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Italian Fest’s meatball eating contest fueled by cultural & culinary heritage

Butler police officers race each other in the police part of the Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23

A family recipe is behind the sixth annual meatball eating contest of the Butler Italian Festival on Main Street.

Maria Stephenson, of Center Township, and her son, Clark, dished out about 100 meatballs for the competition, and sold 4,000 at the festival so far, she said before the contest on Saturday, Aug. 26.

When asked what makes a good meatball, the owner of the former bakery known as Dolce Mia said “the simpler, the better.” Stephenson uses her grandmother’s recipe and fries the meatballs in olive oil using only the freshest meat and ingredients, she said.

The best compliment Stephenson has gotten on her meatballs was from a woman who said they taste like home.

“She got these big tears in her eyes and she said, ‘This is the first meatball I have every had in my life that reminds me so much of my grandmother’s sauce,’” Stephenson said.

“I never ever say that I make the best, because what you grew up with is the best,” Stephenson said. “It’s the taste that you’re used to. That’s the best. But I’m so humbled, and my grandmother would be so incredibly humbled to know that this has taken us to the level that we can go through 4,000 (meatballs) in three days.”

Stephenson’s grandmother, Antonia Nanni DeMatteis, who passed in 1977 came to the United States from the Abruzzo region of Southern Italy by boat when she was 7 years old.

Food is what brought Stephenson’s family together at every Sunday reunion, and cooking the meatballs — among other Italian dishes and pastries including made-from-scratch cannoli shells — is her way of honoring her grandmother’s legacy, she said.

“This, to me, is the most important legacy,” she said. “I can honor them with the food because it was so important to them.”

She recalled one particular holiday that saw a fusion of quintessential American food and her family’s traditional Italian recipes.

“You know, Thanksgiving is American,” Stephenson said. “So on Thanksgiving, they always had something with sauce. You know, homemade gnocchi, ravioli, the whole works. My mother, being the oldest, she said, ‘Mommy, can’t we have turkey and mashed potatoes like Americans do?’ So (my grandmother) goes, ‘Yeah, I’ll make that.’ She makes turkey, mashed potatoes and a couple sides and (added) meatballs and ravioli.”

Stephenson made her first loaf of bread when she was 12 years old, she said. She noted that her culinary journey began with seeing how food could make people happy. It took years to learn her family’s recipes.

Her son, Clark Stephenson, expressed that the Italian festival would be powerful to witness especially for older generations of Italian-Americans who would have grown up when attitudes toward Italians were discriminatory.

“This would have never been allowed back in the day,” he said. “You couldn’t get hired in this town if you were Italian. There was so much discrimination...no Italians could be allowed to work on any of the city projects. In fact, my ancestors, they were not allowed to be buried in the front of North Main Street cemetery up there at the time; they were way in the back.”

Italian culture “used to be kept under wraps,” he said, but now, the festival offers the opportunity to share a little bit of Italian culture with the entire community.

“There was a lot of discrimination, and now everybody loves it,” Clark Stephenson said.

The contest

The meatball eating contest saw Butler City police officers and firefighters compete in a three-round timed competition that ultimately ended in a showdown between police Sgt. Miles Bizub and firefighter Lt. Tim Iman. The fire department won for the second consecutive time year.

Three years ago, the festival dedicated the contest to paramedics and first responders to recognize their work within the community, especially after the pandemic, said event manager Michael Dongilli of North Hills.

Dongilli, whose own grandparents immigrated from Calabria, said the festival promotes Italian heritage and brings Italian culture to the rest of the community.

Maria Stephenson, with Dolce Mia's Bakery prepares a meatball sandwich on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23
A large group of people came out to watch the Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23
Butler Bureau of Fire firefighters from left, Tim Iman, Josh Abbott and Jim Kaufman prepare to start the Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23
City of Butler Police officers from left, Sergeant Miles Bizub, Officer Jason May and Officer Lee Niebel prepare to start the Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23
Butler Bureau of Fire firefighter Tim Iman puts his hands up in celebration after winning Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening in a close race against City of Butler Police Sergeant Miles Bizub at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23
City of Butler Police Sgt. Miles Bizub, left shakes hands with Butler Bureau of Fire firefighter Tim Iman after Iman won this years Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23
Butler Bureau of Fire firefighter Tim Iman puts his hands up in celebration after winning the firefighters part of the Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23
Butler police Sgt. Miles Bizub, left and Butler Bureau of Fire firefighter Tim Iman, right, start the final round to see who will in the Mangia Meatball Eating Contest on Saturday evening at Butler Italian Festival. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle 8/26/23

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