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Serving God — and the best spaghetti in Arkansas

Arkansas Catholic dishes details on five of the best pasta dinners in the diocese

Published: September 17, 2013   

With the possible exception of Lenten fish fries, the spaghetti dinner may be the most-beloved, longest-lived and best-attended of parish events in the Diocese of Little Rock.

From one end of the state to the other, in parish centers and Knights of Columbus halls, spaghetti is served up doused in sauce or naked and garlic-buttery, crowned with meat or dusted with cheese. Quick and simple, it is satisfying fare — heritage on a plate — served up with a side of fellowship.

Among the many steaming pasta pots and simmering tomato reductions, some events distinguish themselves as being in a class by themselves. They are among the biggest, the oldest and, by many accounts, the best the Catholic community has to offer. Our criteria for saying so is less than scientific and if we have overlooked an event, we both apologize and invite you to tell us about it. You can be sure we will work to get to the bottom of the oversight, as well as that of a plate or two.

Until then, Arkansas Catholic presents the Fantastic Five of spaghetti suppers.

Center Ridge: St. Joseph Church

Any event billing itself “The Original Spaghetti Dinner” better deliver the goods. Theresa Paladino, who estimated she’s attended 50 of the events, doesn’t even blink.

“It’s not only the taste of the food,” she said. “It’s the hospitality, the friendliness and the heritage of fourth and fifth generations that makes it the best.”

The dinner was the idea of the resident Benedictine nuns in 1929 looking to raise money for school supplies. The first event, complete with homemade wine, sold $40 worth of 25-cent-a-plate dinners and a tradition was born. 

Except for the long-gone vineyards that produced the wine, St. Joseph has preserved every other aspect of tradition, starting with homemade pasta and spaghetti sauce created in individual parishioners’ kitchens that is combined for serving at the dinner. The comingling of sauces produces something totally unique, Paladino said.

“We don’t have a set sauce recipe,” she said. “Everybody brings their own and dumps it in the pot.”

As for the spicy sausage, parishioners start grinding, stuffing and smoking the links in January. Homemade bread and hot sauce are prepared closer to the dinner dates. Incredibly, this rural parish of 100 families will make enough food to feed 3,600 diners between the two dinners.

“I’ve seen years where it rained and people in line stood there and got rained on,” Paladino said. “One year the transformers blew and people ate on the dark. People have sat in their cars to eat. Before we were on city water, the wells almost ran dry we boiled so much pasta, but the Lord always made sure we had enough.”

Pine Bluff: St. Joseph Church

Mike Lambert is on his 10th stint as chairman of the spaghetti dinner and can tell you anything you want to know. But when you’re in charge of an event that dates back to 1934 and follows the same meatball recipe used from the beginning, occasionally you’ll be reminded you’re still just a kid.

“We have this lovely 100-year-old parishioner, Mary Belvedresi,” Lambert said. “Four years ago, when she was just 95, she came into the kitchen and says, ‘Mike, the meat-a-balls, you gotta add a little more-a spice.’ She came back later and said, ‘You got it justa right.’”

An estimated 11,000 meatballs steal the show at St. Joseph Church. The work to produce them starts weeks before, as meat combines with other ingredients, including fresh garlic, onion and celery, bread crumbs and Romano cheese, then hand-rolled to the proper diameter and deep fried.

But that’s only half the process. A few days out, tomato puree, salt, sugar and water are combined with 70 or so meatballs at a time and simmered for two hours, lending a complexity of flavors.

“When you have a recipe that has worked for 79 years, you don’t change that,” Lambert said.

As for the distinction of being the only spaghetti dinner on the list that serves the mid-week lunch crowd — not to mention a workday in between to reload — Lambert said it’s one reason the event has such broad appeal.

“This event is something the entire city of Pine Bluff looks forward to,” he said. “People know when it’s getting about time for the spaghetti dinner and they start asking for the date. It’s a lot of work, but it’s love and labor and fellowship.” 

Little Italy (Roland): St. Francis of Assisi Church

Let’s face it — any place located in “Little Italy” should make this list on address alone. In this case, though, the annual spaghetti feed more than lives up to the name. 

But it comes with a warning, straight from the event’s committee chairman Chris Dorer.

“If you are watching your weight, this is not the place to come to,” he said. “If you’re worried about your cholesterol, this isn’t the dinner for you.”

