Chef News

Chef & Tell: Steve Polidori Talks About 90 Years of Sausage in North Denver

The neighborhood many are calling LoHi these days hasn’t always been the epicenter of hip, destination dining out. Before Old Major, Uncle, Williams & Graham and Highland Tap & Burger set up shop, the area was a modest, heavily Hispanic neighborhood with a few old Victorians and Denver Squares rising over stretches of two-bedroom bungalows and cinder-block apartment buildings. And before that, it was known simply as north Denver (or the Northside, to residents), home to a strong Italian community with deep roots dating back to the early twentieth century. It was then, in 1925, that Anna and Rocco Polidori moved to the neighborhood from Utah and opened a small grocery store and meat counter at the corner of 34th Avenue and Shoshone Street. Fans of Italian sausage in Denver know the Polidori name because, with Anna’s great-grandson Steve Polidori continuing the tradition, the family has been selling sausage for ninety years straight.

Steve and his sister Melodie Polidori Harris now run their business out of a small warehouse tucked behind a converted mansion that was once Joseph Coors’s home away from Golden. Steve says he always knew he would enter the family business, even though the sausage gene skipped a generation; his mom and dad — a judge and an attorney, respectively — met while in law school at the University of Denver.

Anna Polidori passed away in 1982, and her son Louis sold the grocery store that year to concentrate on the sausage business. Steve began learning sausage-making when he was 21, working part-time for his grandfather while attending Colorado State University in the early 1990s. After graduating, he moved to full-time employment there in 1994 and in 2000 became the owner. “I had to buy it — it wasn’t given to me,” Steve explains.

Melodie was working in the drug- and alcohol-testing industry at the time, but her job required a great deal of travel, so she joined Polidori Sausage in 2003. “She was traveling a lot, and I needed help,” Steve recalls. “Melodie had marketing and business skills that I didn’t have.”
Since then, the two have built the company to the point that their Highland location — which has an office, a small freezer, a little room for dry storage and the sausage-making space — is too small, so a move to Park Hill is in the works. Steve says that when he started, Polidori produced, at most, 5,000 pounds of sausage a week, and now it makes more than that every day.

But the Italian-sausage recipes are the same, and the methods aren’t much different than they were in the old days. All of the sausage-making — inspected every day by the USDA — takes place in a space about the size of an average living room. There’s one grinder, one mixer, a stuffer that extrudes long ropes of sausage, and a finishing machine that creates individual links. Seven or eight employees work with a few hundred pounds of pork shoulder and fat, adding spice blends by the pound to create the many varieties that Polidori sells.

And although the list covers sixty or more separate products, Steve says that many of those are simply variations in shape and size on a few basic recipes. Italian sausage, for example, comes in mild, sweet and spicy (as well as others), and in links, ropes, patties and sliders — or in bulk packages by the pound. Polidori also offers bratwurst, chorizo, kielbasa, breakfast sausage and unseasoned ground pork. The blend is 78 percent lean to 22 percent fat (considered a fairly lean mix by industry standards), but the company makes a 98 percent lean sausage for the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, too.

No matter the final product, though, the ingredients are the same as when Steve’s great-grandmother first started selling sausage ninety years ago. There are no fillers (so all of the sausages are soy- and gluten-free) and no artificial ingredients like MSG, nitrates or nitrites.
Among Polidori’s 2,500 or so restaurant accounts, there are some that request proprietary blends. Chef Max MacKissock will rely on Polidori to produce a sausage with his recipe when Bar Dough, a new Italian-inspired eatery from the owners of Highland Tap & Burger, opens just a few blocks away this week. Bigger restaurant clients include Snooze (for which Polidori uses pork from Tender Belly) and the Original Pancake House for breakfast. And for lunch and dinner — “I can’t even tell you, there are so many good ones,” Steve adds.

About 80 percent of the company’s business comes from restaurants, and the rest of the sausage is sold in grocery stores, with King Soopers being one of the biggest accounts. “When we first started, we would bring sausage in straight through the front door to the meat counter,” Steve explains. “But now we’re in all of the stores and we go direct to the warehouse.”

When Steve first took over the company, Polidori also sold other Italian goods — olive oil, deli meats, cheeses — but he phased those out, mostly for financial reasons: There was too much cash tied up in inventory, and he needed the money to keep the business going. “We had our hands full just making sausage,” he says.

Along with the business, the neighborhood has changed — even since Steve bought out his grandfather — with million-dollar homes going up every day, condo and apartment residents adding pedestrian traffic, and cars filled with diners flocking to the hot dining area now jamming the streets. “I think it’s great,” Steve says, “but I can’t wait to get out.”

He’ll miss some of the area’s older Italian residents, though; many of them used to come by Polidori regularly, hanging out and chatting for a half-hour or so, then heading home with a little sausage. Steve says he still gets at least one visitor a day and tries to keep something on hand for them. “We hope they call ahead, though,” he jokes.

The property, with the old Coors house in the front converted into several apartments and the production facility in the rear, has been in the Polidori family since 1972, but Steve’s grandfather’s estate recently sold it. After the move to Park Hill, the old Polidori building will most likely be rebuilt into more apartments, if it doesn’t get torn down. But Steve points out that part of the building was originally the property’s carriage house, and the carriage-house doors are still intact beneath a layer of drywall. At some point before the 1970s, it was also home to L&M printing.

Most of the old Italian families moved away from north Denver in the 1980s, Steve says; although his father worked in the family grocery store as a kid, Steve was raised in southwest Denver and attended Chatfield High School. And with the exodus of Italian families from the neighborhood, the Italian restaurants that once peppered the area have slowly died out. Polidori may be one of the last remnants of Italian culture in Highland, but rather than closing a chapter of Italian history in Denver, with their move to the east side of town, Steve and Melodie will be able to continue what their great-grandmother started in 1925.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation