The Wethersfield - Rocky Hill Chapter of UNICO is very well known locally for its annual, self-proclaimed "Famous Macaroni Dinner," in its 23rd year now. Everyone who attends knows beforehand that the Italian styled meal which they will be served will rival what Mamma used to make. Until now, how UNICO was able to deliver on their promised maternal quality dinner has been a closely guarded secret, mainly because no one bothered to ask.
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Wethersfield.net asked and UNICO answered. On the suggestion of Nick Follachio, we contacted Tony Marino, current chairman of UNICO for permission to visit. He agreed. As Paul Harvey would say, you about to learn the "real story," or the story behind the story, of the dinner itself. We will take you behind the scenes to the very heart of the Wethersfield High School's cafeteria's kitchen, where most of the action took place, two days before the dinner.
Each year, the guys of UNICO, the Italian American community service organization, prepares a eagerly anticipated meal for at least fifteen hundred guests, at the Wethersfield's Pitkin Community Center. However, on the Friday before the Sunday dinner, about thirty members and friends meet at the WHS kitchen, a state-of-the-art, commercial quality culinary laboratory, to work their magic and set the stage. Using time -tested recipes for both the meatballs and the spaghetti sauce, they work in assigned roles handed down from one generation of members to the other.
With the raw materials at hand, everyone seemed to know exactly where to go. Each member found their niche and they focused on one of five areas of expertise. Obviously, the food stuffs had been previously procured and brought to the kitchen, ready for the 5:00 PM start.
When we arrived at 5:10, everyone was already busy at work. Several large sheet pizzas had just arrived. Over the next hour, they and the soda (yes, soda and only soda) were consumed by hustling, hungry workers. But, this was just an appetizer.
Everyone quickly got started and work they did. One group is in charge of producing the ground meat and spices mixture for the meatballs (pix 1-3). The next large group is that of, shall we say, are the meatballers, forming these nearly tennis ball-sized fleshy spheres (4-9). In another corner of this cavernous kitchen are the meatball bakers, and their associates the meatball packers (10-15). Working nearby but separately are the spaghetti "saucers," that is those making the sauce (16-23). Then there is the guy who mixes the spices, etc., for the sauce. Lastly is that essential group referred to in the military as the "kitchen police," or KP, responsible for cleaning the pots and pans (24). Surveying around these groups are those multi-tasking UNICO members who do whatever needs to be done (23) to keep everying flowing smoothly.
The Meat Mixers:
Bob Donatelli (UNICO's Connecticut District Governor) works the commercial blender with Brian Morin, adding several 10 lbs bags of ground beef (3). On the table nearby, the first chairman of UNICO / Wethersfield, Paul Miano, blends spices and cheeses before it is added to the meat in the mixer (1). Across the table from him, working with gusto is Marty Massaro, blending the eggs for the meat mixture (2). Under the Donatelli's and Morin's supervision, the meat, herb, egg mixture is blended until it is just right. We are told that it can be overdone. When the mixture is pronounced ready, the blades are removed from the mixer's 5G. stainless steel "bowl," and the bowl is hauled by two burly men to the the meatballers.
Mostly, they work from memory, supported occasionally with a furtive glance at small, well worn copies of the recipe for the meatball herbs, spices and other seasonings. Being the interloper in this breathren of the mixmaster, we did not ask to see a copy; why tempt fate.
Before the meatball formers begin their work in earnest, Father Fred Aniello (St. Luke Roman Catholic Church, Hartford) blesses the meat mixture placed on the table (4). Not dissuaded by a little hard work, Father Fred sheds his jacket, rolls up his sleeves and for well over an hour and a half joins the other at the central counter making meat balls (5). Father Fred is the chaplain to the Wethersfield - Rocky Hill chapter of UNICO and is the chaplain to the Hartford Police Department. You could almost say that is why these are truly heavenly meatballs.
Former Wethersfield Mayor Dan Camilleri demonstrates the proper portions used and the technique for making the meatballs, being careful not to over handle them (9); he is an obvious pro at this. Camilleri and Vini Ingenito are quick to point out that there must be exactly 70 meatballs per large backing tray, exactly 7 across and 10 down (8). Not to be outdone, across the table, are two other well known Town of Wethersfield personalities, chief building official Fred Valente and physical services director Joe Hart (6). At least two other groups of meatballers are hard at work, including the group with Tony Marzano, George Gildner and Tony Santucci (9). It falls to these hardy soles to hand make the 2500 meatballs, destined for the Sunday dinner.
As the evening advances, it is obvious that more than meatballs and sauce are being made. Friendships are reinforced. News is exchanged. (Men don't gossip.) Opinions are voiced. Ideas are tested. Experiences are compared. (Men don't "share.") A brotherhood is solidified.