On the other hand, if authentic Italian cooking is your thing, using recipes that are essentially unchanged over the past 86 years, then tiny St. Francis of Assisi is a must-try this October. A cultural expression, a nod to the parish’ Italian heritage and a hallmark of community pride all rolled into one, the event feeds somewhere between 900 and 1,000 diners all they can handle of handmade pasta and sauce, homemade bread and a sausage as unique as it is simple.

“The ingredients aren’t complicated, all that’s in it is pork, salt and pepper,” said Dorer, who grew up here. “But it’s the way we mix it and the wine we cook it in that gives it a taste that’s unlike anything else.”

Everything is made with care, right down to the salad dressing, a condiment made from its own 100-year-old recipe that has engendered its own rabid following.

“Again it’s simple — oil and vinegar and spices — but it takes three months to make. It’s brewing at someone’s home as we speak,” Dorer said. “It’s not your typical Italian dressing. And if there’s any leftovers the next day, I eat the salad first.”

Guests come from as far away as the Great Lakes and occasionally from overseas. Many of them are descendants from the original settlers of the parish who come to reconnect with their Arkansas hosts, something Dorer has never taken for granted.

“It feels pretty awesome to grow up in a place like this,” he said. “I have learned a lot from the older people here and I feel blessed to have had that opportunity.”

Lake Village: Our Lady of the Lake Church

Talk to Sharon Henderson, president of the Altar Society at Our Lady of the Lake Church, and you get the distinct impression that to compare too closely the fare at their March spaghetti dinner to anything else to be had in Arkansas comes perilously close to fighting words.

“I’ve never been to the other ones,” she said. “But every year we have the same people come back to ours and every year they tell us that it’s the best it’s ever been.”

Tradition lies as thick and heavy on Our Lady of the Lake as the homemade meatball-infused pasta sauce. Recipes are not only handed down, they are acted out every year as generations of families come together to prepare the dishes in what are practically parish holidays.

In January, there’s bread baking day; over Presidents Day weekend, 100 volunteers spend two days producing 300 pounds of yolk-yellow pasta that air-dries overnight on rows of tables. In late February, the Pierini family leads production of  3,600 meatballs that will stew in caldrons of sauce overseen by the most experienced men in the parish. Homemade desserts arrive by the carload as do diners who will line up as early as 7 a.m. for takeout orders.

“You ask me why ours is the best?” Henderson said. “We’re going to make everything with our own two hands. We’re not buying anything. It is a lot of pride in what we do; there’s also a lot of love involved. Love for our parish, each other and the Lord. We consider this dinner part of his work.”

There is one significant change for 2014 — for the first time in a century a second dinner is being scheduled, but to attend you need to be one of the runners in the Feb. 8 Mississippi River Marathon. Race organizers recruited the parish to provide the pre-race pasta feed with proceeds supporting St. Mary School in Lake Village. 

Tontitown: St. Joseph Church

As a fourth-generation member of St. Joseph Church, Ryan Pianalto grew up with an uncommonly strong bond with the parish’s annual Grape Festival.

“It was just the best thing ever,” he said. “You’d trade your birthday for the Grape Festival in a minute. It was like, Christmas, Easter, fourth of July and Grape Festival, in that order, for me.”

It would seem the community shares Pianalto’s enthusiasm. Over the past 115 years, the event has grown from a simple picnic of thanksgiving among the Italian immigrant farmers who settled there to a five-day event that encompasses the entire town. At its heart is the spaghetti dinner, served Thursday through Saturday of the festival, feeding 7,000. Residents line up for plates piled with pasta, sauce and fried chicken.

Every single noodle and every drop of sauce, hundreds of gallons simmering at a time, is homemade and traditional. Don’t bother nattering about nutritional content; if you want health food take it up with parish ancestors whose handed-down sauce recipe includes chicken gizzards, salt, beef and spices.

“It’s fantastic to use these old recipes,” Pianalto said. “It’s also amazing to hear my great-aunts and uncles talk about how they made it in these five-gallon pots where they’d stir it all day long. These days we use a 100-gallon saucepot and we still came the closest we ever have to running out.”

The dizzying logistics and staggering quantities don’t seem to faze the 39-year-old committee chairman, largely because he is driven by an overriding simplicity of purpose. It may not be a humble picnic anymore, but the reason for putting it on has never changed.

“This is something everybody has a role to play in,” he said. “Yes, it’s a fundraiser, but more than that, we do it out of the love we have for our parish, out of love of God and love of Jesus.”

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