How Jimmy's Conquered Dallas

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If you order a hoagie in Philly, there's a good chance it will come on a Sarcone's roll. Sure, other bakeries supply bread for some shops around town, but Sarcone's has built a legacy out of its sesame-seed-studded bread and that chewy texture that's a workout for your jaw.

Order a hot dog in Chicago and soon you'll be staring down the end of a Vienna Beef frankfurter. Do other companies supply the vendors that provide the city with its daily allowance of tubed meat? Of course. But the blue and red logo of Vienna Beef is synonymous with Chicago dogs.

This is how it goes: Every city's food culture builds itself around certain brands, purveyors that help define a town's culinary identity. The same goes for Dallas.


Jimmy's Food Store

See the step-by-step process: How Jimmy's Sausage is Made

Around here, if you're eating a sandwich worth the paper it's wrapped in, there's a strong likelihood the bread was baked at Empire Bakery Company, whose humble Lovers Lane storefront belies the company's yeasty stronghold on the city's bread market. Mozzarella Company's Paula Lambert, meanwhile, is your go-to girl if you want hand-pulled mozzarella, creamy burata or an award-winning hoja santa-wrapped goat cheese.

And then there's Jimmy's Food Store, the East Dallas grocer known as much for its house-made sausage as for its sandwiches, pastas and wines. My first encounter with Jimmy's was on a pizza at Bolsa. The simple flatbread boasted a spicy crumble of sausage tricked out with yellow pickles, peppers and mozzarella. A trip to the store itself for an Italian Stallion further imprinted the name, even if the flaccid bread it came on made me long for a true hoagie.

I saw it next on Bryan Street Tavern's menu. Maybe I was looking for it now. Like a couple shopping for homes can spot an open-house sign from 500 yards out, I started seeing Jimmy's on menus all over Dallas — on a flatbread at SWIG and again on a pizza at Cane Rosso. I was slowly becoming obsessed with the store, all the while realizing that I didn't really need to go back. Jimmy's was everywhere.

When I walked into Jimmy's a few weeks ago, to learn how this humble grocery made the sausage that captured the hearts and menus of Dallas, I was expecting to meet Paul DiCarlo, the son of James DiCarlo, who opened Jimmy's with his father (also a James) in 1966. But it was Mike, another member of that third generation, who shook my hand.

Paul was at the hospital with his dad. James, now 91, was at Baylor with some wires hooked up to his heart. They were trying to shock him back into rhythm.

"He should be all right," Mike told me before offering me an espresso. I took one; it was rich and black with a heavy crema cap that coated my lips as I sipped from the paper cup. I tried to pay for the coffee, but Mike refused.

Jimmy's looks like it's been there forever, and in a way it has: The building went up in 1927, but Jimmy's didn't open until the 1960s and it's only been the Italian grocery people know now since 1997. Before that it was more of an ethnic bodega, catering to Latino and Asian immigrants who landed in the neighborhood in the 1970s and '80s. And before that it was just a run-of-the-mill corner grocery, selling milk, dry goods and produce.

"People think we've been doing this forever," Mike told me as we stood next to a reach-in freezer, which was stocked with frozen pasta he has shipped in from a factory in Brooklyn. "We used to sell neck bones, menudo, pressed ham and bologna," he said. It sold them to working-class immigrants shopping on that week's pay. "We cashed a lot of checks," he said.

For its first 20 years, Jimmy's ran a lot like any other small Dallas grocery, but the DiCarlos always had their finger on the pulse of the neighborhood. When conflicts in Southeast Asia brought immigrants from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, they started buying 25-pound bags of rice by the pallet. When the Latino community swelled, they added skirt steak for fajitas. In the front of the store, every day of the year, they'd sell whatever the community wanted or needed.

But it was in the back, during the holidays, that the DiCarlos honored a family tradition they had no idea would become the backbone of their family business decades later. They made sausage.

It was an old family recipe that included beef and orange zest in the grind. They took the sausage home to supplement turkeys, lasagna and other holiday mainstays that graced their massive family spreads.

It's a tradition Jeff White remembers well, watching the family stuff hog casings with their holiday bounty. White lived around the corner on Live Oak Street, and he would wander over with kids from the neighborhood to sweep floors, stack boxes and do other simple tasks in exchange for sodas and cookies — a compensation package that probably wouldn't cut it these days. When White turned 17, the DiCarlos put him on the payroll. Now 42, he's been working there ever since.

