Marathon meal - a dinner of champions

HOW do you feed 7,000 hungry Boston Marathoners? With two tons of pasta and a sense of humor. Fortunately, Abruzzi Foods Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., the official provider of the traditional pre-marathon pasta dinner, has plenty of both.

First, the food: A staggering 1,700 pounds of lasagna, 2,500 pounds of assorted fresh pastas, 1,500 pounds of rolls, and 700 pounds of salad were prepared and served for the more than 7,000 registered runners of the race and their guests.

``It took four straight days to prepare all of this food,'' said Pamela Creager, one of the event organizers, in the Abruzzi production warehouse last Sunday.

``Some people have been working without a break for weeks,'' she said. ``And, on this morning, Easter Sunday, everyone is still in a good mood.''

Now, the fun: Over 200 people volunteered their time on Easter and the few days preceding to help prepare, transport, and serve this gigantic meal, and they seemed to be having a great time doing it.

On Sunday afternoon, a crew of hairnetted teen-agers, 25 of whom were volunteers from a local high school, were busily chopping and stirring the last of the vegetables for the salad, while some Abruzzi employees helped mix the final batch of primavera sauce that sat in a vat the size of a large bathtub.

Others had loaded a total of five truckloads of numerous boxes, bags, and cartons of food and beverages to be transported later that day to the dining site at the Computer Museum and Children's Museum on Boston's waterfront.

The prize attraction, however, was a 400-pound chocolate cake shaped in the form of a running shoe. Made with 350 eggs, 100 pounds of flour, and 40 pounds of marzipan, the cake had a decorated, half-pecked-open egg resting on top of the shoe, in honor of the holiday. Protected by a huge plexiglass cake cover, it was the last cargo to be carried oh-so-carefully onto the last truck.

The cake was baked and assembled by Guy Grosse and John Dullin. It took four days to bake the innumerable sheet cakes, layer and sculpt them to the final shape. They also had to saw their own plastic pylons to support the layers and keep the thing from collapsing in on itself.

Mario Bocabella, the ebullient owner and president of Abruzzi, gesticulated wildly as the cake was carted to the loading dock, explaining how he wanted the quarter-ton frosted wonder lifted onto a pallet atop two half-pallets, joking all the while with the young workers surrounding him.

He got out a saw and began to saw a pallet in half. ``Just like Joseph the carpenter,'' he said with a wide smile under his broad mustache. Everyone chuckled.

The pasta dinner is a marathon tradition, as much for the ``carbo-loading'' as for the pre-race camaraderie. Runners gather to check out the competition, greet old friends, and share a starchy repast.

In past years, the meal has generally been a spaghetti dinner - uninspired, perhaps, but easy to prepare for the cast of thousands. This marks the second year Abruzzi has hosted the event with their own fresh pasta and gourmet menu. Since this year's dinner fell on Easter Sunday, they ended up serving it too.

``No caterer would touch it on Easter, so we asked everyone for help, and were really pleased with the response,'' said Melissa Bankoff, one of the main organizers of the event, and personnel director. ``I couldn't believe how many people would give up Easter with their families to do this. Some employees' mothers even came in to help.''

The runners seemed appreciative of the efforts. On Sunday evening, as they patiently waited in a line that sometimes stretched a quarter of a mile, one runner quipped, ``Running the marathon is the easy part; it's waiting in these lines that's hard.''

Once inside the museums, runners were directed to the ``feed stations,'' located on various floors to ensure an easy flow of traffic. (Over 60 people were needed just to direct the crowds.) Guests had a choice of zucchini lasagna, fettucine piccole, fusilli primavera, cold ziti romana, and a green salad.

And of course there was that amazing cake for dessert. It's hard to say if this mountain of food made ``Heartbreak Hill'' any easier for this year's Boston marathoners.

No doubt the finish was just as sweet, though.

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