By Brian Yarvin
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 27, 2009 2:17 PM
A restaurant with a neon sign boasting "Italian Spaghetti" . . . a grocery that cures its own prosciutto . . . a tiny park that flies the Italian flag next to a statue of Christopher Columbus . . . and a lunch counter that offers tripe braised in tomato sauce alongside burgers and fries? It must be Pittston, Pa.
For lovers of Italian American food, especially those who remember what that cuisine was like a couple of generations ago, Pittston and the surrounding Wyoming Valley are a sort of Brigadoon, bending over backward to preserve culinary traditions that have otherwise been discarded. In the valley, red sauce is a passion, not an anachronism. Simple pasta, vegetable and tomato-sauce dishes, poverty-driven foods such as braised tripe and stewed chopped pig heart, and basic pleasures such as spaghetti with meatballs still thrive. Can you find these dishes anyplace else? Perhaps. Can you find them cooked with the same fervor and sense of tradition? I doubt it.
For people who love red-sauce Italian cooking, any day is a good day to visit Pittston. But every adventurous eater should know about the Tomato Festival: four days of celebrating red sauce, small-town America and, yes, the tomato itself. This year, the festival will run Aug. 20 to 23. During that weekend, you'll see contests for the largest, smallest, ugliest and most perfect tomatoes, the crowning of a Miss Tomato Festival Queen, Little Miss and Little Mister Tomato, a parade, a cooking competition known as Sauce Wars and, on Saturday, an organized tomato fight.
You may have heard of the tomato fights in Buñol, Spain. There, hurlers drive around town in trucks, pitching fruit at anybody in their way. Great for the throwers, but the rest of the crowd must make do with secondhand ammo and no clearly defined target. Compared with Pittston, Buñol isn't really a fight at all. In Pittston, everybody throws. The fight takes place in a parking lot with two opposing groups pelting one another with rotten tomatoes.
Legend has it that the battle began back in 2002 with two teams, one consisting of the mayor and city council of Pittston and the other of the mayor and city council of neighboring town and longtime rival West Pittston, squaring off for no particular reason. Back then, a group of judges declared the winner based on who was covered with the most tomato and had taken the most hits. These days, there's no real winner; just being in the fight is enough for most people.
Even if tomato throwing, small-town pageants, parades and local-band concerts don't interest you, the food offerings are reason enough to hit this festival. Last time I was there, in 2007 (I had a nasty cold last year, but I'm planning to be there this month), the food vendors combined such typical street-fair items as lemonade and funnel cakes with long-standing Pittston traditions, including stewlike pasta fagioli and grilled sausages. If you're looking for something lighter, there's terrific bruschetta with crusty bread, really fresh tomato and bits of local mozzarella.
Connoisseurs of local food will tell you that there's only one thing you have to try: the tripe braised in tomato sauce. "You haven't been to Pittston until you've tasted tripe," one bystander told me. And the food vendors were quick to oblige: Several had big pots of the stuff. Rich and well-seasoned, it was organ meat heaven.
And that tomato fight? It started with cardboard boxes filled with 5,000 pounds of rotten tomatoes lined up in the parking lot of Cooper's on the Waterfront, a local (non-Italian) restaurant. Soon, the boxes were strategically placed near the combatants, who were issued protective goggles; the sound system started blasting such old Italian American classics as Lou Monte's "Dominick the Donkey," and with the loud bloooonk of an air horn, the five-minute fight began.
Suddenly, the air was filled with flying red fruit and shouts of "I'm gonna get you!" and "This one's for you!" If you paid careful attention to the screams, you could figure out exactly who had a grudge against whom and why. You might think that the fighters would be mostly teenagers -- and there were plenty of teens in the mix -- but the range of ages on the battlefield was much wider: There were also plenty of 40- and 50-somethings who wanted to get out and let fly with some tomatoes.
By the second minute, the asphalt under the combatants was slick with tomato slurry; by the third, the fighters' clothes were soaked with tomato pulp; and as the final minute appeared on the clock, contestants were scurrying around and looking for just a few more intact red orbs to hurl.
Bloooonk! The air horn sounded again, and it was all over. There was no victor, just a bunch of people looking sticky, red and a bit seedy with rotten tomato. Some of the younger fighters (the minimum age is 15) were writhing around in the slurry, trying for just a bit more tomato-mess action.
As the place calmed down, friends, family and reporters started mingling with the contestants, many of whom were so worked up that they continued to toss fistfuls of puree as a greeting. Still others offered sauce-soaked hugs. True to form, a local TV crew seemed to be checking whether anybody was both a tomato fighter and a Miss Tomato Festival Queen pageant contestant.
Within an hour, the parking lot was empty and a bulldozer and water truck had appeared. Soon there was nothing left of the event but photos and dirty clothes.
That may have been the end of the fight, but not of the festival. Still on the schedule were Sauce Wars, a chance to vote on the red sauces of popular local restaurants. For a dollar (donated to charity), you could participate in the deepest and longest-standing rivalry in the area. Which restaurant has the best sauce? Some festival-goers thought the sauces were all the same; others insisted that a missing ingredient or an added spice made a huge difference in the flavor.
Beyond that, the prizes for the largest, smallest, ugliest and most perfect tomatoes hadn't been awarded yet, nor had the pageant winners been announced.
And there was still time for one last bowl of tripe.
Brian Yarvin is a food writer and photographer based in New Jersey. His most recent books are "A World of Dumplings" and "The Too Many Tomatoes Cookbook."