Italian Heritage Association Festa revives grape-stomp competition

Grape skins fly when feet plunge into a grape-filled half-barrel lined with burlap Saturday afternoon at the 2013 Grape Stomp competition during the annual Italian Heritage Festa at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds. The Festa also featured Italian heritage displays, food and dance.

Grape skins fly when feet plunge into a grape-filled half-barrel lined with burlap Saturday afternoon at the 2013 Grape Stomp competition during the annual Italian Heritage Festa at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds. The Festa also featured Italian heritage displays, food and dance. Photo by Sean G. Parsons.

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WALLA WALLA — This year’s Italian Heritage Association Festa saw the return of a foot-stomping, rompingly fun event that had to be canceled last year due to lack of volunteers.

The grape-stomp competition took place Saturday at noon at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds, with teams like Tipsy Toes, St. Francis Mamas and We Are Grape competing to crush 50 pounds of grapes with their bare feet in three minutes.

The event sounds simple enough, but pulling it off requires a couple of hundred pounds of grapes, four half barrels with hoses attached leading to five-gallon glass carboys, a flatbed trailer for an elevated stage and lots of volunteers.

“It’s easy to say let’s go do this and let’s go do that, but if you don’t have the volunteers?” association member and famous Italian cookie baker Lorrie Rizzuti-Toye said.

Popular as the grape stomp may be, the biggest event for the Festa is the association dinner, which did take place last year. For the last 10 years, the dinner has had the support of volunteers from the Walla Walla High School culinary program.

“It’s a really good opportunity for kids to work in a restaurant setting,” culinary instructor Barbara Buttice said, as her students prepped 125 focaccia bread pizzas.

Two days earlier, those same students baked all those loaves.

“We have made a lot of bread. It took a lot of time,” said culinary student Brandon Williams, 17.

“But it goes by fast,” added fellow student Emma O’Harrow, 14.

With an average of 300 to 500 people in attendance at previous Festa dinners, this event is the largest catered dinner that the Wa-Hi culinary students will prepare each year.

This time, the students cooked up meatballs, marinara sauce, Caesar spinach salads, ravioli, prime rib, tiramisu and appetizers of fresh fruit, olives, pepperoncinis, asparagus and bread.

“They really get to do the whole thing,” Buttice said. And that includes the serving and cleanup.

Buttice said she normally has a crew of about 25 eager culinary students, but a last-minute scheduling snafu left her with only 10 culinary students this semester.

The hardest part, however, was not having to cook for the Festa feast with so few, but just making sure those few understood they were expected not just on time but early.

“I told them you should be here 10 minutes early ready to go,” Buttice said.

Williams agreed that it wasn’t the cooking but the waking that was hardest.

“I don’t like waking early. But you got to do what you got to do,” he said.

The Wa-Hi culinary program is sponsored by the National Restaurant Association.

Students who complete the curriculum receive certificates of experience that help them get employed in restaurant and other food-service jobs. Students who pursue an education at a culinary institute can usually earn about $1,000 in scholarships and often get to use their Wa-Hi classes to satisfy prerequisites courses, Buttice said.

They also get the experience of cooking for 300 or more people at the biggest Italian heritage event of the year.

“They are really fascinated with it all,” Buttice said, as she supervised the continual focaccia pizza making. “And for years I will hear them brag, ‘We got to do that event.’”

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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