About 20 years ago, White took over day-to-day management of the market. He basically lives behind the deli case, slicing provolone and ham, dishing out olives for customers. When I stopped by recently, he was pushing 60 pounds of pork shoulder through a massive commercial meat grinder. Thick and broad-chested, with a neatly trimmed beard, White's in decent shape, but I can't see him working out at the Equinox gym. I see him in the storage room pressing 200-pound crates of pork belly with one hand, sipping an espresso with the other.

"That's when the 'hood was a good 'hood," he said of his old neighborhood. He lives in Richardson now, but talks lovingly of the East Dallas neighborhood where he spent his youth. As a stream of coarsely ground pork extruded from the grinder in greasy, wet, undulating spurts, I asked him how the neighborhood, now marked by the flower boxes and rising rents, has changed since his days sweeping floors for sodas. "It was shit worse," he said, laughing. "But it was so bad you didn't know it was bad."

It was all Lucille Salerno's idea. She owned Salerno's, an Italian restaurant out in Flower Mound. "You need to sell Italian food," she told Mike in the mid-1990s. "Nobody sells Italian food anymore."

For 37 years, Al's Food Store, a Greenville Avenue grocery that sold meatball sandwiches alongside other ethnic foods, was the go-to place for Italian Americans in Dallas. But when owner Al Cascio died in 1988, his kids slowly lost the passion for pasta and salami. Al's closed in 1995, and Dallas' Italian Americans were left without a home.

Mike didn't want to sell Italian food. The lifelong grocer was used to low-priced staples like commodity meats and cheap rice. He didn't know how to turn a profit on charcuterie and high-priced tomatoes from the other side of the globe. But the idea was interesting enough to bring to his brother Paul, and Paul was less hesitant. He thought it was time to embrace the family's Sicilian roots.

He started by tweaking a few of the family recipes. He pulled the citrus and beef from the holiday sausage, scaled the recipe and amped up the links with lots of garlic. Mom Marie's sauce from Sicily got scaled, too, so they could make enough red to make all that sausage swim. Finally, in 1997, Jimmy's re-branded itself as the neighborhood Italian market, and soon the shop was filled with so much Prosciutto di Parma and Cento tomatoes that you'd never know that it used to sell anything else.

Nowadays, Italian soccer flags hang from the exposed rafters of a ceiling that's open, save for a few pieces of pressed tin that hang over the front registers and café tables up front. Shelves filled with pasta, wine, canned tomatoes, canned fishes and canned relishes and condiments run the length of the store. A small produce cooler displays onions, potatoes and tired broccoli rabe. On the days that they cook up a batch, the whole place smells of slowly simmering tomato sauce, but every day the meat case is filled with trays of freshly made sausage.

It starts with pork shoulder, which comes in deboned and vacuum-packed in 80-pound cases. I watched as Eric Tatum, a friend of White's who also worked for sugary handouts back in the day, cut the shoulders into chunks a little smaller than a tightly clenched fist. He tossed each chunk into a large white food-service bin until it was full.

That's when White grabbed a small plastic bucket of seasoning. The DiCarlos won't tell me what's in it, but I saw layers of fennel seed, salt and a mix of ground red pepper and chili for heat. White dumped the bucket over the cubed pork and dove in with two gloved hands to mix things up.

After a pass though the grinder he added a measure of water to help disperse the seasonings. Garlic was mixed in, too, a heavy amount of pre-minced cloves from another white plastic container. After more mixing, White ran the seasoned pork through the grinder again, this time with a stuffing tube clamped over the opening of the machine. He carefully threaded a length of hog casing over the stuffing tube and then, with a flip of the switch, guided six feet of freshly cased sausage into another white plastic meat bin in seconds.

Eric Tatum will twist the sausage into links if you like. He uses the length of his hand to measure each portion, which works out to about a third of a pound per link. Most times, though, the cased sausage is left in a large, spiraling coil. Other times it's left loose with no jacket at all, ready to be fried up and sprinkled over pizzas all across Dallas.

A few years back, Greg Katz and Nick Badovinus were researching the new menu for the Consilient Restaurant Group's latest offering, Fireside Pies. They needed interesting toppings to help differentiate Henderson Avenue's newest pizzeria, and Katz, who occasionally brought in sandwiches from Jimmy's, mentioned the shop's sausage. They bought a few links and roasted them in a skillet in their wood-fired pizza oven. After the sausage cooked, they dipped bread into the rendered fat.

