Classic spaghetti showdown puts appetites, flair to the test

October 01, 2002|By Michael Olesker

IN THE ANNALS of human gluttony, Sunday's Pasta Eating Contest at the sixth annual Taste of Little Italy Festival was one for the books. For the first time, two women were among the contestants. One was pregnant.

But it was a man, Marco Lafond, who finished his pound of spaghetti with marinara sauce first and another man, Brian Vahle, who finished first in the all-important categories of neatness, theatrics and table manners.

Proving what? That men are still incomparable when it comes to overindulgent eating and the ability to digest massive amounts of food? Or merely that, six years into the historic and highly prestigious competition, men have perfected the secrets of the trade?

"The secret?" declared Lafond, a waiter at La Scala who polished off his heaping of pasta from DiPasquale's Restaurant in what seemed like 11 seconds. "Last year, my mistake was coming up for air. I didn't make that mistake this year."

"The secret?" said Chris Cossentino, a contestant who finished out of the money this year despite admirable style and appetite. "Don't even chew it. Just inhale it."

"The secret?" said Sam Brunetto, a retired Sparrows Point steel worker who won the contest last year but decided to rest on his laurels this time around. "The scissors I used to cut up the strands last year. That, plus neatness, which always counts."

He nodded his head with the solemn wisdom of a veteran. Brunetto said he did not enter this year's competition because "I wanted to give the kids a shot this year. But it's a shame to give up my crown, I tell you."

The Taste of Little Italy is an outdoor celebration of the East Baltimore restaurant colony's abundant selection of food and drink. Ten bucks buys four tickets, each of which purchases a sample of the specialty of the house from about a dozen different establishments.

But it's the Pasta Eating Contest that's become an emblem of good cheer, laughter -- and spectacular gluttony. Hundreds of spectators gather at the outdoor parking lot in the center of the neighborhood, rooting for their favorites among 10 contestants who cast off all concerns about their midsections and their svelteness.

The two winners get $40 gift certificates to each participating restaurant, plus overnight stays at a downtown luxury hotel, tickets to the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, the Baltimore Zoo, the Baltimore Museum of Art, trips to Atlantic City and other prizes.

So the competition is good-natured, but ferocious. When the finely tuned eaters were introduced Sunday, one, Brad Ferguson, billed himself as "The Spaghetti Destroyer." Another, Frank Inglima, called himself "The Sicilian Sensation." A third, co-winner Vahle, who's a waiter at Sabatino's, wore a dark formal suit and tie for the occasion and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a Superman emblem on his chest. The big crowd roared at the sight.

In the past, one contestant used an electric fork to twirl his spaghetti. He scored heavy style points for this. Another did not bother with utensils of any kind, simply tilting the entire plate toward his gaping mouth. Another brought a large funnel, and employed an assistant to slip the strands of spaghetti in his mouth. This slowed him down, but impressed the judges for its ingenuity.

"But every year we grow and evolve," Phil Culotta of Sabatino's announced to the crowd that spilled into the street under Sunday's lush sunshine. "No funnels now."

The contest was a thing of beauty and a joy until digestion occurred. Tess Bertazon, eating for two -- her baby's due in several months - did not finish her plate of spaghetti but ate with neatness and elegance. She and her sister Natalie, the first two women ever to enter the contest, brought credit to their gender, but no prizes.

Charlie Serio, finishing barely out of the money, ate with a delicate pinky in the air. Michael Nicholson showed nice hand-mouth coordination. Brad Ferguson, the self-proclaimed Spaghetti Destroyer, seemed, in fact, destroyed by the size of the helping. Halfway through, his shirt was an epic in marinara sauce.

So it was left to the two professional waiters, Marco Lafond and Brian Vahle, to set the day's standards. Vahle, though he did not finish his entire portion, won top honors for his formal attire, his Superman emblem, his neatness and grace and table manners.

And it was Lafond, finishing his entire enormous helping with breathtaking speed, who looked up from his empty plate and uttered words that will live in contest immortality:

"Somebody want to pass me some bread?"

Now there's an eater for the ages.

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