For people who love red-sauce Italian cooking, any day is a good day to visit Pittston. But every adventurous eater should know about the Tomato Festival: four days of celebrating red sauce, small-town America and, yes, the tomato itself. This year, the festival will run Aug. 20 to 23. During that weekend, you'll see contests for the largest, smallest, ugliest and most perfect tomatoes, the crowning of a Miss Tomato Festival Queen, Little Miss and Little Mister Tomato, a parade, a cooking competition known as Sauce Wars and, on Saturday, an organized tomato fight.
You may have heard of the tomato fights in Buñol, Spain. There, hurlers drive around town in trucks, pitching fruit at anybody in their way. Great for the throwers, but the rest of the crowd must make do with secondhand ammo and no clearly defined target. Compared with Pittston, Buñol isn't really a fight at all. In Pittston, everybody throws. The fight takes place in a parking lot with two opposing groups pelting one another with rotten tomatoes.
Legend has it that the battle began back in 2002 with two teams, one consisting of the mayor and city council of Pittston and the other of the mayor and city council of neighboring town and longtime rival West Pittston, squaring off for no particular reason. Back then, a group of judges declared the winner based on who was covered with the most tomato and had taken the most hits. These days, there's no real winner; just being in the fight is enough for most people.
Even if tomato throwing, small-town pageants, parades and local-band concerts don't interest you, the food offerings are reason enough to hit this festival. Last time I was there, in 2007 (I had a nasty cold last year, but I'm planning to be there this month), the food vendors combined such typical street-fair items as lemonade and funnel cakes with long-standing Pittston traditions, including stewlike pasta fagioli and grilled sausages. If you're looking for something lighter, there's terrific bruschetta with crusty bread, really fresh tomato and bits of local mozzarella.
Connoisseurs of local food will tell you that there's only one thing you have to try: the tripe braised in tomato sauce. "You haven't been to Pittston until you've tasted tripe," one bystander told me. And the food vendors were quick to oblige: Several had big pots of the stuff. Rich and well-seasoned, it was organ meat heaven.