausage sent to North Dakota went to a military base. That state was tough to crack," says Tom.

People come from all corners of the city to buy the specialty sausage. Some are buying for grandmothers who live across the city and lack transportation; others are buying to pack airline carry-on bags, toting the sausage to relatives and friends who have moved away. Some customers never travel to see out-of-state family without stopping there first.

The whole Wojtowicz family pitches in during the holiday rushes, especially at Easter and Christmas. You'll see an uncle or two and various brothers-in-law. This is part of the the tradition, too.

There's more to Mission Market than sausage. Many folks love the old-time atmosphere. A good customer might drop by for a fresh-cut sandwich, although it isn't advertised. And most customers are called by their first names.

"We know most of the people who shop here. There's Danny in the Steeler cap. He's been a customer for over 60 years," says Tom. "We're still just your neighborhood store."

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