PHILADELPHIA — It’s called Turducken.
Cuts of three birds – chicken and duck inside a large, deboned turkey, each layer lined with a sausage stuffing – bundled together, forming the on-steroids pièce de résistance of a holiday meal near you. Patrons line up out the door of D’Angelo Bros., the century-old butcher shop in Philadelphia’s historic Italian Market, to get one.
The bristly, bearded butcher behind the counter is the craftsman who can provide it.
An eager, middle-aged man wearing a ball cap walked into the shop the day before Thanksgiving. Santo “Sonny” D’Angelo, the shop’s third-generation proprietor, was near the door slicing duck breast. The man, noticing the line of customers ahead of him, looked to D’Angelo.
“I’m here to pick up a Turducken?” he asked.
“OK…” D’Angelo responded, like he could give a damn, his eyes focused on his work.
“Is this the right place?” the man asked, puzzled by the response.
“It is!” said D’Angelo, his shoulders shrugging, his eyes widening and his voice rising with thick sarcasm. He still had not looked up.
“Just wanted to make sure I’m not waiting in this long line at the wrong place,” the man said.
“Yeah, yeah,” D’Angelo muttered as the man slinked into line.
Many know Sonny D’Angelo as a curmudgeon – a curmudgeon who happens to be one of the finest butchers in Philadelphia, a sixth generation meat vendor who began working with his father and grandfather as a teenager in the city’s famed market.
Maybe the reason D’Angelo, 63, rarely smiles is because he never wanted this life, though he has grown to appreciate and respect it. The grind of the 60-hour workweeks probably doesn’t help. Maybe it’s something else altogether.
“Actually, I’ve never smiled, even when I was a kid,” he said. “I’ve always been very serious. And I’m near-sighted, so I tend to squint and people think I’m frowning and growling, but I just can’t see. It’s very simple.”
Then he laughed. He’s not all frowns.
D’Angelo worked his first day when he was 13 years old. His grandfather paid him $7 for the week. He bought a bow and arrow with the money.
“My father went berserk that he paid me,” he said one recent day while carving pork butt on a large, wooden board. “But my grandfather knew what he was doing. He taught me instantly the value of money and work. I’ve been a workaholic ever since.”
D’Angelo comes from six generations of butchers, dating back to his family’s roots in Sicily. His grandfather opened the family’s shop in the Italian Market in 1910, which spans a half-mile of crowded blocks on 9th Street in South Philadelphia and is the largest, continuous outdoor market in the country, according to the market’s visitor center. Sonny took over the shop in 1972, the year he was married, but it wasn’t always supposed to be that way.
D’Angelo earned a degree in biology with a grade point average of 3.6, he said, in time spent between Penn State University and Villanova University.
He wanted to be a veterinarian, but couldn’t get into graduate school. With a family in the making, he was forced back into the family business. In a sense, he would still be working with animals.
So D’Angelo made the shop his own, employing business and life advice bestowed him from his strict grandfather and father. He references them often, the lessons they taught him. Today, the shop has 273 items for sale – from wild boar and pheasant sausages, to rabbit, duck prosciutto, ham hocks, rattle snake, venison and, well, Turducken, to name a few – bought from “about as many suppliers,” D’Angelo said, many of which sold to his forefathers.
D’Angelo’s products are all from heirloom breeds and raised organically on local farms. Each spring, he buys his own turkey chicks – red bourdon chicks that cost $10 apiece, as opposed to the $1 white turkey chicks that are raised for sale in supermarkets – and brings them to a Mennonite farm near Lancaster, Pa. to be raised. He provides the farmer with feed. By autumn, they’re ready to be brought to the shop, where he works with his brother Anthony, to be butchered and sold.
“People who say they don’t like turkey have never had a good turkey,” D’Angelo said. “And my turkeys are – I mean, if the guy ever stopped raising them for me, I’d stop selling turkeys.”
That it is served to them without a smile surely bothers some, but business is good nonetheless. Year after year as the holidays roll around, D’Angelo sells more turkeys than the year before, he said. This is the extent of what most know about Sonny D’Angelo. He is a purveyor of fine, healthful meats.
It’s easy to simply focus on the flesh within the two glass cases his shop, but a look around offers a peak into Sonny’s life beyond the meat.
Three paintings adorn the wall opposite D’Angelo’s workstation. He brushed every stroke.
The simple and classical portrait of a Flemish woman wearing a green apron and gold, flower-garnished scarf and white headdress, holding a bushel of bread, looks museum ready. The meticulously detailed picture of two quails, perched on a tree branch, surrounded by an ornate assortment of leaves, moss and yellow fungi, served as the cover of his second cookbook. Aside from art classes in grade school, D’Angelo never took a lesson. Sometimes he wishes he had more time to paint.
Sitting atop the meat case closest to the entrance is a small, stuffed alligator head, jaw agape, with a pink orchid hanging in its mouth. It looks rather campy, but D’Angelo is quite serious about his orchids.
As newlyweds, D’Angelo and his wife attended a local flower show. He didn’t have the slightest idea what he attending.
“I thought it was old ladies with vases of flowers,” he said. “And when we went down the escalator, we walked into an orchid jungle with a waterfall and a pond and all of these orchids festooned into the trees. And I just stood there. I didn’t move for a couple hours.
“I went home with a couple of orchids that day and it was addiction ever since.”
For years, he has raised them at his home. He names them all, most after his wife, Lorraine.
“The orchids are kind of a Zen situation where they calm me down, whereas the meat — I’m always worried about perfection — is kind of stressing. So I kind of have a yin and yang,” D’Angelo said.
On the back wall are various stuffed heads – a bear, an elk, and a buck among them. Count taxidermy among D’Angelo’s hobbies.
That’s not all. Some 8,000 copies of his two cookbooks – the first of American-Italian cuisine, the second of wild game – have been printed, he said, and he hopes to write a third, about sausage.
“My grandfather taught me don’t listen to anyone, you can do anything you want,” D’Angelo said while casing a wild boar, linden berry and cranberry sausage. “As long as you don’t know you can’t do it, you can.”
He’s also a family man. D’Angelo’s two children – a son and a daughter – fulfilled the graduate dreams he could not with PhD’s, in nuclear oncology and toxicology, respectively. His retired wife, Lorraine D’Angelo, with whom he lives in a Philadelphia suburb, is the former director of the U.S. Department of Health And Human Services Supply Center. She also has a PhD in pharmacology.
Still, D’Angelo’s life is mostly dedicated to his butcher shop in the market, on the same thoroughfare that Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa toured on his legendary run immortalized in 1977’s Academy Award-winning Best Picture.
He gets a lot of attention, and business, this time of year. As Thanksgiving approached, the local CBS television affiliate aired a story about D’Angelo’s popular Turducken. (He’s not the only butcher who makes them, but he may be the best at it.)
“He told me I had to clean up because they were coming to do an inspection,” Anthony D’Angelo, Sonny’s brother, said. “But really TV was coming.”
Despite his reputation as a gruff, D’Angelo has plenty of niceness in his bones. He is friendlier to longtime patrons. He remembers names. He is no customer service specialist, but a true craftsman pushing a laudable product.
As he finished butchering one of the many Turduckens he constructed the day before Thanksgiving, and his brother Anthony rang up a customer for the $92-and-change it cost, Sonny D’Angelo finally looked up.
He offered a bag of spare turkey carcasses, for free, to the customer to take home – for a stock, or gravy, or whatever. The customer obliged, thankful for the gift.
“Thanks a lot for waiting, sorry,” D’Angelo said in a single breath.
He has a way of making good with his customers.