Eyes watching over 2013 Tomato Festival had to be pleased


First Posted: 8/23/2013

Like the bespectacled eyes on the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg billboard in The Great Gatsby, the sepia-toned coalminer in the center of the downtown Hertiage Mural on the Pittston Dental Building seemed to be watching over the Pittston Tomato Festival last week.

The best view of the miner’s illuminated face may have been from the Sunday Dispatch booth on the festival grounds. More than one person pointed that out to me.

And more than one person commented they thought the miner gazing upon the four-day party did so with disdain. There we were having fun when all he ever got to do was eat coal dust, they reasoned.

I saw it much differently. I thought he was happy for us.

Don’t ask me why but I cannot help but see that miner on the mural as a family man, a dad. All dads want their children to have it better than they did. And, man, we sure do.

Besides, I like to think the miner on the wall was not only pleased to see his descendants enjoying themselves but also pleased that he, along with the garment workers and railroaders of Pittston’s past, have not been forgotten. After all, the mural honoring them was commissioned long before the one celebrating tomatoes.

So every night I made sure I gave him a nod, a bit of recognition and gratitude that we were able to do this because he once did that.

And this — the 2013 Pittston Tomato Festival — was spectacular. Just when I think the festival could not possibly get any better, it does.

Not surprisingly, the new Tomato Bar & Bistro, located adjacent to the festival grounds and replacing what had become an eyesore, was an absolute hit. As I stopped in on opening night Thursday I did look back at the miner on the wall and wished I could invite him in for a cold one. He certainly looks like he’s earned it.

As with many ventures in Greater Pittston, the Tomato Bar has deep roots and a its own connection to the Heritage Mural.

Owners and operators Michael and Andy Partash are grandsons of one-time dress factory operator Michael Turco. Their mom, Marie, is a former Pittston High majorette and co-founder of Humpty Dumpty Kollege, one of the first pre-schools in the region, and their uncle Charlie Turco is considered one of the best all-around athletes to come out of Pittston. His photo just appeared in the Dispatch in a history piece about the perfect game he pitched in the Little League All Star State Tournament 50 years ago.

Yep, the Tomato Bar is Pittston through and through.

Still, it had me concerned.

The Pittston firefighters operate the “beer tent” — it’s actually one of the bays in the firehouse — during the festival as a fundraiser and frankly I feared the Tomato Bar might hurt their business this year. Those fears were unfounded. The fire house was rocking as much as ever. A lot of that has to do with the live music, not to mention the $2 drafts ($3 if you were drinking the offerings from Susquehanna Brewing Company, another Pittston product).

Each Tomato Festival has surprises and this was no different.

One for me was the “other” Mike Sperazza.

I’ll explain.

I made it a point to catch The Sperazza Band Sunday afternoon. Leader Mike Sperazza — who, incidentally, played shortstop on that aforementioned Little League team with Charlie Turco in 1963 — is not only an old friend but also one of my favorite singers. And his son Eric and his daughter-in-law Jenny are a hugely talented couple.

I was prepared to be well entertained by all three. I wasn’t prepared for the other Mike Sperazza, Mike’s nephew, a son of his brother Joe. This guy is incredible. What a guitar player. What a singer. What a talent.

And what a band. Eric introduced them saying “all of us are named Sperazza — only one by choice — and 50 percent of us are named Mike.”

The other surprises for me involved food — what else? — and 50 percent of those experiences also involved a Mike.

In addition to my usual sopressata sandwiches from Sabatelle’s and Italian pork with provolone and broccoli rabe from Michael Valenti, I discovered the pesto chicken sandwich from Michael Callahan. My only disappointment was that I did not have more capacity, although I’m afraid I do now after the festival.

The final surprise came by way of Victor Giuliano, of Tony’s Pizza.

Victor created a little something special for the festival: a 10-inch pizza topped with a 5-cheese blend, hot Italian sausage and spinach. He said he called it “Festivus Florentine.” I called it delicious.

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