The way Badovinus tells it, there was no greater condiment than that bright orange oil, and Jimmy's sausage has topped multiple pies at the restaurant since. Soon, other pizzerias followed. Adelmo's, Urban Crust and Bryan Street Tavern all still feature the DiCarlos' links.

Eventually restaurants that had nothing to do with Italian food wanted in on the action, and the farm-to-table movement gave Jimmy's another push. The proliferation of menu buzzwords like "organic" and "local" ushered in the new age of ultra-conscious ingredient sourcing. But with Texas' harsh climate, radishes grown within an hour's drive from Dallas were hard to come by. Jimmy's filled the gap by letting restaurants crumble and sprinkle its sausage onto anything for instant locavorism.

When chef Graham Dodds helped open Bolsa, the Oak Cliff garage-turned-restaurant, he was emphatic about sourcing locally farmed and crafted ingredients. He quickly earned a reputation for embracing local businesses — and adding Jimmy's sausage to his flatbreads helped him do it. The sausage stayed on the menu after Dodds moved on, and was only pulled when Bolsa started making their own charcuterie.

Parigi, the Oak Lawn bistro that opened in 1984, relies on Jimmy's, too. Chef Chad Houser joined the kitchen in 2006, and he's used the ground pork in various dishes for years, including a bolognese that employs Jimmy's hot Italian. The pork lends depth and fat and heat to the hearty ragu. "Jimmy's is the best ever," he says. "You can taste when someone is proud of what they are making."

Garreth Dickey, the chef at Dish, a restaurant and lounge on Cedar Springs Avenue, says the product stands on its own merits. That it's local is simply a bonus. "It has the perfect balance of sweet and salty to make you crave that sausage," he says. "The spice hits you just at the end."

Jimmy's sausage has a flavor profile like most Italian sausage, driven by the anise of fennel seeds with crushed red pepper for heat. But it's got its own character, too. It's coarsely ground, giving the product a sturdy texture and heft. It's so heavy with garlic you can smell the pungency through the white butcher paper when you take it home. And despite the fact that commercial sales have doubled the amount of sausage the store has to produce in recent years, White and his kitchen staff still work in small batches, one plastic bin at a time.

You'll see White behind the deli counter almost every day, often decked out in Yankees gear — a reminder that, while local businesses have embraced Jimmy's, its business isn't built on provincialism. Another employee stocks shelves in a pinstripe Jason Giambi jersey. Mike's son, James DiCarlo, wears Eagles gear — Eagles! — while working the front register and pulling espressos. Tell White you're a Boston fan (or a fan of any other team for that matter) and he'll tell you, "That's all right — all Yankees fans have to start somewhere."

The result is a place of comfort for Northerners: You'll occasionally spot a Phillies ball cap on a customer buying deli meat, a White Sox shirt on a guy ordering a sandwich. They've all come here looking for the same thing, just in different variations: reminders of home.

There's Taylor Pork Roll in the deli case, a processed pork product you'd only know if you grew up in Jersey or had a parent who did. Pizza dough is available in frozen balls from the Garden State, too. Italian beef sandwiches stand out on the menu board. Vienna beef sends meat, bread and giardiniera down from Chicago, and the kitchen staff throws together sopping wet sandwiches with them. There's neon green relish and sport peppers in the back on the deli counter. Without much effort, you could drag your hot dogs through the garden at home and pretend you were at a Cubs game.

Miss a roast pork sandwich from the streets of Philly? Jimmy's version would never stand up to John's Roast Pork on Snyder Avenue (it's missing that sesame-seed-studded roll), but the flavors will still take you there. Jimmy's has amassed ingredients and dishes that Northerners grew up on and thought they might not ever see again when they moved to Dallas. For them the grocery offers nostalgia, the comfort foods from their youth.

For lifelong Dallasites, though, Jimmy's offers a different sort of romance: a neighborhood grocery that feels like an Italian market as old as Main Street, even if it isn't. You'll see them gather at the patio tables out front when the weather allows, eating sandwiches wrapped in white butcher paper or foil and drinking Italian sodas and wine. They may be celebrating a tapestry of borrowed cultures, but the DiCarlos and their customers have undoubtedly made them their own, and made them part of Dallas' food identity along the way.

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