A sweet treat has a perfect ending at this third annual event.
New York City’s 96th San Gennaro festival was in full swing at 1 pm on Wednesday when the Third Annual Zeppole Eating Contest was set to begin. The crowd was standing room only at the stage on the corner of Mott and Grand Street, just off the main festival route on Mulberry Street.
From the event stage, festival producer Mort Berkowitz shouted to the crowd: “Where is everyone from?”
“Brooklyn!” the crowd responded, then shouts of “Queens!” and “the Bronx!” could be heard before Berkowitz jokingly asked if the Staten Island Ferry had arrived yet.
The contestants took their places on stage each outfitted with a bottle of water.
Zeppole maker Danny Fratta led the Precession of Zeppole through the crowd followed by the Instagram stars Patty and Patty, each carrying tinfoil trays and placing them in front of each contestant.
“If we talk about a true son of Little Italy, it’s Danny,” Berkowitz said. The Fratta family has been cooking up zeppole at the feast for over seventy years, and Danny has been in attendance since he was an infant.
Before the countdown, Mario Bosco, a comedian, and the contest’s official Powder Sugar-er spooned heaping piles of the white stuff over the contents of each tray. The sugar slows eaters down by drying out the mouth.
With the water bottles opened and zeppole powdered, Berkowitz counted down to the start: three, two, one. The contest lasts six minutes. At the call of time, contestants are allowed to finish chewing what is already in their mouth, but the remaining zeppole are counted before a winner is declared.
The first zeppole eating contest was held in 2019, one of a growing list of competitive eating events at the Feast of San Gennaro that now includes cannoli, pizza, and meatballs. The food competitions were born out of reforms to the Feast of San Gennaro made in the 1990s. Many believed the organization behind the festival was corrupt and possibly tied to organized crime. As a result, the city banned gambling, a mainstay of the feast, and led organizers to find new forms of entertainment. One of the first was the cannoli eating contest, now in its 24th year, sponsored by Ferrara bakery.
The zeppole eating contest is sponsored by Danny’s on The Corner, a mainstay of the San Gennaro feast. The stand is owned by Danny Fratta who cooked up close to five hundred of the fried dough balls for this year’s contest alone. Fratta now runs the stand as well as the one adjacent to it selling torrone.
Although the other food competitions had proven a boon for the festival and for the sponsors behind it, at first, Danny laughed off the idea of a contest featuring zeppole. “I just kept thinking I would have to make 400 zeppole,” he said.
But the 2019 contest generated viral media attention. “It was insane!” Danny observed, acknowledging the success. That year, the winner chowed down on 54 zeppole. Afterward, he turned to Danny and asked him where he could find the best sausage and pepper sandwich.
The Fratta recipe for zeppole remains a family secret, one Danny inherited from his Uncle Vinny about two decades ago.
With twenty seconds left in the contest, Berkowitz began counting down. The crowd joined in: nineteen, eighteen, seventeen. When the time was called, the judges quickly counted up the uneaten zeppole.
Most of the contestants ate around thirty, but when the winner was declared, he had eaten 46 zeppole in six minutes. Kyle Mendez was crowned the 2022 champion. His mother joined him on stage and Danny handed him the prize: a crisp hundred-dollar bill.
However, the real winners were everyone in attendance; organizers handed out to the crowd the surplus zeppole.
The San Gennaro Festival is ongoing through Sunday. The Second Annual Pizza Eating Contest sponsored by Upside Pizza will be held on Friday, September 23, at 1 pm, and the Fifth Annual Meatball Eating ( https://sangennaronyc.org/event/4th-annual-meatball-eating-contest-1pm/ ) contest sponsored by Alleva Dairy hosted on Sunday, September 25 at 1 pm.
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.