Monday, September 15, 2008

Saint Cannoli

According to legend, Saint Gennaro, the patron of Naples, survived numerous persecutions before his head ended up on the chopping block. His tormentors threw him to lions, pushed him into an amphitheater full of hungry bears, and tossed him into a furnace. Sure, Gennaro was tough. But could he have eaten 20 cannoli in six minutes?

As part of Little Italy's Feast of San Gennaro, 10 men honored the saint by seeing who could eat the most cannoli in 360 seconds. George Shea, chairman of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), served as emcee. He'd hosted this summer's Nathan's hot dog eating contest and once again flaunted his hyperbolic wit. He intoned that we live in dark times, and cited as evidence "the four horsemen of the esophagus." A man standing near me exclaimed several times, "If that guy were running for office, I'd vote for him."

Gianni Russo, who played Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather, served as celebrity judge. Shea had forgotten to bring a timer, so Russo counted down with his gold watch. He stood off to the side of the contestants to keep his his pin-striped suit safe from flying cannoli debris. The competitors stacked their cannoli on paper plates and poured cups of coffee and milk to wash down the dessert. Crazy Legs Conti, a Nathan's contest veteran and member of the competitive eating circuit, went in as the favorite. He granted interviews beforehand and received the greatest applause during introductions. Conti wore a pair of gloves, and after several minutes of frantic eating, Shea remarked that Conti looked as if he'd been working in a "cannoli garden." His gloves, beard, and dreadlocks were smeared with ricotta. Shea cautioned Conti to clean up the "detritus" or face a penalty. The emcee focused on the rivalry between Conti and Allen "The Shredder" Goldstein, who wore an IFOCE T-shirt and stood to Conti's right. Shea should have looked down the table to Brad Sciullo. After the final countdown, the judges declared newcomer Sciullo the champion. The 21-year-old had devoured 20 cannoli, edging out Conti and Goldstein, who tied at 19. Sciullo never removed his headphones—Apple might want to consider a competitive eating-themed iPod campaign.When Shea announced the winner, Sciullo started to cry. It startled me to see such an emotional reaction, especially since there was no cash (or cannoli) prize, but Sciullo sobbed real tears as he held his trophy aloft.

Somewhere Saint Gennaro cried, too, as he wiped away the cannoli crumbs left in his honor. He hadn't suffered in vain.

Feast of San Gennaro 
Little Italy • NY, NY 
photos and video by Adeet Deshmukh

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