Eating your way through the festival


First Posted: 8/5/2013

Folks who attended the Sunday Dispatch Greater Pittston Person of the Year reception at Open Space in March got a sneak preview of the taste treats to be featured at Callahan’s on Main when it eventually opens, which everyone hopes is soon. In the meantime, the culinary magic of chef Mike Callahan will be available at the Pittston Tomato Festival where he will occupy Booth 24.

Readers familiar with my annual pre-Pittston Tomato Festival “taste tour,” are well aware of my love affair with the sopressata sandwich (with “the works” of course) at the Sabatelle’s Market booth (number 28) and those feelings have not waned, but if anything could cause my taste buds to wander it just might be Callahan’s balsamic marinated chicken sandwich.

I’m sure I have room in my heart for both hearty sandwiches … and more. After all, the festival does run for four nights.

And — full confession — it’s not like I haven’t cheated on the sopressata before. My elicit affair with chef Michael Valenti’s Italian roast pork sandwich last year was shameful. And delicious.

I noticed that Callahan is also listing “mini cheesecakes” on his festival menu so I am bound to find my way back there late in the evening no matter where I wander earlier.

The marinated chicken sandwich speaks for itself but for those new to sopressata, allow me to explain — if I can do so without drooling all over my keyboard. Sopressata is a salami-type meat the Sabatelles make themselves. At the festival they offer it with “the works” — a slice of provolone and a roasted red pepper on a freshly baked roll.

You might tell them Ed Ackerman sent you. It doesn’t get you anything special, but makes me feel pretty good. And if you have trouble pronouncing sopressata, try saying it the way my friends of Italian descent do: “super-sot.” Or just say “I’ll have a super.” They’ll know what you mean.

I’m warning you up front, these sandwich are filling, so you might need to pace yourself afterwards. But over-eating is what the Pittston Tomato Festival is all about. Carb-counting can wait until August 19.

If — hard as it is to imagine — you do attend the festival with healthy eating in mind, you might consider one of the new vendors, Fuji Japanese (Booth 3). I am already a fan of their Main Street establishment and would probably consider one of their Bento Boxes (I usually get the grilled salmon) as my last meal on earth. One thing I can guarantee: everything at this booth will be served with a big smile.

Two approaches

There are two ways to approach your eating spree at the festival. One is the “a straight line is the shortest distance between two points” approach, which means simply going right down the string of booths from Giovanni’s on the Go (Booth 27) where a little bruschetta or perhaps a meatball on a stick (yes, on a stick) makes a nice appetizer for your super-sot at Sabatelle’s right nextdoor to booth number 37 on the far end.

Carmella’s Italian Deli and Pastries (Booth 29) and Nico’s Pizza, occupying two booths at 30 and 31, come up right after Sabatelle’s. There will be a line at Nico’s which just tells you how good it is and you might want to save the pastries at Carmella’s for later or even to take home. I usually look them over while waiting in line at Sabatelle’s.

Paluck’s BBQ is right next to Nico’s at Booth 32 serving pork barbecues, hot dogs, chili con carne and even kielbasa dogs, lest you think everything at the festival is Italian. That notion is dispelled even further with Notis the Gyro King at Booth 33 offering traditional gyros, shish-kebobs and Greek salads. And next to him, Dan Figura (Booth 34) will fill the air with the mouth-watering aroma of London broil sizzling on the grill. He also offers what he terms “an Italian hot dog.”

If you’re still standing, Rice’s Concessions (booths 35, 36, 37) offers pie a la mode and Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cakes.

Take a deep breath and a couple of Tums because you’ve only just begun.

Random sampling

As I said, the straight line approach is just one strategy for eating your way though the Tomato Festival. Another is the “random sampling” approach. This is probably for the more experienced festival-goers, who know what they are after and where to find it.

For example, the straight-liners, especially the determined ones, might go from their pie a la mode right to Two Gentlemen Catering (booths 1 and 2, to the right of the aforementioned Murder’s Row) for eggplant rollantini, which is perhaps my second favorite item at the festival. I, however, go there right after Sabatelle’s and double back later for the booths in between, but to each his (or her) own.

Next to Two Gentlemen is where you’ll find Fuji Japanese ( Booth 3) and next to that, potato pancakes at Mr. P’s (Booth 4). You’ll also find some fresh-squeezed lemonade in this area.

I tend to bypass all of this (although I will be back another day) and head to the very end of this row where you’ll encounter Victor Guiliano, when he’s not up on stage drumming with the band Sweet Pepper and the Long Hots, manning the oven at Tony’s Pizza (Booth 9). I eat Tony’s pizza all year ‘round as I have since Tony himself (Tony Martorana) opened the place in 1967, but still I have to have a slice at the Tomato Festival.

Victor serves up another item I recommend called a “Hot Sloppy Tony.” It’s kind of a Sloppy Joe but far better. I’m warning you, though, it’s hot.

