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This story originally aired in the Sept. 3, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Louis Argento is elbow-deep in a mixing bowl filled with ground pork and a closely guarded blend of spices. His dad, Sonny Argento, is supervising.
“How do you say ‘fennel’ in Italian?” Louis asks his father.
“Finocchio,” Sonny answers, making sure to get the accent right.
We’re in the dining room of Sonny’s tidy, little house in Charleston, West Virginia. Louis and Sonny are introducing me to the Argento family sausage — a recipe that has brought pride and acclaim to their Italian clan for nearly a century.
Usually, once the meat is mixed together, the family stuffs it into natural sausage casings. This time, Louis patties out the mixture like hamburger and throws it in a skillet. The Argentos like their sausage on pizza, in spaghetti sauce or served on a hoagie bun — but they eat it for any meal of the day.
“We like it with fried eggs and applesauce in the morning,” Louis said. “You know apples and pork generally goes well together, so we do applesauce — or fried apples, even better — with some toast on the side.”
Sonny is 82 now and he’s been eating this stuff all his life. The recipe came from his mother’s family, who hailed from the Calabria region of Italy. He grew up hearing stories about how his grandfather made it in the old country.
“They would chop the pork up with knives. They didn’t have any electricity. They couldn’t grind the pork,” Sonny said. “So they would chop it up as fine as they could get it, which wasn’t very fine, mix the seasoning in it, and he had a hollowed out cow horn. My grandmother would clean the casings … and he would skin him up on the cow horn and stuff it with his thumb.”
Sonny’s mother, Sarafina, eventually taught the recipe to Sonny’s father, Angelo Argento.
The Argentos came from Sicily. Angelo came to West Virginia from Sicily when he was six years old. He became a coal miner at just thirteen, but when he wasn’t below ground, Angelo worked for a local grocery store.
By the time he was 26, he left the mines to start a store of his own, three-and-a-half miles up Powelton Holler in Fayette County.
He called the little shop A. Argento & Co.
“He said two men could stand fingertip to fingertip, and their other hands could touch the wall. Yet he sold almost everything in there,” Sonny said.
That store only existed for about five years before it burned to the ground. Angelo didn’t have any insurance or savings, but he was already so well-known for his work ethic and honesty that a bank in Montgomery loaned him the money to build a new store — on little more than a handshake. He called this store Angelo’s Market.
“This guy had a fourth grade education, but nobody’s fool. And you weren’t going to beat him out of a nickel,” Sonny said.
In 1960, young Sonny Argento found himself stationed in the mountains of Turkey with the U.S. Air Force. He was 20 years old, away from West Virginia for the first time and chronically homesick.
He borrowed another airman’s reel-to-reel tape deck and recorded an audio message for his family back home. When they got it, his family borrowed a reel-to-reel to make a recording of their own.
Everybody in the family passed around the microphone, telling him about the ball games they won, report cards they got and the colds they had caught. When it was Sonny’s dad’s turn, Angelo made sure to give an update on the family meat shop.
“Boy, you should’ve been here this week. We’ve sure had some weather,” Angelo says on the scratchy tape, clearly choking back his emotion. “Made some pepperoni the other day and it sure was cold.”
When he heard the tape, Sonny says he immediately pictured his father’s grocery store, the meat shop and its big metal sausage mill with the feet nailed to the wooden carving block. He could see his father spooning the fragrant mix of coarse-ground pork and spices into one end of the machine and turning the crank. And he could see his mother on the other end, catching the long links of plump pink “pepperoni” — that’s what Angelo called his sausage — as it spilled from the machine.
It did very little to alleviate Sonny’s homesickness. But after five years in the Air Force he eventually made it back to Fayette County to help his father run the business. He took over completely in 1977, a few years before Angelo passed away.
You can probably guess where this is going: A small, family-owned store, trying to stand against the tide of big box, mega-marts and the dollar stores that seem to be cropping up in every Appalachian holler and town. More and more customers were lured away, and the Argentos just couldn’t compete.
