Tradition And People Key Ingredients At Taste of Melrose Park, Planners Say

Wednesday, September 5, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Rain may have temporarily dampened the festivities on Friday and Saturday during this year’s Taste of Melrose Park, held Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, but the showers were nothing that volunteers and staffers like Kevin Murphy couldn’t handle.

After all, Murphy, a longtime Taste volunteer and Melrose Park employee, remembers the storm that blew through the Taste one morning “about six or seven years ago.”

That year, gale force winds knocked down speakers on the north stage and the “entire back end of the Taste was under water,” Murphy recalled. “Kids were riding their bikes through it.”

Even then, though, the sound was back to normal within a couple of minutes. The beat, and the flavors, went on.

The Taste of Melrose Park is itself a force to be reckoned with, organizers of the event said during interviews on Sept. 2, thanks to a small army of longtime volunteers and staffers like Murphy who work unheralded behind the scenes.

“Everybody knows their job and we all work together to make it what it is,” said Patti Dindia, Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico’s executive secretary and one of the fest’s lead organizers.

Some of the hundreds of volunteers and staffers have been working the fest for years and have done multiple tours of duty in a variety of roles.

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The owners of Scudiero’s Italian Bakery & Deli during the Taste of Melrose Park, held Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, in Melrose Park. | VFP 

“I used to do the beer tent and then I went into the wine garden and now I’m in the information booth,” said volunteer Rosale Manzo.

“I think all of us have moved around,” said Murphy, who also manned the information booth. “I was the main stage electrician years ago.”

The event’s special sauce, said Dindia, is the food. Each serving is $3 and there’s one of everything, so no food type is duplicated. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar concentration of homemade, tradition-laded Italian American offerings practically anywhere else in the Chicago area, she said.

Dindia said that the Taste of Melrose Park has long boasted having more food vendors than the Taste of Chicago, although each year the number of vendors vary at the two events. Regardless of the given year, though, the Taste of Melrose Park has more vendors per capita.

This year’s Taste of Chicago, which was held in July and attracted more than a million people, featured 73 food vendors, according to reports. The Taste of Melrose Park, which regularly attracts between 100,000 and 300,000 people, typically features between 60 and 80 food vendors.

Roughly a decade ago, the Illinois Festival Association ranked the Taste of Melrose Park the second-best event of its kind after the Taste of Chicago. Dindia and Murphy, however, said that the rankings can just as well be reversed.

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The family of Vinnie Laraia, one of the founders of the Taste of Melrose Park, pose in front of a photo of their late father and grandfather. | VFP 

“Most of the food that’s here is homemade,” said Murphy. “It’s not stuff that’s commercial. This is homemade stuff. I have food here I only have once a year, because its here. You can’t get it anywhere else.”

Scudiero’s Italian Bakery & Deli, located at 2113 W. Lake St. in Melrose Park, is a mainstay at the annual event. In fact, the store, which has been in the village since 1954, was present at the first Taste in 1981.

“We make everything from scratch,” said Frank Scudiero, who runs the restaurant along with his brothers Aldo and Anthony. “The dough, the sauce, the sausage meats.”

Pam Laraia, who manned a booth that sold homemade ravioli, said that her father, Vinnie Laraia, was one of the founders of the Taste in 1981.

“The guys started at the time when [C. August Taddeo] was mayor,” she said. “They were sitting around talking about [the concept] and they Auggie said you talked about it, so go start it. We were on 25th Avenue when it first started and there were only about [a dozen stands].”

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Sam Dindia, Ricky Amico and Phil Dindia — relatives of Patti Dindia and the owners of an online apparel company that sells Italian-related merchandise. | VFP 

The dozens of food vendors that line the grounds of the Taste these days are all echoes of the vendors present at the inaugural Taste some four decades ago.

The food is simple, hand-crafted, hearty and rich — from the pepper and egg sandwich garnished with Giardiniera made by Paula’s Cafe (located inside of Al Piemonte Ford, 2500 W. North Ave.) to the sfingi (an Italian deep-fried pastry that’s stuffed with ricotta cheese and rolled in sugar) made by the Missionary Sisters of St Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians.

“This is such a tradition in this town,” said Carl Dote, who along with his wife, Paula, own Paula’s Cafe.

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Paula Dote, right, serves up her famous pepper and egg sandwiches during the Taste on Sunday. | VFP 

“This is the best fest in the three-state area,” he said. “There’s nothing like it and we’ve been to a few. We’ve had booths in a few. Nothing compares to this fest. We are the best.”

The food even attracted visitors from out of state, such as Kim Mattarrese Rectenwald, who came from Dallas, Tex. Rectenwald was in Melrose Park to surprise her cousin, Frank Matarrese, who works for the village. This is her second year in a row making the trip to Proviso Township just to attend the event.

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A volunteer serves up sfingi made by the Missionary Sisters of St Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians. | VFP 

“Everybody knows you can’t get good Italian food in Texas,” she said. “This is about family. This isn’t just restaurants. They’re family members. Everyone who works here does it from their heart and everybody else benefits in their tummy.” VFP

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