Wurstküche is not an easy place to find.
You have to meander through several streets, combing through dilapidated wholesale markets, odd plush toy stores and austere Buddhist temples before you take a sudden sharp turn into Third Street at Traction in downtown Los Angeles. And there you are: standing in front of a dark, glass door sandwiched between two brightly painted yellow and crimson wooden planks.
The sudden splash of gaudy colors clashes glaringly with the rest of the backdrop, and appears to belong more at a circus than a street in downtown Los Angeles.
The strange juxtaposition instills a sensation of wonder. If you were just a casual passerby, you would have thought you had discovered something mysterious and fantastic.
Perhaps that was the intention of 29-year-old Joseph Pitruzzelli, co-owner and designer of the umlaut beer and sausage restaurant, Wurstküche.
“It’s part of a unique experience for people when they come down here and feel like they’ve discovered something,” Pitruzzelli said. “[Wurstküche] is like an unmarked territory that they’re entering, and they feel like they found a special club.”
Wurstküche (pronounced “Vursh-kee-hyah”) is German for “Sausage Kitchen,” and that is essentially what Pitruzzelli and fellow owner Tyler Wilson focus on. With a fixed menu of 21 sausages ranging from classic bratwursts to fancy apricot and ginger sausages to the downright outrageous rattlesnake and rabbit links, Wurstküche is all about the sausages, and the Belgian and German beers to wash them down.
Pitruzzelli, who is of German and Italian descent, has always had an affinity for sausages. He grew up eating countless Italian-style sausages and, while studying at the University of San Francisco, cooking sausages on his George Foreman grill was his idea of a gourmet meal in his dorm room.
While other students wolfed down take-out and dining hall grub, Pitruzzelli was hunting for gourmet sausages to satisfy his appetite for good food.
After graduation, Pitruzzelli stayed in San Francisco designing nightclubs through his own design firm. Meanwhile, Wilson, his cousin, was a sophomore at USC.
Both cousins shared an interest in business and entrepreneurship and Wilson pitched the idea of opening a place together in downtown Los Angeles.
“I could feel the bloodstream of a vibrant youth here, a contrast to what I saw at San Francisco, which was a bit more stagnant,” Pitruzzelli said. “It was inspiring for me to be here.”
Pitruzzelli moved in with Wilson at USC’s campus. After scrounging around downtown Los Angeles, the cousins finally nailed a location in the Art District: a three-story, abandoned Victorian house, formerly one of Los Angeles’ first brothels.
Constructing the interior was delegated to Pitruzzelli, who has nine years of experience in nightclub design.
“We didn’t want a clichéd building of post-modernism coldness,” Pitruzelli said. “We didn’t want any distractions like televisions. We want people to come here to be with friends, meet new friends and have social interactions.”
This vision translated into warm wooden benches, long communal tables, quirky barstools and rustic brick walls. An angular, dim hallway snakes from the service counter to the grand dining room, where you pick up your Dunkelweizen on draft from the bar, chase it with a freshly grilled sausage and exchange toasts with fellow customers.
Despite the limited menu and emphasis on alcoholic drinks, Wurstküche started drawing a fascinating medley of customers.
“The wide gamut of people we attract is unbelievable and unrivaled,” Pitruzelli said.
Hipsters can be seen grooving next to the lawyers, clinking glasses next to businessmen. On the other end of the table, judges and jurors lunch after a trial.
Pitruzzelli said that once, he even saw a group of 5-year-old Korean kids having a birthday party.
The central attraction, though, is the sausage bar.
Pitruzzelli and Wilson sampled about 800 different sausages before selecting just 21 for their final menu.
Pitruzzelli knew from the beginning that he wanted rattlesnake meat in one of the sausages, which led to the famous rattlesnake and rabbit sausage with jalapeno peppers (warning: It does not taste like chicken).
The perfect sausage, he said, must be moist and still juicy inside when you bite into it.
Wurstküche’s sausages pass the test. Business has prospered so much since its November 2008 opening that a second Wurstküche is already planned for Venice.
“I was totally surprised by our success,” Pitruzzelli said. “We didn’t even do much social media marketing.”
Instead, their media strategy was to rely mostly on word-of-mouth. The only real marketing the cousins did was placing a sign outside their restaurant four months before they opened, confident of Los Angeles’ sharp nose for good grub. Indeed, Wurstküche quickly garnered much attention from media outfits and bloggers.
“I’ve even had people from Japan send us homemade movies on their experience at Wurstküche,” Pitruzelli said. “I love that we can inspire people like that.”