It started with an email from a Fort Wayne native from Michigan who was looking to find a sausage roll next time he came to town that was like the one the old Alexanders on East State Boulevard served when he lived here.
A call to Riverbend Pizza owner Alexander Demetroff, whose parents opened Alexanders in 1956 and later started the Lexys pizzerias, led to a deeper discussion on these Fort Wayne favorites.
Why are sausage rolls so popular here?
Why are they called sausage rolls?
Who started the trend?
Why not a calzone?
Fort Wayne was not the first place where someone put pizza toppings inside dough and baked it.
Calzones, panzerottis, strombolis – there are many names for similar dishes. But there are subtle differences between these and what we here in the Summit City know as sausage rolls.
Calzones are typically made with bread dough, whereas sausage rolls are made with pizza dough. Though both doughs typically have the same ingredients, the water-to-flour ratio is usually higher for bread dough and some bread recipes incorporate eggs or milk, which pizza doughs do not, and sometimes more fat.
Calzones are lighter and flakier, Demetroff says.
The most distinctive difference between calzones and sausage rolls – the experts I talked to agreed – is the way they are folded.
Calzones are semi-lunar; half-moon shaped, Demetroff says, adding that they are folded along the side where the dough meets.
Sausage rolls have firmer, crustier doughs, are shaped like footballs or little pouches and are folded on top.
Redwood Inn owner Jeanne Bixby agreed with Demetroff on the folding standard but was quick to divulge that, I have never had a calzone.
Laycoffs Bar & Grill owner Jim Sullivan thinks that maybe the rather plain – but still tasty – fillings for a sausage roll (mozzarella, ground sausage and pizza sauce) separates it from others.
I think calzones have more of an Italian twist with more seasonings and different kinds of cheese (like Parmesan and feta), he says.
The first person I called to learn the origin of these tasty behemoths was Bixby. She has owned the Redwood for more than 30 years, and they were already a staple there when she first stepped into the place.
She believed the original owners, brothers Brent and Wes Stewart, were the ones who started the trend when they opened the Inn in the late 1960s.
They invented those, Bixby says. They started using slices of link sausage at first before switching to the ground-up kind, but they were always folded on top.
Wes Stewart, who now owns and operates Stewies on Coldwater Road, says many people think the Redwood is where it started and he has gotten into arguments with people who refuse to believe he and his brother werent the first to serve them.
It was an old ironworker hangout when we took over – a pretty rough place, Wes recalled. We experimented for about six months on pizzas and sausage rolls, but Doc Letos place, Letos Pizza, is where we first had them.
Letos Pizza, on Broadway between Washington and Jefferson boulevards, was run by the late Dominic Leto from 1950 until 1966 when it burned down.
It was a small place, but kind of unique, Wes says. He had pizza and spaghetti, and his sausage rolls were delicious.
Leto called them rolls because they actually were just rolled-up pizzas.
He would roll them and tuck the ends in and serve them in a paper bag, Wes says. You could walk down the street with one and eat it.
Letos nephew, Sam Leto, who owns the Salvatoris Italian restaurants in Fort Wayne and New Haven, was not surprised to hear his uncle may have started the sausage roll trend.
It was the first or second Italian place in Fort Wayne, Sam says of Letos Pizza. That was back when hardly anyone even knew what it was.
Not long after talking to Sam, his aunt, Dominics wife, Carmella, gave me a call. She says the rolls started with her family. Her mother, Anna Rizzo, would take dough scraps leftover from making bread or pizza and stuff them with cheese and meat, roll them up and bake them, similar to what many pie bakers do with leftover crust and jelly. Anna, Carmella says, learned that practice from her mother.
Family members loved getting the leftover rolls, and Dominic decided he must put them on his menu when he opened Letos.
His restaurant was very popular, so I am not surprised they caught on, Carmella says.
She still enjoys sausage rolls, but Carmella couldnt provide me with any rules or tips on making them.
I never have made one, can you believe that? she says. (Dominic) always made them. He made his sausage himself, too. He mixed ground pork with spices.
Letos Pizza did not reopen after the fire, so Wes and Brent got Dominics blessing to offer sausage rolls when they opened the Redwood in 1968.
But there is one traditional twist that originated at the Redwood Inn – the barbecue sauce on the side.
Brent was first to do that at the Redwood; it was his idea, Wes says, adding that Brent still tinkers with barbecue sauce recipes and just recently gave him a new one to sample.
A Summit staple
Regardless of how or when they really began showing up in Fort Wayne or whether they are just incorrectly named calzones, sausage rolls are still one of Fort Waynes most popular dishes.
The Redwood Inn cranks out about 100 a week, Bixby says, and Laycoffs serves anywhere from 175 to 225 weekly, according to Sullivan. Pretty much every pizza place in town – including Riverbend – offers them.
I would approve of all three of these versions and would also throw Oleys and Toscani Pizzeria into my list of bests.
Much like another Indiana staple, breaded pork tenderloins, folks from here who move away always want one when they come back and miss them when they cant just go out and get one.
We have people who come here from as far as Florida and Texas to get them, Sullivan says. We make them up, uncooked, and freeze them for them and they either take them with them or ship them back to where they live.
They go all over the country.