Marcos "The Monster" Owen's hands, strangled his opponent barehanded. His opponent's insides came gushing and squishing out in a spray as the hard exterior crumbled into broken bits. And then, before his sweet opponent could tap out, "The Monster" raised what was left of his defeated, dying opponent and bit into it, ala Mike Tyson. I don't know if what Marcos did is legal in MMA fighting, but it is in MLE cannoli-eating. Marcos is on his Derek Jeter-esque retirement tour from Major League Eating, but the only gifts the talented gurgitator receives on his swan song are free food. (Note: No swans were eaten on his "closing mouth" farewell tour).
Will Marcos, a mild-mannered TSA employee, take what he has learned -- every bite, chew, and swallow -- from his years on the competitive eating circuit and apply it to his burgeoning mixed martial arts career? I know he has the manual-to-oral dexterity in cannoli-eating (breaking the world record with 34 Ferrara's cannolis in six minutes at this year's Feast of San Gennaro contest), but inside the octagon, eating your opponent is probably frowned upon. If Dana White, the man who reinvented MMA fighting, could have worked in cannibalism along with the arm bars, chokeholds, and rabbit punches of his sport he would have (Note: No rabbits were wrested during the cannoli-eating contest).
I won this very contest in 2009 with 20 cannolis in six minutes and improved five years later to 21 cannolis in the same six minutes. In Major League Eating this is known as "Cannoli Drift", the glacial movement of ricotta cheese and sugar when surrounded by tectonic pastry shell. However, my consolation, bestowed upon me by festival producer Mort Berkowitz and PR maverick Les Schecter, was to be invited to Ferrara's attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for largest cannoli. Post contest I spoke with Ferrara's head baker Ernest Lepore about what it takes to make the world's largest Italian pastry. Ernest said he was baking the shell in three parts and making six extra parts in case of breakage. The filling would be 300 pounds. I, of course, asked about the leftovers. Perhaps it was OSHA requirements or that pesky NYC dept of health, but he said, a fresher non-record-breaking cannoli stuff would be handed out in cups (ala Steve Martin's pizza-in-a-cup). I often extol that the greatest sports memorabilia is the leftovers from a competitive eaters plate and having consumed both Hungry Charles Hardy's rookie hot dog detritus in the late 90s and 15 years later, his son Fast Eddie Hardy's remaining half dog, I asked Ernest if I could, with a signed waiver, taste a little of victory. With his silver hair and sparkling eyes, he just winked at me and made off in cloud of confectionary sugar. Ernest and Ferrara's unveiled a record-setting 305-pound cannoli. This author can neither confirm nor disconfirm that in the victorious moment, while Grand Street celebrated, the giant cannoli was reduced to 304 pounds.
In 2001, as a thank you to the city of New York, Major League Eating held the first cannoli-eating contest to kick off the Feast of San Gennaro and encourage New Yorkers to gather together after the horrible September day that had occurred. No money, either in fees or prize, was taken or awarded and Major League Eating has kept that tradition for 13 years. One year, there was $95,000 total prize purse offered at other contests on the weekend but eaters like Tim "Eater X" Janus and Badland Booker decided instead to partake in the cannoli freebie. The only prize is a Luciano Pavoratti box set, which is actually just a box with Pavarotti's picture on it and no music inside (Note: The victory box was hurt or at least stolen. No word yet from Elizabeth's Street's 5th precinct if there are any leads, but clearly this was a crime that violated the moral code or the mascarpone code or something.) On the positive side as a protest against the instant access social media of today like live tweeting an event, a drawing-on-location art class from New York's School of Visual Arts live sketched the cannoli contest. Post contest, I saw the drawings and they all captured the best side of my stomach.
As the only competitor who has eaten in all 13 annual cannoli-eating contests people always ask how I prepare for the Sisyphean contest. It is a punishing discipline as the shell will cut up the roof of one's mouth and the filling will inflate someone like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man (for older cinema viewers the contest is a version of, "Leave the gums, take the cannoli.") You can't just cram for this contest -- it takes a year-round dedication to eating Italian pastries. I actually warm up with French pastries in the morning, like crew rowers rising early to get the softer waves, before tackling the rougher shells of Italian pastries at night. I could say I train on "Osso Di Morte" from DiRoberta's (a chalking wonderful caramelized dense cookie) or the petrified bagel-like (in a good way) taralli from Rocco's, but the truth is I do one thing before the contest. I go to DiPalo's on the corner of Grand and Mott and I open my nostrils. That is right, I step into the venerable Italian delicatessen and like a Pavlovian response to soppresata and fresh mozzarella I eat an olfactory meal and am ready for dessert (at the contest, outside DiPalo's door.) It is similar to the scene in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where precocious Violet Beauregarde eats the three-meal chewing gum and swells up like a blueberry, Willy Wonka sighs, "It always goes wrong when we come to the dessert." (Note: Gene Wilder added another, "always" -- take that Johnny Depp).
