On Monday, volunteers filed into the St. Rocco kitchen to chop peppers and onions while gravy simmered in giant vats next to them, the heat from the ovens oppressive on the sticky August evening.
Like the thermostat, they don’t relent. The parish and its roughly 200 volunteers are well aware that the crowds are on their way, and they will be bringing their appetites.
“Food is the largest item in our balance sheet. I want to get as many people in the facility as possible for the food,” said Rich Montella, co-chairman of the Feast and Festival, and the coordinator of perhaps the most in-demand component of the event: the food.
Meatballs are assembled and frozen in June. Once August rolls around, the gravy is cooked, liter after liter. In the final days leading up to the Festival, sausage and peppers and onions need to be chopped and seasoned, among the many other menu items that St. Rocco families and visitors have come to expect.
“We start pretty much in June and then ramp up from there. Everything’s made fresh. We don’t buy anything frozen – except the ice cream,” Montella said.
Montella is a self-proclaimed “newbie” to St. Rocco, though his 20 years in the parish are nothing to sneeze at. For the past six years, he has served as co-chairman of the festival, a role he cherishes.
“I love it, I really do,” he said.
Of the many volunteers who work at the Feast and Festival, Montella estimates at least 100 will work in food alone, either behind the scenes in the kitchen, or out front in the vendor booths.
“That’s always the biggest surprise. Once you get people to volunteer, then you get emails and calls from their kids. They all continue to come back and at least give me one night,” he said.
Best of all, he added, these volunteers require little oversight.
“The people that are doing it have been doing it for a long time. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve got a system down,” he said.
The help of volunteers is crucial, as is support from local businesses. Montella has worked in the food industry for 28 years, and his contacts as a food broker have served him well, connecting him with companies that give him a good deal on supplies and ingredients.
The Original Italian Bakery, located next door to the church, donates all of the dough for doughboys, dividing them into eight-ounce bags perfect for individual doughboys. Altogether, it accounts for close to one ton of flour used for the most popular food item of the weekend, hands down.
Montella says the bakery’s contribution is something “you can’t put a price on.”
Don DePetrillo, who owns the bakery, said they have been donating the dough for six years, and also provide rolls for the Feast. He is glad to help support the parish and, by extension, St. Rocco School.
“It’s great for the community,” he said. “Most of the money for the church that we raise at the Festival is for the school. It helps the neighborhood and the kids.”
The parish usually sells more than 4,000 doughboys, or 200 doughboys an hour.
“We’re only open for 20 hours over four days, so that’s a lot of doughboys,” Montella said.
Sausage and peppers are another fan-favorite, with approximately 1,700 sandwiches sold last year. Montella agrees that both the doughboys and sandwiches are a must-have, but then again, he feels that way about the entire menu.
“I don’t want to say one without offending another because it’s all good,” he said, laughing.
Every year, though, the food sub-committee tries to add something new. Last year it was rabe; all five cases of the broccoli sold out in 15 minutes, making it a new staple on the menu. Tripe will return this year, as will gelato, and the classics like macaroni with meatballs and fried eggplant.
“From a food perspective, I’m trying to make it more Italian,” Montella said.
Traditional American items are also available, including hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries and steak.
Father Angelo Carusi has never been to the St. Rocco Feast, but he says his mouth is already watering.
“I’ve never been to it before but I do know that it’s big and I know the food is very good,” he said, adding as he pats his stomach, “and I like to eat.”
Food tickets can be purchased in strips of 10 for $10 each. Most food prices are the same as they have been for years, with the exception of doughboys, which went up $1 several years ago because of the demand. The low prices, Montella said, are what make the Feast and Festival such a great family event, especially in these challenging economic times.
“We give people a good meal at a good price,” he said. “Almost everything is the same price or lower than it was six years ago.”