On the way to Tony’s booth, I pass by John Argento and the family at IV Guys Catering (Booth 5). I tell them I’ll be back and they know I mean it. This is where you can acquire the best sausage and peppers sandwich you’ve ever tasted. The proud tradition of this family goes back to the very first Pittston Tomato Festival and the sausage making skills of John’s brother, the late Tony Argento. The Tomato Festival is a time for missing those no longer with us, and Tony Argento is one who will be talked about with fondness.

Here’s a tip: I often get my sausage and peppers sandwiches “to go” at the end of the night. After all, a guy needs something for tomorrow’s lunch, doesn’t he?

Ever eat shells and broccoli? If not, you need to tidy that up and the sooner the better. That can be taken care of at Tony Thomas’s (Booth 6), where you can also find ziti and meatballs, chicken parmesan sandwiches and portabella mushroom sandwiches.

I suggest hopping over booth number 7 (I’ll tell you why in a minute) and going to number 8 where you will find Chef Michael Valenti and, bless his heart, that Italian roast pork sandwich I spoke of earlier. It melts in your mouth.

Ahhh, dessert

Now, back to Booth 7. That’s Ben and George’s Ice Cream and, by now, you should be good and ready for dessert. Hope you saved room for one of those sinful Belgian waffles.

We’re not finished with the “real food” — not by a long shot — but since we mentioned ice cream, perhaps this is a good time to get into some of the other desserts because these booths are located nearby. Since man does not live on ice cream alone — sometimes there needs to be an apple dumpling or homemade fudge brownie under it — the Tomato Festival presents Crazy Cow Ice Cream at Booth 12.

Two booths later (number 15) is Bindi Desserts. “Bindi” is probably not Italian for “decadent” but it should be. Here you’ll find imported cakes and cheese cakes along with gelato in an assortment of flavors. Some festival-goers may want to start here first and who can blame them?

Sweet tooth still not satisfied? Keep going. Down the row at bit at Booth 25 is Downhome Rice Pudding with pudding in cones, pudding to take home and pudding parfaits.

And if you see a booth somewhere in this area with someone scooping out Blue Ribbon ice cream, stop and have some. You deserve it.

Wait, there’s more

But let’s go back to Tony’s Pizza (Booth 9) and hit the spots we missed.

A gal named Lisa Ann will be in Booth 10 serving chicken spiedis, London broil hoagies, piggies in the blanket and strawberry or blueberry shortcake. You really could spend your whole festival right here.

At Booth 11, there’s something different: Caribbean jerk chicken wraps, jerk on a stick and red beans and seasoned rice. May I suggest Sammy’s cajun jambalya. You also can purchase homemade hot sauces to take home. Wear your flowered shirt.

A change of pace comes up at booths 13 and 14: Webby’s Middle Eastern foods with stuffed grape leaves (another of my favorites), hummus and refreshing tabouleh, which also can be a much-needed breath freshener (just sayin’).

In the adjacent booth, Webby’s offers funnel cakes, pizza fritta and fried veggies.

Webby’s neighbor, Yogi (booths 16 and 17) usually draws a crowd with potato pancakes, pierogies, noodles and cabbage, crab bisque, chicken bites and another of my favorites, sweet potato fries. You might want to check out the eggplant fries as well.

The next thing I’m about to share you may find hard to believe but there are three booths I have yet to mention (19, 21 and 22) that are so spectacular they could be a festival in themselves. I’m not kidding. Sub-Zero Concessions, a dessert spot featuring Italian ice, is in the midst at 20.

First is Gramma Aita’s Kitchen. Have the ravioli (meat or cheese) and then send me a thank you note. They also offer gnocchi and porketta sandwiches. Everything is homemade and delicious.

Then you come to Grico’s Restaurant with Chef Pat Greenfield at the helm. Pat’s booth is often one of my earliest stops, especially if she’s serving her sweet tomato pie, which is really a kind of tart. If I were into texting, I’d be typing OMG right now. This item is a must. You can get a great steak sandwich here, too, some fried calamari or a chicken scampi melt to die for.

And the trio ends with La Rosa Italiana serving gnocchi, lasagna and eggplant parmesan all topped off with cannoli for dessert. What’s an Italian-based festival without cannoli?

If this all sounds overwhelming, the solution is simple: attend the Pittston Tomato Festival more than once. I personally suggest all four nights (include Saturday or Sunday afternoon, if you prefer).

The ice cold beer, by the way, is served in the adjacent firehouse as a fundraiser for the hose company. There’s live entertainment each night at the firehouse and no one stops you from bringing in your festival food. What a way to wind up your taste tour.

P.S. For in-person food tips, find me at the Sunday Dispatch booth (number 47). I will take you by the hand over to Sabatelle’s just to see the look on your face after your first bite of a sopressata with the works. Or maybe to Mike Callahan’s. Or Michael Valenti’s. Or …

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