Spaghetti & Chicken Tradition
Tontitown prepares to celebrate its 119th Grape Festival
When the first settlers from Sunnyside sat down to a harvest picnic in 1898, the thought of a Ferris wheel or carousel in eyeshot of the church house doors would have been inconceivable. Just as hard to fathom, though, would be the idea that the supper would become a tradition that would span a century and more.
This coming week, the 119th annual Tontitown Grape Festival will be held on the grounds of St. Joseph Catholic Church along U.S. 412. The free festival is billed as Northwest Arkansas’ largest, and preparations take weeks.
Eric Pellin is the chairman of the Tontitown Grape Festival. He says it’s hard to quantify just how many people come each year. “Since we’re a free festival, we don’t have a gate, but we estimate 20,000 to 25,000 people come out each night,” Pellin says.
The festival commemorates the first feast of the settlers of Tontitown. In 1898, Father Pietro Bandini traveled northwest from the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village to determine a new settlement for members of his congregation. Hundreds of Italian families had bought into the Arkansas Delta land sight unseen from New York developer Austin Corbin; upon arrival, the difference between the hillsides around Rome and the desolate flat cotton-planted lands of the Delta shocked many. Bandini’s quest for terrain and available land similar to what the settlers had left behind ended atop the Boston Mountain plateau. The community would take its name from Henri de Tonti, recognized as the first Arkansas Traveler.
The festival’s name comes from the many vineyards that once produced grapes. “At one time there were a tremendous amount of grapes grown in Northwest Arkansas,” Pellin continues. “Nearly every family in Tontitown had grapes, and many still have vineyards.”
A large grape juice maker once provided a market for most of the grapes. Today, Tontitown Winery produces wine from the nearby harvested fruit, while Ranalli Vineyard offers fresh table grapes. Both will have booths at the festival. Grape stomps are part of the festival, as is grape ice cream. A new addition, a grape funnel cake, will also be offered.
Over the course of five days, thousands will filter in and park out in the fields to enjoy a modern carnival, complete with rides, barkers with games, cotton candy and such on a temporary midway. Local craftsmen and women and area vendors line up along a sidewalk that parallels the highway, offering everything from pillowcase dresses to local sorghum and honey, Razorback clothing and your very own name carved into a wooden shape. Tontitown Winery will be on hand with locally made wines for sale.
But what draws families back is the fried chicken and spaghetti dinner that started this traditional gathering in the 19th century. On the nights of Aug. 3-5, the celebrated meal is served to thousands of diners. Soaked salad, fried chicken, long handmade spaghetti noodles in homemade marinara with grated parmesan cheese, rolls and iced tea are handed across the counter to each hungry guest, who finds a seat at one of the long tables in the hall. Bowls of sugar and sweetener, jelly and margarine for the rolls are set out for communal use.
The preparations for the more than 6,000 dinners that will be served takes weeks.
“We’ll make 500 gallons of sauce and over 3,000 pounds of spaghetti,” Pellin shares. “It takes us two weeks. We make on Mondays and Thursdays, we box spaghetti for dinners on Tuesdays and Fridays and bag noodles for sale on Wednesday and Saturday.”
The Italian dinners are $12 for adults and $6 for children, and Pellin says the kitchen never runs out.
“Just like any other Italian kitchen, we prepare for more than we expect,” he says. Diners can consume their dinners in the hall or take them to go.
For those who want to take home a taste of Tontitown, bags of handmade noodles are available for $3 a pound. Pellin says they’re all made by volunteers. In fact, the festival is 100 percent volunteer-driven. All the proceeds go to St. Joseph Parish. Kat Robinson is an Arkansas food historian and travel writer based in Little Rock. Follow her adventures at TieDyeTravels. com and watch for her in the upcoming AETN special, “Make Room for Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State with Kat Robinson,” premiering March 2018.
Annette Pianalto, left, and Sara Miller position a rack of fresh pasta noodles. The homemade spaghetti will be served Thursday through Aug. 5 at the 119th annual Tontitown Grape Festival.