A Southern Tier classic and a Spiedie Fest staple: Chicken spiedie on a Felix Roma roll with salt potatoes from Lupos S&S Char Pit in Binghamton. | Photo: Sue Henninger.
“Most people from out-of-town don’t know what a spiedie is or how to pronounce it,” says Dave Pessagno, event coordinator for the annual Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally, in Binghamton. “A spiedie (pronounced spee-dee) is marinated cubes of [primarily chicken, pork or sirloin] meat put on a metal skewer, then cooked on a grill.” Soaked overnight in a special sauce, the spiedie has come to be the Southern Tier’s regional delicacy.
The dish originally known as a spiedo (“spit,” in Italian, for its cooking preparation) traveled across the ocean from Italy to Binghamton, N.Y. in the 1930s and 1940s. “It was originally served on a good piece of Italian bread and sold for five cents,” Mr. Pessagno explains. Things haven’t changed much for the 21st century spiedie. Lupo’s S&S Char Pit, a mainstay of Binghamton’s Spiedie Fest, follows the same process used years ago, but takes local to a new level by bottling their signature sauce and serving the tasty meat morsels on fresh Felix Roma Rolls (baked in nearby Endicott), with a sesame seed flourish. The softness of the rolls is the perfect complement to the chewy meat and tangy, oil and vinegar-based marinade. In the words of one Lupo’s employee: “No condiments needed; the sauce stands on its own!”
The festival began as a cooking contest in 1983, organized by Mr. Pessagno and Ron Rogers, who also happens to be a balloon pilot. After attending a hot air balloon festival, Mr. Rogers was so enthused by the experience that he told Mr. Pessagno they should add balloons to their Spiedie Fest.
In the same spirit, the two friends then approached a third partner, Joe Slavik of Catholic Charities, to see if he’d like to collaborate with them and use the annual festival to raise funds for local nonprofits. By 1985 the Fest had solidified into its current structure, with the three facets (balloons, charity and spiedies) synchronizing to provide an unusual and memorable event for all who come to enjoy it.
Originally supported by Broome County (Binghamton is the county seat), the Spiedie Fest has grown to the point where Mr. Pessagno is now a full-time, paid employee who answers to a board of directors and works year-round to ensure an unforgettable annual experience for residents and tourists alike.
Much of his time is spent putting together packages for the event’s many sponsors, booking musical entertainment for the weekend (Leann Rimes and Night Ranger in 2013), arranging for celebrities to attend a meet and greet (TV stars Peyton List and Cody Christian this year) and getting vendors signed up, he tells us.
Festival attendance figures usually hover between 90,000 and 100,000, yet Mr. Pessagno doesn’t seem overwhelmed. He exudes a contagious enthusiasm for balloons, spiedies and all things Binghamton. “Tons of people come back home for Spiedie Fest,” he says. “It’s become a family tradition, a generational event where we get people each year who tell us, ‘My parents brought us, now I’m bringing my own kids’…They may have left the area but the ‘spiedie connection’ is there wherever they live!”
True to its roots, the festival stars two Sunday afternoon spiedie cooking contests, one for amateur cooks and the other for chefs and local celebrities (disc jockeys, politicians and television personalities). Celine Hughes has participated in (and often won!) the contest since the first year; this will be year 30 for her and her blue ribbon spiedies.
Weather permitting the Festival opens on both Saturday and Sunday with a balloon launch at 6:30 a.m. Each day ends at dusk with Night Glow, a lineup of multihued, hot air balloons glowing throughout Otsiningo Park. The Balloon Rally has mushroomed from the four hot air balloons that originally participated to 50 balloons that enchant festival attendees. Every year organizers try to add a few novelty balloons to the mix. Last year Elvis was featured and this summer the American Flag balloon is scheduled to make an appearance.
Every year, based on the fest’s reputation, organizers receive more balloon applications than they can accommodate. Unsurprising for an area famous for gliders and seaplanes, Mr. Pessagno notes that “pilots love it here.” Binghamton boasts perfect flying conditions and friendly residents who welcome balloons landing on their property. Here’s a fun fact: it’s traditional for a balloonist to pop a bottle of Champagne upon landing, and then give the bottle to the owner of the property on which they land as a gift.
“I don’t care what age you are; taking a balloon flight is amazing,” says Mr. Pessagno, adding that the most common reason he hears for taking a flight through the skies is so someone can cross “balloon ride” off their bucket list. “Last year we had an 81-year-old nun from Binghamton take a ride,” he reminisces. For those who aren’t quite ready for the real deal, there are tethered balloon rides which send passengers no higher than 40 feet in the air.
The Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally is a particularly memorable event for some. “We usually get three to four proposals on our balloon rides every year,” Mr. Pessagno notes cheerfully. “We try to make it special and unique by letting you and your future bride go up in the balloon alone. You can pull the ring out as you’re soaring across the sky.”
The fest even boasts a wedding. The groom was a balloon pilot, Mr. Pessagno tells us. After the couple were married on terra firma by a justice of the peace, they took off in a balloon to celebrate.
A few other activities that you’ll find at the lively Southern Tier fest include the Sunday morning Kelly La Barre 5K Road Race/Walk, which usually attracts 700-800 runners and walkers, the annual Spiedie Fest Car Show, hosted by the American Cruisers Car Club of Binghamton, and the Co-ed Beach Volleyball Tournament, with matches for both competitive and recreational players.
The Fest is a nonprofit entity and each year’s proceeds are donated to local charities. The organization’s original mission statement still guides the founders, the board and the multitude of volunteers that make everything possible. “We wanted a safe, fun and affordable weekend that our community can be proud of,” Mr. Pessagno tells us. Every year he enjoys watching the Binghamton community’s levels of excitement and anticipation begin to build as the weather gets nicer, the schedule of events becomes common knowledge and volunteers can be seen setting up for the event.
“It’s a good, old-fashioned tradition that’s always predictable, but always a little different too,” he assures us.
If You Go
Dates: August 1-3. The Fest opens Friday at 2:00 p.m. and runs dawn to dusk on Saturday and Sunday
Ticket information: http://www.spiediefest.com/guest-guide/ticket-information.aspx
Schedule: http://www.spiediefest.com/schedule.aspx. The Fest is a rain or shine event.
Parking: Visitors to the park may begin arriving at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, August 1. Shuttle buses will run continuously between Broome Community College and Otsiningo Park throughout the festival.