Five trays of 70 meatballs each are first collected and then loaded into one of two commercial tray ovens under the watchful supervision of chef (really!) Nick Follachio, with the assistance of Mike Milardo (10). To avoid the scorching of the meatballs in these 500°F. ovens, a little water is added to each tray. The steam hastens the the cooking and keeps the meatballs moist. When the meatballs are ready, Follachio or Milardo, remove the trays from the oven (11), allow them to cool a little and offer one to Sal Brunetti in charge of quality control (12).
Experience goes a long way, we noticed. While newcomer Royce Verslage uses tongs to carefully and individually move the meatballs from the baking trays to the lined pales, Brunetti move several at a time with his vinyl-gloved hand (13). Moving about 2500 meatballs one at a time even at the rate of one per second would require 40 minutes, non-stop, for one person. Together, this pair fills a pail in less than 45 seconds, without damaging a single meatball(14).
We were struck by the congeniality and friendliness of the UNICO members as they worked their magic that evening. Everyone was eager to explain what they were doing and why. Each was helpful in answering questions about how tasks were performed. No one seemed to mind having to move around another body in the kitchen. All were accommodating the photography despite never having had anyone there taking so many pictures before.
Another dedicated group was working, from the beginning, concurrently with the mixers, the meatballers and the bakers. The sauce group faced two 30G. cooking trays and had their backs to a small mountain of cans of "crushed tomatoes in tomato puree." Every can was first opened and stacked for immediate use.(18) But these had to wait for a little while. Fred Odell (17,18), Charlie Varca (19,21) and others made four batches of spaghetti, all from scratch. First the garlic was sauted in extra virgin olive oil and then the onions were cooked until barely translucent, "never browned!" Only then was the loose raw sausage added and thoroughly cooked.
Working deftly by himself, an unnamed member mixed the salt, pepper, and several herbs in secret proportions. Actually, no artificial ingredients were used. A separate batch of herbs and spices was prepared each of the four batches of spaghetti sauce.
Once the sausage was cooked, the 30 cans of crushed tomatoes were added to each cooking tray, as shown by Varca (19). Using three foot long stainless steel paddles, the tomatoes were mixed with the other, already cooked ingredients. Once this was thoroughly combined, another member was called upon to add his large bowl of herbs and spices. Again, more stirring. Soon the entire batch of nearly spaghetti sauce was allowed to simmer in the cooking tray (21) for nearly an hour. While that was going on, each of the 5G. pails were fitted with disposable plastic liners to speed the clean-up on Sunday, after the dinner. None too soon the sauce was ready and Odell and Varca used a large pot (22) as a ladle to fill more than a couple pales with sauce. They then used the cooking tray to its full advantage; these motorized, trays were tilted so that the built-in spouts on their font edges gushed sauce rapidly into each pale, one after the other.
The sauce was loaded on carts with their lids ajar (for about an hour) before being closed and secured and refrigerated. Joe Ciarcia helped by hauling pails of meatballs and pails of spaghetti sauce, one cart at a time, out into the cool hallways (23). Later in the evening, each pale was sealed and placed into refrigerated storage until Sunday morning (but that is another story).
As work in each section of the kitchen was completed, the used bowl, trays and utensils were passed along to the cleaning specialist, Mike Rizzo, and others (24). As he and others washed and rinsed each item, others (freed from the prior duties) dried each and returned them to their proper location. Keeping a watchful eye on all of the kitchen activities was the kitchen's production manager Wanda Noble, of Chartwells, the food service company to whom meals planning and preparation at WHS was outsourced. Everything had to be returned to the way it was when these 30 guys started; and, it was!
Well after 8:00 in the evening, with most of the cooking and cleaning behind them, UNICO members slowed down and settled into a late supper in the kitchen of, yes, freshly cooked ziti and their just "homemade" meatballs and spaghetti sauce. Time and opportunity came together to allow all to look back on what they had just accomplished that evening. Yet, it was also time to look forward to what was ahead of them all day on Sunday.
Consider if you will: they had just turned 300 lbs of ground beef into nearly 2500 meatballs and a mountain of cans of tomatoes (crushed in puree) into 120 gallons of spaghetti sauce. Ahead of them was still preparing garlic bread from 250 long loafs, turning 250 pounds of dry pasta into cooked ziti, and making salad from 280 pounds of lettuce and other ingredients. But as we said, Sunday morning will be another story.
These UNICO members and all of those who worked on each phase of the "Famous Macaroni Dinner" project are a credit to Wethersfield and the sense of community that they engender. We were honored to be allowed to share their evening with them in the culinary trenches. The citizens and friends who attend the Sunday dinner relish the food and spirit of UNICO and Wethersfield, while helping UNICO further help our town with the spirit of community and additional services as they have each year. Mangia!