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Charley knows ropes of sausage biz

Sunday, February 24, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

Every extended family has its game-day ritual foods, and in Pittsburgh, there is often an abundance of grilled Italian sausage in red sauce with fried peppers and onions, buns optional.

This is good news for Charles Armitage, the originator and official voice of Uncle Charley's sausage commercials.

Yes, there really is an Uncle Charley.

Most of us can recount success stories of businesses that were started by an entrepreneur in somebody's garage. That's the American way. Add Armitage to that list. He began his business in a garage-sized production facility in Vandergrift in 1988, making hot and sweet Italian sausage. Now, the business is in greatly expanded quarters, and he has extended the line of pork sausage products to include the Italian sausages, plus bratwurst, kielbasa, sausage links and packaged sauce.

Armitage, who lives in Markle, Allegheny Township, grew up working in his parents' small grocery store in Apollo, learning about all aspects of the meat business from purchasing and sales to distribution. Later, while working at a spice company, he learned to mix and match flavors. But it was after losing a job in the coal industry at the age of 45 that Armitage decided to get back into the meat business.

"Why, I'll never know," he says. "In the old days, we just made bulk, ropes and links and sold it. Now we have to be concerned with inspection, packaging, distributing and delivering, as well as selling -- the whole bit. This is a hard business."

Armitage is of English background and competes in a field dominated by Italian sausage makers. "My sausage is the best," he says. "Hey, I'm not Polish either, but I make the best kielbasa, too."

When he started in the business, people said he'd never make it through the summer. "Sausage was supposed to be a winter thing, the sort of food you eat at tailgate parties and football games," Armitage says. "Well, I had a family to take care of, so I made it my business to sell and market through the summer. Now, the summer picnic season gives me my biggest sales."

To customize hot and sweet Italian sausage that is picnic-friendly, Armitage came up with "griller links." They're hoagie size, sold five to a pack and at their best served with peppers, onions and Italian red sauce. "Then I thought maybe some people might not want to mess around cooking at all," Armitage says. "So we brought out pint jars of Gourmet Red Sauce with peppers and onions, ready to heat and serve."

It's no coincidence that the sauce is just enough for five links and buns. The sausages and sauce are sold in selected Shop 'n Save, Foodland, IGA and Giant Eagle supermarkets.

Uncle Charley's is a family affair, and Armitage's wife, Frances, and son, Chas, are actively involved in the business.

"Chas now runs production," he says. "I do some sales, the media pitches. Oh, and take naps."

Marlene Parrish is a free-lance writer who writes about food for the Post-Gazette.

Fresh Italian Sausages With Peppers

5 sweet or hot fresh Italian sausages
1 each yellow, red and green bell pepper,
seeded and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 tablespoons olive oil (approximately)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Soft polenta, as an accompaniment

Add the sausages to a large skillet, add water to a depth of 1/4 inch to bottom of skillet, and cook the sausages, covered, for 10 minutes. Discard any remaining water. Then saute the sausages, uncovered, for another 10 to 15 minutes or until they are cooked through and brown and golden on all sides. Remove them to a cutting board and keep warm.

Add olive oil to the skillet. When it is hot, add the pepper strips, tossing to coat, and cook until soft and tender, about 12 minutes.

Add the garlic and saute another half a minute or until soft but not brown. Add the vinegar and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated.

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in half of the chopped parsley. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Cut the sausages on an angle and add them to the pepper mixture.

Serve alongside or on top of soft polenta. Makes about 5 to 6 servings.

Sausage, Pepper and Olive Saute

1 1/2 pounds sweet or hot Italian sausage
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced into rings
1 large bell pepper, cut into thin strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup black olives, halved
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup Madeira or dry vermouth
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or parsley

Cut sausage into 1-inch pieces. Brown in large skillet over medium-high heat until cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Remove from pan and set aside. Pour off fat from skillet, and add olive oil to the skillet. Add onions and peppers to pan and cook over medium-high heat until softened, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic, olives and mushrooms and cook 5 minutes longer. Return sausage pieces to pan along with the wine.

Cover and cook over high heat until liquid is reduced by about half. Remove pan from heat, stir in basil and parsley. Serve immediately over rice or pasta.

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