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After 30 years, Melrose Park’s got Taste for home-cooked favorites

Justine (from left) SabrinSabine MichelCarmine Iannelli with their panzerotti Taste Melrose Park. (Scott Stewart~Sun-Times)

Justine (from left) Sabrina, Sabine, Michela and Carmine Iannelli with their panzerotti at the Taste of Melrose Park. (Scott Stewart~Sun-Times)

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The 30th annual Taste of Melrose Park runs Sept. 2 through 4 at 1000 N. 25th in Melrose Park. Admission is free;

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Updated: November 3, 2011 10:49AM

Hours before the opening of last year’s Taste of Melrose Park, Dom DiFazio and Dio Vacaro paused for a photo in front of their respective booths, Capt. D’s Homemade Lupinis and D&D’s Arancini.

Just as they smiled for the camera, a neighborhood guy zoomed by on a golf cart and shouted, “Hey, you think you can actually fit his whole big head into one shot?”

DiFazio looked down, somewhat abashed, and said, “Some of the guys say I got a big head.”

Busting balls, that proud Italian-American tradition, is part of what makes this annual festival in west suburban Melrose Park so endearing and entertaining.

But the food is the thing.

Now in its 30th year, the Taste of Melrose Park — which runs Sept. 2 through 4 — is all about families and the foods they make for each other. Of the more than 70 vendors, only a handful represent the kind of brick-and-mortar restaurants that line the walkways of the more famous Taste of Chicago.

Most vendors are families who have never been in the food industry; they’re just folks serving their home-cooked favorites. More than 50 of these families have been cooking at this event for 20 years or more.

The Iannelli family is always there making panzerotti, the Italian variant on the turnover. The Iannellis use a pastry-stretching machine that pulls the dough so it can be folded around a tasty trinity of cheese, sauce and sausage.

Last year, there were aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, the young ones home from college as well as the older ones with jobs outside of the kitchen, all helping cook.

Elio Bartolotta, a member of the Iannelli clan, fried a traditional Sicilian sandwich called pane panelle: sheets of chickpea flour paste, crisped in oil and served on bread with a squeeze of lemon.

The good people at Sicilianos Old Fashioned Fried Bologna let me behind the counter to try my hand at making their signature white-bread wonder. Although it’s a relatively uncomplicated process, this sandwich proves that the sum can sometimes be greater than its parts, which are simply griddled bologna and onions with mustard on white bread.

Joe Rosa, who for years has been offering tiramisu at the Taste, is the son of one of Melrose Park’s most illustrious food legends, the late Sam Rosa. Rosa owned and operated Slicker Sam’s for 40 years. Slicker’s was a hangout for every Italian family’s favorite son, Francis Albert Sinatra.

“When Frank was there,” said Joe Rosa, “it was a lock-down.” Everyone but his crew would have to leave so Sinatra could enjoy dinner sans adoring fans.

“He always asked my mother to make his food without garlic,” said Rosa, which one must assume was owing to the evening’s anticipated romantic possibilities.

“Don’t listen to that guy. He’s full of it,” someone shouted, walking by Rosa with a big grin.

The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo, who have a provincial house in Melrose Park, are the local favorites. Their booth always draws long lines of people waiting for their sfingi, or fried pastry balls.

The sisters get a kick out of this annual event (I saw a lot of giggling in the kitchen), which allows them to fulfill their mission of “feeding the hungry.”

Two of the bakers claim responsibility for originally bringing to the convent the idea of selling sfingi. Each is adamant that the original idea was hers; I even caught an angry glare or two exchanged. This was clearly a disagreement that would not be resolved without divine intervention.

The Scatchells make sandwiches of Melrose peppers, a chile developed in the community itself, though as with the sfingi, there’s some dispute about which local family is responsible for actually hybridizing this pepper.

I heard two different families present the case that their forbears were responsible for the Melrose pepper. As within any family, there are going to be disagreements; in a big family such as Melrose Park, finding agreement is as rare as finding a Chicago-style pizza in Sicily.

Dio Vacaro and his wife sell arancini, rice balls filled with peas, cheese and spiced beef that look like big oranges. In a break with Italian culinary tradition, Vacaro pours red sauce over the arancini.

“If you talk to my wife, she says that’s not the way you’re supposed to eat them,” he said. Again with the disagreements. Nonetheless, Vacaro’s crisp rice balls are fantastic.

At the center of it all is Peggy DiFazio, director of special events and undisputed queen of this yearly gathering.

“Turn that camera off,” she barked at my friend (and James Beard Award-winning videographer) Mike Gebert, who was attempting to get some footage of her. Gebert backed off fast. On the festival grounds, Peggy’s word is law. The sprawling, sometimes riotous, always fun fest demands a firm voice.

Peggy’s son, Dom “Big Head” DiFazio, prepares lupini beans every year, serving them in little cups.

“You got to soak them overnight,’” explains DiFazio, “and then you cook them, and they smell really bad. Takes about two weeks to make.”

However bad they might smell while they cook, lupini beans are deliciously salty, chewy, low in calories and probably not the sort of snack you’d find anywhere but an Italian-American event.

“I sell out every year,” said DiFazio, looking over the coolers filled with the tiny yellowish beans, adding quickly, “As long as the weather’s good. If it rains, it throws everyone’s day off.”

“I don’t think it’s going to rain,” observed a guy rushing past with arms full of produce.

“Who are you? Harry Volkman?” quipped Frank Giglio, standing nearby, referring to Chicagoland’s famous weatherman.

Giglio went back to preparing his signature pepper and egg sandwiches.

“That guy who just came by,” Giglio said, “I’ve known him since we were this big. We’re all close. We’re all family.”

David Hammond is an Oak Park free-lance writer.

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