Little Italy contestants gobble a la fabled eater

October 06, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT SUNDAY'S annual Taste of Little Italy spaghetti-eating contest, there gathered the finest collection of competitive eaters ever to assemble in one place, with the possible exception of when Fat Earle Magid dined alone.

"Oh, Earle, you're talking about one of a kind," said Vince Culotta, owner of Sabatino's Restaurant, speaking in solemn, comic tones of the late, legendary, 385-pound Earle, the gluttonous gourmand of yesteryear known not only for ingesting massive amounts of pasta with money riding on each munch, but also for breaking the bank at various Polock Johnny's sausage eating contests formerly held on The Block.

Culotta swept an appreciative hand toward the 10 eaters gathered Sunday on the parking lot of Da Mimmo Restaurant. These folks were pretty impressive, too, he admitted. One guy brought an electric fork. One woman wrapped enough pasta around her fork that she seemed to be lifting barbells toward her mouth. One guy would finish his 2 1/2 -pound plate of pasta with tomato sauce, burp substantially enough that it shook a nearby bowl of Chiapparelli's salad loose from its moorings, and then announce that he was ready for another helping, just to show everybody he could do it.

These folks were, if not lean and hungry, at least hungry. At 3 p.m. Sunday, some had starved themselves all the way since lunch. It reminded one or two old-timers (those with a sense of history -- youngsters have no appreciation for those pioneer eaters who came before them) of Fat Earle, who is still the true measure of all things unrepentantly gluttonous in Baltimore.

"Back in the old days," Culotta was remembering, Earle would show up at a long-gone restaurant known as Pizza's of Little Italy, "and he'd bet guys he could eat 5 pounds of spaghetti. He'd eat 50 meatballs with it, and a gallon of wine. One night he walked away with $1,400 in bets. The man was unbelievable."

These folks were pretty good on Sunday, too. Unlike Earle, who conquered food the way Sir Edmund Hillary conquered the mountain ("because it was there"), these competitors ate because lots of other people were there, hundreds of 'em, gathered for the second annual Taste of Little Italy.

It's sponsored by the neighborhood's restaurants, and included not only dishes from each eatery but lots of traditional Italian singing and dancing and the crowning of Ms. Little Italy.

"You know what's nice about this?" said Mike Pastore, whose family has owned a food business in Little Italy for years, and whose daughter Nicole was last year's Ms. Little Italy. He looked across the packed, delighted throng. "There's a lot of people like me who grew up down here, and we moved out to the suburbs. Then we have this, and everybody sees people we haven't seen since we were kids. It feels like a homecoming."

Pastore hit on something happening elsewhere. Over the weekend, there was not just the gathering in Little Italy, but the massive crowd in Fells Point, the city's funky attic. A week ago was the third annual Baltimore Book Festival at Mount Vernon, where thousands of people gave belated legitimacy to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's fond dream of a city that reads.

Many of those attending are city folks -- but lots are those who moved out to the sticks years ago, and come back to remind themselves of the city's enduring charms, and of their own yesterdays, and of the glad collection of Baltimore characters.

Such as Fat Earle Magid, and those who merely eat in his shadow, as they did in the spaghetti-eating contest, which was judged on four categories: speed, neatness, table manners and theatrics.

There was Nick Smyrnioudis, for example, who whipped out his electrical fork that twirled spaghetti without Nick having to break a sweat. He scored high on neatness but, frankly, the slow-twirling fork did nothing for his speed.

There was Bryan Bolter, an early favorite who faded and later lamented: "I have a bad cold. It threw off my rhythm." There was Frank Barresi, who finished second and announced: "I can eat another one. They can put another one on the table right now, and I'm ready."

And there was John Callela, grand winner, who happily declared: "I just love eating. When I'm eating, I'm at my happiest."

The words were reminiscent of Fat Earle Magid. Earle, too, combined happiness and eating. Once, on a bet, he attended an oyster roast and ate three-quarters of a barrel of oysters. On another bet, he ate 52 Little Tavern hamburgers. Once, he won big money by eating 23 orders of ham and eggs at the old Hilltop Diner on Reisterstown Road.

Near the end of his life, though, poor Earle came up against

tough times. He couldn't get anybody to eat against him. So he must have looked down on Sunday's contest in Little Italy and smiled. All those eaters were dining in his very shadow. Earle always did throw a big one.

Pub Date: 10/06/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.