WESTERLY— Local residents and chowder aficionados gathered at the Venice Restaurant on Saturday to sample and slurp some of the area’s finest chowders at the 10th annual Westerly Rotary Chowder Cook-off.
Eight community restaurants and three high school culinary programs stationed at the edges of the Venice ballroom served their soup to more than 270 eager taste-testers. The charity event raised more than $3,600 from day-of and advance ticket sales, which will benefit local and international charities.
A popular vote, allowing each attendee to select one favorite chowder by a restaurant and one by a school, crowned Westerly High School and Venice Restaurant as the winners of this year’s cook-off. A “chef’s choice” award for top chowder in each category went to the Shelter Harbor Inn and Westerly High School, as chosen by special guest judge Frank Terranova, host of WJAR-TV’s “Cooking with Class.”
Many participants, however, said it was difficult to choose a top soup.
“They’re all so good, I may not even be able to vote,” said event co-chair Rose Russo, though she added that last year’s winner, Casa Della Luce, is a top contender for her.
“We’ve had chowder a lot, but nothing like this,” said Maggie Bellucci, whose family just moved to Westerly from the West Coast this year. Maggie and her husband Vinnie both named the Shelter Harbor Inn, which placed second in the restaurant category, as their favorite.
Vinnie Belluci also praised Woonsocket High School’s lobster and corn rendition, though their son Nico’s involvement in Westerly High School’s offerings made that a winner for the family as well.
“We actually ran out of the lobster chowder, so we’re making more right now” said Nico Belluci, a senior and intermediate culinary student at the high school. Unlike most of his classmates, Nico’s recent move to Westerly made Saturday’s cook-off his first time at the event.
“I’ve heard so much about it, so I was really looking forward to it,” he said.
He added it was living up to his expectations as a steady stream of participants lined up at the high school’s table.
Charlestown resident Michael DeyOrio was also a first-time visitor to the cook-off, but the array of empty cups strewn across the table in front of him indicated he’d enjoyed the event.
“If you’re the type that can identify certain flavors and spices within your palette, this is the perfect event,” he said. “Taste is all about memory, it’s about what you enjoy.”
DeyOrio, who explained that he had become something of a food connoisseur through a local group originally started as a wine tasting club, picked the seafood chowder from Westerly High School as a standout for him.
“I was pretty impressed with it all around,” he said. “The presentation was nice too, which makes a big difference.”
Wood River resident Peg Dura echoed the Belluccis’ praise for Shelter Harbor’s chowder, which she noted had a slightly different use of spices than the traditional New England clam chowder.
“I really loved most of them, though,” Dura said. “It was great because it gave me a taste of all the different restaurants.”
While some offerings, like Westerly High School’s, provided more unusual twists on classic clam chowder with a lobster and seafood dish, the majority of the vendors opted for the beloved New England-style, each with their own finishing touches.
Casa Della Luce, for example, provided clam fritters along with their chowder.
“It’s like an added bonus,” explained server Shannon Jackson.
“We ran out of chowder early this year,” added owner Mark Lacz. “I guess that’s a good thing, because it means a good turnout and a lot of fundraising.”
Lacz said the event, which his restaurant has participated in for the past three years, provides a great way for his business to give back to the community while simultaneously promoting its food.
“The Rotary Club has been so supportive of us ever since we first opened,” Lacz said. “We just wanted to give something back to the town and the people here.”
Wendy Pugh, a caterer at Shelter Harbor Inn responsible for serving up their chowder at the event, agreed.
“It’s all for such a good cause,” she said. “This year has been a great crowd, lots of nice, happy people.”
Money raised through ticket prices for the event benefits several of the rotary club’s local charitable organizations, such as the WARM Center, the Johnnycake Center and the Rhode Island Center Assisting those in Need (RICAN). The proceeds also travel to charities supported by Rotary International, including End Polio Now, which seeks to eradicate polio around the world.
Russo and co-chair Doug Rayner spent four months planning for this year’s event, locating restaurants, setting up required Department of Health permits and advertising the event.
“Rose and Doug decided to do it right this year,” said Cal Lord, president of Westerly’s Rotary Club. “They were organized. They had a plan, and they were able to get money from sponsors, which helped support better advertising.”
Publicity included a mailing in the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce’s newsletter, as well as print ads and online notices on the club’s website and Facebook page. Russo said she hoped the increased publicity would help the club top its fundraising total from last year of about $1,500. With support from sponsors, Russo, also the Rotary Club’s treasurer, estimated the event would generate more than $4,000 — including the $3,600 in ticket sales — for charitable donation.
“We’re thrilled,” Russo said, adding that although she tallied 270 total votes, she thought many more visitors came through to sample the chowder.
The restaurants included in this year’s cook-off were Casa Della Luce, Shelter Harbor Inn, Sunny Side Up, The Cooked Goose, The Sea Goose, Van Ghent Cafe, Venice Restaurant and 99 Restaurant. Students from culinary programs at Westerly High School, Rogers High School and Woonsocket High School also participated.