Slice of Life

And the winner of the best meatball in Syracuse is…

Joe Bloss | Asst. Feature Editor

Judges at Meatball Madness score the food on a scale from one to five in categories that include taste, appearance, aroma, texture and sauce.

March is often a month closely associated with madness. Slam dunks, buzzer-beaters and Cinderella stories dominate weekends where a hefty chunk of the nation fixates its attention on college basketball. On Sunday, though, a different kind of madness infiltrated Syracuse.

The meatball kind.

That’s right. Beginning at noon, three hours of the 14th annual Meatball Madness consumed the International Pavilion at the New York State fairgrounds. Elmcrest Children’s Center, an organization based in Syracuse that provides assistance to families and kids living with emotional and behavioral disabilities, hosted the event. The goal — besides raise a standard $30,000 for Elmcrest — was to find out who makes the best meatball in Syracuse.

Eleven chefs each donated roughly 400 meatballs for the affair. Those who paid the few dollars to get in could fork over their ticket for a blue egg carton filled with one meatball from each chef. To eliminate any biases, only numbers and no names labeled the spheres of meat. Tasters eat them up, then cast a vote for the best through iPads at a voting station, or via a URL provided at every table.


Joe Bloss | Asst. Feature Editor

Janene Bartell, Elmcrest’s special events coordinator, put the whole day together — and that took more than just rounding up some meatballs. She works on a lot of projects throughout the year, but none like this.

“Meatball Madness is my baby,” she said.

Since January, she’s been assembling sponsors, silent auction donations and, most importantly, judges. Because even though attendees voted on who receives the plaque for the “People’s Choice” award, it’s the judges who choose who gets to hold the big trophy.

The judges don’t vote the same way attendees do, said John Oliver, who has been a judge since the first Meatball Madness 14 years ago. Their system operates more officially — meatballs are scored on a scale of one through five in several categories, including taste, appearance, aroma, texture and sauce.

Oliver said Santangelo’s Restaurant, which took home third place this year, have probably made the best meatballs over the years. But for him, the event named for food hasn’t been memorable because of it.

“The best of experience of it all has been the people,” Oliver said.

That sentiment seemed to echo through the high ceilings of building housing the madness. Hanging by the rafters, the Italian flag stuck out from the others. A toddler hustled through the crowd with a “Got Meatballs?” T-shirt. The old danced with the young, the lively tunes of Mickey Vendetti and The Goodtime Band inspiring them. Balloon animals and hats popped like clockwork. All great fun, but those are just underlying aspects of the cause championed by the meatballs.

It’s a cause that lives on despite Monday marking six years since the death of Meatball Madness founder Dominick Tassone Jr. His restaurant, Dominick’s, is now run by his family. They donated a full buffet. His spirit remains, and the event he created continues to grow. Since 2003, the Meatball Madness moved from Dominick’s to Drumlins Country Club to the fairgrounds, all because of a need for space.

Sunday gave Syracuse local Vic Coogan his first taste of Meatball Madness. And while he joked the 11th meatball in his carton was his favorite just because he was stuffed, Coogan recognized the contributions Elmcrest makes to children and parents alike.

Years ago, Coogan and his wife adopted three and five-year-old boys from Mexico. Michael, the older son, dealt with ADHD throughout childhood, and he and his brother had their fair share of emotional issues that Coogan said could have stemmed from their adoption. Now, both sons are thriving as naval officers.

“They wouldn’t be where they are now if it wasn’t for places like Elmcrest,” he said. “The support is 24-7, always just a phone call away.”

Only on Sunday, at least for one day, that support reversed. The children Elmcrest dedicates its time and resources to work for Elmcrest during Meatball Madness. In what is Bartell’s favorite facet of the function, youngsters and teens all throughout the international pavilion sported fluorescent yellow shirts, designating their volunteer status. They formed an assembly line to fill 500 egg cartons, all of which were gone in an hour.


Paul Valenti of the Palace Theater took home first prize for the second year in a row, and did so on his birthday. He credited the consistency of his meatballs as the key to victory, explaining that his choice to use an electric mixer instead of hand-rolling the meatballs makes a big difference. But in the end, trophy or no trophy, meat comes second.

Said Valenti: “Sure, it’s fun to win bragging rights and whatnot, but supporting Elmcrest is what it’s about.”


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