It was a fateful July 4 when Michael Tortora served up the latest incarnation of what he refers to as his "Cleveland-style" chili sauce to friends at Flying Monkey's Independence Day party. With grass-fed beef and an Adobo-base (flavored with Penzey's spices, GLBC's Dortmunder, and Bertman's Ballpark Mustard) the tangy, paste-like concoction, eventually christened "Duck Island Gourmet Chili Sauce," was born on that historic day.
A year later, Tortora is putting the finishing touches on three versions of the sauce: a medium, hot, and vegan chili. The medium sauce will be the first available to the public by the end of October. "We're looking into not only 12-ounce jars for the shelf, but one-gallon and possibly five-gallon containers, because I'd really like to get into the restaurant scene as well as the stadiums," says Tortora. "I can't imagine being at a baseball game and there not being a good chili dog. That's weird to me."
Tortora put the idea into hyperdrive after getting laid off from his job last March. "I'm thinking, 'How can I take advantage of this time?' I started trademarking and branding and I became serious with it." He enrolled in a culinary program at iCasi and visited Cleveland Culinary Launch for guidance on getting the product to retailers and the general public.
Traversing around the city, Tortora received ample inspiration making the trek to West Side Market and back to his home in Tremont for ingredients. The inspiration for the name? The neighborhood nestled between his home in Tremont and Ohio City, where he shopped at the West Side Market for ingredients. (Plus a little homage to a place famous for dogs: "Coney Island is an eight-hour drive from here, but Duck Island is only two minutes. So, why not," he says.)
After spending months perfecting the recipe, Tortora finally turned it over to Dorina, a Chicago-based food manufacturer who didn't compromise on ingredients or his vision for the canned sauce. "It took awhile, because I was in queue with everybody else that wants to get their food made, but it came back on Friday and I swear to God, I was expecting disappointment because I'd waited so long," he laughs. "Sure enough I open it up in front of a couple people who had been wanting the chili sauce but had never tried it before. They nailed it."
"When this came back, the first thing I was digging was the texture because I like the meat at it's smallest physical form, so it sort of pours," he says. "I think it goes beyond just being a condiment." Hot dogs, nachos, fries, Sloppy Joes, con queso, huevos rancheros, you name it, and his chili sauce would do wonders as an addition. Dante Boccuzzi will be serving the vegan version on his Coda menu and throwing a fundraising party for the start-up on Oct. 9 complete with live music.
"I think a lot of it stems from growing up in Youngstown. We had a place called Jib Jab, a chili dog restaurant. It was only about five blocks from where I lived and it takes me back. We ate that stuff growing up," recalls Tortora.
To get more information or to pre-order, visit gofundme.com/duckislandchili.