Wonka saying, "It always goes wrong when we come to the dessert," could be predicting my cannoli contest outcome, but since I have been eating competitively I don't enjoy the Feast of San Gennaro the same way. So I have a tradition. Just as the cannoli contest kicks off the 11-day festival, I arrive on the last night and buy a sausage and peppers sandwich (usually from Johnny Fasullo on Grand and Mullberry) and one cannoli. This year I sampled the Alleva cheese-filled cannoli and found it light and airy. I also added some Umberto's Clam House fried shrimp -- Umberto's has moved locations a bunch, but historically is known for their clams on the half shell and a good place for a mob assassination. At $17 dollars for a soda and fried shrimp, my wallet was massacred, but the medium tomato sauce on top made it all good. Besides on the closing night of the Feast, the workers at Umberto's were more concerned about collecting free goldfish from the fish vendor, who was giving away bags of live fish. One Umberto's worker scored a tank too, but when I asked how much for breaded deep-fried goldfish, he paused, as if contemplating a price (no goldfish were... you get the idea.)
Monday morning, my tradition continues as I walk through the decimated streets of Little Italy, refuse- and puddle-filled, like Bourbon Street on the Wednesday morning after Tuesday Mardi Gras. I pop into Piedmonte Ravoli where I decimate their buccatini stock (a hard-to-find dry pasta in the shape of a tight tube) and then I wander into DiPalo's where all three of the next generation of the family is behind the counter. I pick up Lou Di Palo's just released book, Di Palo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy and talk with Lou (Lou is the brother who looks like Chaz Paliminterri, while brother Sal looks like Matt Lauer and sister Marie just looks beautiful.) He is proud of the book and doesn't site the Martin Scorsese forward or Pete Hamill or the celeb chef endorsements -- he says he wanted to write the book with storytelling, the way he learned to love Italian food. I have a story of my own love of Italian food, as I get two books -- one for my father whose aunts moved to America and didn't speak to each other due to some long forgotten feud, but made great ravioli; and one book for my unofficial uncle, Paul Camarto, who as a kid I called, "Tomato." Uncle Tomato learned his pizza craft from Joe Timpone of Boston's Santarpio's fame. Joe worked for 44 years at Santarpio's and I still order a "Timpone" -- extra cheese, garlic, and sausage in his honor. Uncle Tomato with Amy Bucci would relocate to the West Coast and open a pizza place in the East Bay that turned into a disco at 10 p.m. Finally, near the abandoned Heinz ketchup factory in Emeryville, California, Paul "Uncle Tomato" Camarto, Amy Bucci and another partner, Les Julian (now retired) opened Bucci's, an Italian restaurant in a 1900s industrial building. Uncle Tomato refused for years to put his carbonara pizza on the menu, but would make it for me, pulling the half-cooked pie out to throw on egg, cheese, and pancetta. It is my favorite food place in the world and even when Pixar moved to Emeryville, Uncle Tomato kept the carbonara pizza off the menu. I believe the off-the-menu carbonara pizza may be the reason for Pixar's long delay regarding The Incredibles 2, but no one will confirm that for me.
Back in the olfactory heaven of DiPalo's, Lou offers to take the books in the back to sign them so he doesn't get grease on them. I say that without the grease, how will anyone know that the signatures are real and I share my story, passed down to me from Uncle Tomato. Uncle Tomato and his gang were raised in Syracuse and the local sausage of note was Squadrito Foods. It was said that the daughter of the purveyor, although not a cheerleader, was the most sought after prom date of high school girls. Since she worked most afternoons in the shop, it was thought that the smell of dried Italian sausage and fresh cheese clung to her like perfume, making her, in a Pavlovan/Freudian way to be irresistible to the hungry opposite sex. I had a sausage eating contest in Syracuse at the New York State Fair and even after five pounds of the sponsor's sausage I drove to Squadrito, where the daughter had taken over the shop. I bought and later that night cooked the sausage, which I and my then girlfriend, agreed was the finest sausage on the planet (and perhaps a fennel-laden aphrodisiac.)
Last year, after 64 years, Squadrito Foods closed as that high school girl was about to turn 70. DiPalo's is still open after 100 years and if you want to know where the best Italian food is in NYC, ask Lou, Sal, or Marie where their products end up before being put on the plate. Thirteen years of cannoli contest eating is a drop in the tomato sauce compared to Squadrito's or DiPalo's or Bucci's, but I am still hungry for more. Rumor has it that Bensonhurst's Italian festival may hold their first MLE cannoli contest... if they say, "Mangia!" I'll say get me a bib!
Will Crazy Legs Conti publish his "From Burnt Ends to Burning Man" post or will he remain silent at www.crazylegsconti.com?