Probably like every other nonprofit group selling food at the Oyster Festival this past September, St. Ann Club has its own story about the planning and organization (on top of the hard work) involved in serving thousands of people within a few days.
The club can involve as many as 50 members making tomato sauce, creating dough, getting the dough ready, then frying, preparing and selling pizza frittas, freshly made just moments before, and the only dish the club serves. It's a twice-a-year feat, not just of hard work, but of organization and cooperation.
One unique thing about the club's food operation is the stove it uses to make the pizza frittas. It's the only one of its kind, built especially for the club, and club members say it makes an already tightly organized operation run even smoother.
I know about it because it was designed, built and even patented by my late uncle, Dominick E. Gurliacci of Weston. On the last day of the Oyster Festival, I visited the St. Ann booth with Dominick's son, my cousin Gary, who helped his father build it. Gary and some club members described how St. Ann's makes pizza frittas, and how the device makes it easier.
Pizza frittas (pronounced "pizza freets") are flat, round, plate-sized pieces of fried pizza dough, served with pasta sauce or sugar (or sugar and cinnamon).
"Some people like it with just sauce, but the real one is with sauce and cheese—that's the real pizza fritta," said Pat Cutrone, St. Ann Club president.
The club sells the dish at either its own St. Ann Festival in early summer or at the Oyster Festival. (The club also used to sell pizza frittas at the Italian festival in Westport until that annual event was discontinued.)
About 20 years ago, Dominick Gurliacci, a member of the club, decided he could make St. Ann's temporary food factory a more efficient, safer, less difficult operation. Dominick was a factory foreman working at Pitney Bowes in Stamford, and he was also quite handy, whether he was working with wood or metal.
At the time, the club used a wooden tables, some of them covered with steel sheets, and separate stoves. Dominick would watch the operation and try to figure out how it might be made simpler and easier.
He came up with a plan and a design for a portable stove on a trailer, all metal, and with storage cabinets underneath one of the steel countertops, so that when the operation was over, nearly everything involved with the stove could be hauled away and kept in one spot.
In designing the portable stove, Dominick designed into it a windshield between the cooks and the servers, so that fumes wouldn't bother the servers (or customers).
He also designed a trough running down the middle of the stove. Just after the pizza frittas are deep fried, they are put on a wire mesh above the trough. Some of the oil then drains off the food, and at one end of the trailer the trough empties the grease into containers for disposal.
Approved and built
Dominick presented his plan to the club's governing board, which approved funds for it. The club paid for raw materials Dominick used to build the device, and Dominick contributed his own labor for free. He presented the club with the stove-trailer sometime in the mid-1990s, and the machine has been used ever since.
Although he patented the design, no other ones were ever built—the expense of getting the device certified as safe by Underwriter Laboratories was more so expensive than it wasn't worth doing, said Dominick's son, Gary Gurliacci.
The device "is the best thing we ever had," said Nicandro Cappuccia, a club member and friend of Dominick Gurliacci. "No matter where we go, everyone asks about it."
The money from the club's food sales, which can amount to $30,000 or even $40,000 a year, is donated by the club to members of the community who need college scholarships.
Cappuccia thinks the club is able to sell more pizza frittas with the device, and therefore help more people with donations.
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