Angelo’s Market closed in 2008, after more than 70 years in business. But here’s the thing — when it closed, the family didn’t just lose the family business.
“We had no need to go to Kroger or Walmart or any other store to shop. And when our store closed, we realized … that there was no quality Italian sausage in the stores,” Louis said.
So they just kept making the sausage, first in Sonny’s kitchen and then in a makeshift meat shop they set up in his garage. Once family and friends found out, the family started getting orders.
“A lot of people, especially the Italian-Americans around here, like the sausage for their Christmas dinners or holiday parties,” Louis said. “Next thing you know, we have an order for 500 pounds of sausage.”
The demand was so great, Sonny decided maybe it was time to try a new kind of family business.
There was a problem, though. While it’s fine to make sausage in your garage for family and friends, the government doesn’t want you to sell it. Luckily, one of Sonny’s friends owned a few grocery stores in Charleston and loaned the family the use of a health department-licensed meat shop. By making it there, the Argentos could sell their sausage in the store and offer it to local restaurants.
They named their product “Angelo’s Old World Sausage.” The label features an old photo of Sonny and his dad, Angelo, in ties and white aprons, grinning in front of the old store’s meat case.
The family made their sausage in that grocery store meat shop for about two years, but they eventually outgrew the space. They couldn’t produce as much sausage as they needed and, because it wasn’t a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing facility, the Argentos couldn’t sell the sausage in other stores.
For a while, they considered building a factory of their own, but that was too big of an investment for such a small company. So they started looking around for a co-packer. After some searching they found Wampler’s Farm Sausage in Lenoir City, Tennessee. It’s also a family business — albeit one with a modern, solar-powered meat processing facility attached.
“I saw all these guys in white coats and a federal inspector walking around with their arms folded — and a tear came to my eye,” Sonny said. “I remember my mom and dad standing over the meat block making sausage … and occasionally my mother would have to put her finger in it, touch it to her tongue and say, ‘It needs more salt.’ And I’m thinking, we can no longer do that.”
Wampler’s factory is capable of turning out as much sausage as the Argentos could ever need.
And everything is still made to the family’s exacting standards, from the coarseness of the ground meat to the blend of spices that gives the sausage its unique flavor.
“We sample every batch, still,” Louis said. “As good as Wampler is, we want to make sure the sausage our customers are buying is consistent.”
Louis said the appeal of Angelo’s Old World Sausage is as much about what they leave out as what they add in. There are no extra binders or additives like you might find in big commercial sausages and no preservatives.
“And it’s a joy to give people a bite of our sausage for the first time and see their face light up,” Louis said. They’re like, ‘Man, I’ve never tasted anything like this.’ Yeah, so go put your corporate sausage down and get some really good stuff here that has no preservatives in it.”
But the same economic forces that put Angelo’s Market out of business make it difficult for Angelo’s Old World Sausage to survive, too.
Their products are now available in about 30 stores in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky — although that growth has been a struggle. It can be difficult to convince managers to carry their product, when every square inch of chain grocery stores’ meat cases are rented out by major corporate producers. Angelo’s isn’t a big enough player to get into the big box stores’ warehouses, so their sausage also doesn’t appear in shopping apps.
That leaves the Argento family to depend on a more grassroots approach based on word-of-mouth, some social media advertising and setting up taste-tests in grocery stores. They’re confident that if shoppers try a bite, they’ll be hooked.
“The big challenge is getting more people to try it and to realize there is indeed a quality Italian sausage available in grocery stores. Sometimes we may cost 25 or 50 cents more, but it’s worth it,” Louis said.
Sometimes, when Sonny is working at a store taste test, he’ll offer customers a piece of sausage but they’ll politely decline and continue down the meat aisle.
“I want to just run up and tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing, if you’ll just give us a try,’” he said.
After all, this isn’t just sausage — it’s the Argento family’s most precious family heirloom.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.