You could say that Don Antinore took his job seriously Saturday on School Street in Batavia.
He was one of three volunteer judges for the first-ever Italian Fest sauce contest. Antinore, Jay Steinbrenner and Paul Figlow carefully tasted, observed, and dripped each sauce off the spoon during their deliberations of the top three winners.
After they reviewed each type and style of sauce, the judges were ready with their selections. That is after they conferred with one another for several minutes. The Batavian remarked how soberly they were approaching the task.
Antinore, whose business card lists him as an American Academy of Chef's Culinary Hall of Famer, and an educator and coach for Hospitality Solutions, said they were giving the job due diligence for the eight contestants.
“We're doing this because these people took the time to make these sauces,” he said.
The contestants were mostly made up of home chefs with family recipes. The contest was a first for Stephanee Surabian of Batavia. She didn’t exactly have a choice in entering, she said.
“My kids decided to push me toward it,” she said, watching her three pots of varied sauces. “They think mom’s is the best.”
She had a pesto alla trapanese, made with tomatoes and freshly ground almonds; fra diavolo, whose name translates to the devil’s mouth, and includes a spicy concoction with red pepper and red chili flakes; and a parma rosa, featuring a creamy base of tomatoes with melted cheese.
Lucie Griffis of Le Roy entered her Nanny’s Italian sauce, made with canned tomatoes, sausage, pork, homemade meatballs and fresh basil. The secret to a good sauce? “Not burning your garlic and onion at the start,” she said, “is key.”
To her left was Ken Kline from Oakfield. His recipe is cooked down from fresh roma tomatoes for three days on low heat, he said. He uses fresh parsley, oregano, basil, Italian sausage, homemade meatballs, stew beef and hard-boiled eggs.
“It’s thick and not runny,” he said. “You gotta love the sauce, you gotta love the family recipe.”
The recipe comes out during special occasions and, at times, just when the mood strikes him and his family, Kline said. Handed down from great-grandma from Palermo, Sicily, it’s a favorite that depends heavily on fresh roma tomatoes, he said.
Home chef, but with a background of working in the family restaurant in Denver, Colo., Sam Prinzi of Batavia believed in slow-cooking his ingredients, many of which are home-grown in his Batavia yard.
“Slow cooking, good seasoning and cooking it down,” are keys to a winning sauce, he said. He spent 90 minutes preparing everything, and then letting it cook on low for three to four hours.
He had a display of fresh ingredients on his table: green peppers, tomatoes and garlic, with some potential accompaniments of crunchy breadsticks, a small loaf of bread and pasta.
The recipe came from his grandparents in Sicily, both who have passed away, leaving their grandson to take up the spoon and continue on with the family tradition.
Prinzi liked the event, and plans to come back next year, he said.
“They’ve got great potential if they just keep adding to it,” he said. “I think this is great for the community.”
The contest was put on a brief hold as former county manager Jay Gsell was making his way downtown with his big pot of sauce from yet another family recipe.
His wife Ann Marie and her mother, Fannie Varone, are die-hard Italians with a recipe to be proud of, he said. So proud, in fact, that his mom-in-law threatened to put the “evil eye” on him if he didn’t learn the concoction before moving with his wife out of state.
“It’s a staple, in a big pot,” he said. “We have it for one or two meals, and then freeze the rest. We call it gravy, not sauce.”
After all of the tastings and whispering amongst the three judges, it was time for the big announcement. But first, Antinore offered some tips for authentic Italian sauce: oregano doesn’t belong in an Italian kitchen, he said, suggesting instead to use rosemary; don’t use too much spice as to take away from the overall taste; and consider how much oil you use, and its source (cooking meat in the sauce, for example); and herbs are not spices, he said.
Third place went to Griffis, second to Gsell and first prize of $100 and an engraved wooden spoon went to Prinzi.
Photos by Howard Owens
Meanwhile, The Formula entertained with classic Italian songs to a mixed audience of standing and seated spectators, while others gravitated to the beer and wine tent or shopped vendors along Jackson Street.
The event was hosted by Batavia's Business Improvement District. BID Executive Director Shannon Maute said that, despite some competition from other events on the same day, "I felt it went pretty well." It drew more than 1,000 people, she said, and vendors "were happy and said they would love to come back next year."
Maute stressed the short lead time of having about four months to plan and pull this event together, when it typically takes a year to organize one. She was thankful to have the support that she had for the festival, she said.
"Events are a huge undertaking, and I am grateful for all the help and support from City Council, the city manager, my board, committee members and volunteers," she said. "I was very excited to bring this event to downtown. It was the first year, and we have some adjusting to do, and hope to grow it every year."
Top photo: Judges Don Antinore, left, Jay Steinbrenner and Paul Figlow make their way through eight sauces to find the top three winners at Saturday's Italian Fest in downtown Batavia; Sam Prinzi won first place and the commemorative wooden spoon; Jay Gsell, second place, congratulates third and first place winners, Lucie Griffis and Sam Prinzi; visitors to the event on School, Center and Jackson streets.