(Photo: Mathew Silver)

“Hi Mathew, It’s Mort Berkowitz from the Feast of San Gennaro. We’re delighted to have you enter the cannoli-eating competition, which will be this Friday.” I received that voicemail from the organizer of the famous festival in Little Italy, after responding, on a lark, to a flier on Mulberry Street. I don’t technically have professional eating experience, but I have enjoyed – more or less – three meals a day over the course of my entire life, which I thought qualified me for competition.

So, I did some research. According to foodchallenges.com, contestants should eat a “max-out” meal (which is exactly what it sounds like) 18-22 hours before they compete. Apparently, that’ll expand your stomach and allow enough time for the food to be “eliminated” from your body. I chose not to do this, for obvious reasons. Instead, on the day of the cannoli feast, I wore workout shorts with plenty of elasticity in the waistband, to accommodate my soon-to-be bulging waistline.

About an hour before the contest, while hanging out nearby the competition stage, I started to get hungry. At the corner of Mulberry and Grand, in the belly of the San Gennaro Festival, people were nibbling on charred and buttery cobs of corn, gobbling thick tubes of Italian sausage slathered with peppers, and pulling gooey strings of mozzarella from inside breaded crust. But I showed admirable discipline, with the knowledge that soon I’d have more than enough cannoli to sate my wild appetite.

I expected my competitors to be a gang of angry, hulking, insatiable, cannoli addicts, built like the rejects from a local weightlifting competition. Instead, they were a hodgepodge of hungry strangers of all shapes and persuasions. There was Grant Hubscher, a fitness fanatic wearing sweatpants designed to look like the American Flag; the brothers Horowitz, Daniel and Eric, two shaggy-haired Jewish writers from Long Island; last year’s cannoli-eating champion, Scott Hersh, a grim-looking character with slicked-back grey hair; Wayne Algenio, a YouTube star in the professional eating sphere with a physique to match; Jacob Cooper, a clean-cut Cornell grad who seemed too well-adjusted to have a chance in the competition; Suzie Firecracker, a thin-but-ferocious eater with a pin-up girl-inspired outfit; Giovanne Costa, my personal favorite, whose Italian-born wife arrived early to claim a front-row seat.

When I spoke to a member of the event staff before the competition, he estimated that a crowd of 60 to 70 people would watch the cannoli consumption. Then he pointed me to Mort Berkowitz, the eventual star of the show, and the man who left me that voicemail. I’d seen him described as both a “button salesman” and “street fair specialist” in old news clippings, and he had a different estimate of the crowd size.

“There’ll be somewhere in the area of 400 people, when all is said and done,” he told me.

(Photo: Mathew Silver)

Before the event, from the stage, Berkowitz addressed the crowd over the loudspeaker.

“In 40 minutes, the champion will be crowned. Most of the contestants are now doing their meditation, because it takes a lot of meditation to prepare for such a ferocious event,” he said. “Nobody has died from this competition. People have gone to the hospital, but they’ve all been people in the audience who couldn’t keep up with this.”

Berkowitz, who’s in his late 70s, is a festival huckster from a bygone era, a born showman, like P.T. Barnum with Rodney Dangerfield’s one-liners. Along with running the entire San Gennaro Festival, Berkowitz leans heavily into his role as emcee for the eating competitions. As he waltzed across the stage, his neck slightly forward, he looked Florida-ready, wearing a dark green Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with palm trees, tan khakis, and cream-colored loafers. In order to convert mere festival-goers into cannoli-competition fans, he often mentioned the potential for a contestant to projectile vomit into the audience.

“Ladies and gentleman, at the end of the competition, each of you will receive a free mini-cannoli from Caffé Palermo. So, don’t try to eat the cannoli cream that’s flying in your direction, that’s not good. We also want you to know, we don’t give out Tide sticks. You do your own laundry, I don’t get your bill.”

There was, in fact, a high probability of spewage, since the goal of the competition was to eat as many cannoli as possible in six minutes. The record was 32, which I intended to best.

I was seated stage left, between Hersh and Firecracker. To my left, Hersh had three waters, when the rest of the eaters had one. This seemed like some clever but unethical strategizing on the part of the former champion. Clearly a man of experience, he also had a stopwatch, which I didn’t realize still existed. The cannoli arrived to the stage in a bizarre procession that included “Baby John” Delutro, the man supplying the food for the event, and a giant walking cannoli mascot. “Baby John” sold the sweet treats over the course of the festival for $4.50 at his restaurant, Caffé Palermo, so entering the competition meant I was getting paid to eat.

“Let’s go. Start eating! Eat. Eat. Eat!” shouted Berkowitz.

The first two minutes of the competition were great fun. The theme song from Rocky, “Gonna Fly Now,” pounded over the speakers; Berkowitz was screaming and slobbering into the mic: “This is the most disgusting group of people I’ve ever seen!” and “Look at these Jews eat,” referring to the brothers Horowitz, “You’d think they never had a meal before!”; and the crowd cheered semi-enthusiastically, usually at Berkowitz’ behest. As Berkowitz lost momentum, though, so too did the competition. At one point, when the Rocky music petered out, things got awkward. The carnival-like artifice dissipated into reality, revealing nothing more than a grotesque American showcase of gluttony. Everything was quiet, except for a group of ravenous zombies stuffing cannoli into their maw, breathing morbidly through their noses, eyes cold and bulging from their skulls, desperately working to bury the food in their stomach.

Meanwhile, I was making quiet work of my food. Not setting any world records, mind you, but masterfully executing a bite-by-bite approach that would surely lead to victory. Then, I finished my first cannoli, and things slowed considerably. I wasn’t expecting the tube-shaped shell to be crunchy, which created resistance in both chewing and swallowing. And the cream filling. Oh, the cream filling! I could barely choke it down, since it was thick like pudding and had the exaggerated sweetness of canned fruit. It felt like I had sugar poisoning.

Berkowitz noticed my languor and felt compelled to shout over the microphone. “Mathew, you’re an eater? C’mon!” Now, I looked like a coward in front of the entire San Gennaro Festival. I took pride, however, in my tidy workstation. To my right, Wayne Algenio was hoovering the cannoli off his plate, leaving behind a lumpy mess of filling that looked a lot like clam chowder. He had a sizable, clearly insurmountable lead, and the rest of the competitors took notice. When Hersh, the reigning champ, witnessed the dent in Algenio’s pile of cannoli, a look of resignation washed over his face. He chomped passively on his cannoli from that point forward.

(Photo: Peter Sykes)

Ultimately, though he was hoarse and beginning to sweat, Berkowitz announced the winner: Wayne Algenio had eaten 33 cannoli in six minutes! It was a new record, and the perfect news to send the crowd home happy. I’d eaten less than four of the Italian treats. In my defense, I also drank two of the complimentary waters, which undoubtedly took up some much-needed space in my stomach. For his efforts – and impending nausea – Algenio received a $100 bill. Not an oversized check typical of these competitions, not a thoughtfully packaged gift card to a nearby chain restaurant, a ragged $100 note that looked like an afterthought plucked from someone’s back pocket after forgetting a prize for the winner.

In a post-eating interview, Algenio said he planned to deposit the cash. He works a full-time job, along with running his YouTube channel, which boasts nearly 40,000 subscribes. Luckily, he had the day off. When I asked Algenio to confirm the number of cannoli he’d devoured, he pointed to some trickery on the part of Berkowitz, the consummate promoter.

“Well, I technically ate 24, but the host said 33.”