At the end of a long night, Papa Gino stands back with a cigar in hand and looks over his trailer. Typically, he's checking the rows of flashy red-and-white light bulbs lighting the service counter and making sure the signs advertising his pizza and salads are still burning bright. But lately, he's been standing back, scratching his chin and wondering if he should put up new advertisements like the ones towering almost second-story high on the newer, flashier food trailers rolling into the San Diego County Fair.
“I'm thinking about maybe putting signs up, bigger signs—you know, a picture of a big pizza or somethin',” Papa Gino says in precisely the kind of first-generation scratchy Italian voice you'd expect from a guy with a name like his.
Through the widened baby-stroller admission lanes, past the small stage where Tom Griesgraber plays new-age music on a 12-string Chapman stick, in front of the rows of vibrating foot-massage chairs and under the dangling legs of the Sky Ride, you'll find Papa Gino's and the rest of the fair's food court. Filled with masses of flip-flop- and sun-hat-wearing folk and a fast-talking guy giving knife demonstrations, it's a place where mothers offer kids onion rings as big as their heads and those lucky enough to snatch a table rip into enormous turkey legs with reckless carnivorous vengeance.
Fair food is famous. “Notorious” is probably a better word. As if deep-fried Twinkies and frybread weren't enough, this year, Koolickles (Kool-Aid-marinated pickles), deep-fried SPAM and deep-fried frog legs were added to the menu. And from chocolate-dipped bananas to deep-fried cheesecake and even a hunk of steak, if something doesn't normally come served on a stick, it certainly does at the fair.
“Pizza on a stick, you ever heard of it?” Papa Gino asks. “I invented it, you see the picture over there—go out in front. Want to try one?”
Gino Garafalo has been in the fair-food business for 40 years. He probably won't end up putting up those newer, bigger signs because he's earned himself a pretty loyal following throughout the years. As he tells it, back when he first started, he was one of just two Italian guys working the California and Arizona fair circuit. After awhile, the other guy went out of business, so it didn't take Papa Gino long to turn his one food trailer into eight.
“I got all these letters from fairs saying, ‘Oh, we want you to come,' so I got myself established,” Papa Gino says. “I did Sacramento, Ventura, the state fair in Arizona, Costa Mesa, and I did all these places and that's how it started. And this lovely little lady here, we met at a fair in Indio.”
At his side, Maria Garafalo, dressed in a light-yellow tracksuit, says that during fair time, she works all day every day alongside her husband. Both are on their second marriage—they met because Maria's son absolutely had to go to the fair for a slice of Papa Gino's pizza—and both say they feel like they're still on their honeymoon. The couple has a big motor home they park in El Cajon, and when fair season officially kicks off in June, the two hit the road.
“It's a pretty good living,” says Gino, puffing away at his hand-wrapped Honduras cigar. “I'm my own boss. I like it a lot—a lot of traveling.”Kathy and Elaine Pignotti, of Pignotti's Gourmet Italian Food and Reno's Fish & Chips just around the way from Papa Gino's, can't imagine working anywhere but the fair. Elaine's husband, Reno, and a family friend, Lloyd Crutchfield (who happened to be the Pignottis' mailman at the time), built a food trailer 35 years ago as a joint venture, but the two quickly split ways and started separate businesses when they saw the long lines and high demand for fried fish. Then came the demand for fried zucchini.
“The very first zucchini,” Kathy explains, “my father picked it out of my grandmother's garden and took it to the Phoenix, Arizona, fair and everybody laughed at him—but that's where the fried zucchini came from, because at that time, it was considered the poor man's vegetable. But, of course, that only meant the Italians ate it, and now everybody does it.”
In the early 1980s, Lloyd started selling buckets of beer at his fish-and-chips trailer, and he convinced the fair to hire a local party band, Montezuma's Revenge.
“From '81 to '84,” says Ken Pignotti, Kathy's husband, “those were the radical beer-drinking days. It was just such a party, and they ended up shutting down the way beer is done at the fair because it was so out of control.”“It was a little wild,” Kathy remembers. “We didn't know if the bouncers were worse than the drunks or the drunks were worse than the bouncers.”
Now that the booze is relegated to closed-in seating areas and over-priced to the point that no one can afford to get drunk, things have calmed down. Lloyd's son Steven still runs his dad's now beer-free fish-and-chips trailer, and Ken and Kathy run her parent's Italian and fish-and-chips joints.
“We have four kids,” Elaine explains, “and they all grew up at the fair learning how to count money back. The young man in there,” she says, pointing inside the trailer, “that's a grandson. And this girl over here's a granddaughter. So that's the next generation coming up.”Nineteen-year-old Nick Platis over at a Greek-food trailer across the walkway is also part of the third generation of fair-food purveyors. His grandma, Helen, started the business as a tiny pastry cart selling baklava in Bing Crosby Hall more than three decades ago. The business has since grown into two Greek-food trailers, The Greek Gourmet and The Mediterranean, and a Mexican joint, La Gordita.
“I enjoy sharing our family recipes with the community,” said Mary Platis, who, with her husband Mike runs The Greek Gourmet. “We've been here for over 35 years at the fair, so we just have been here so long that our following, they'd just be crushed if we ever left.”
Ted Platis, who runs The Mediterranean and La Gordita with his wife Cyrese, has just finished building new, giant steel signs that stand 6 feet high atop his La Gordita trailer.
“What do you think?” he asks, rubbing together his hands, which are covered in bandages from all the recent welding work he's done. He pointed up to the giant picture of a taco. “I want you to try my tacos al pastor. You'll love 'em.”The San Diego County Fair at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., runs through July 6. www.sdfair.com/fair.