Tony Danza has worn many hats over the years, from professional boxer to ’80s TV series actor to talk-show host. Thanks to the Feast of San Gennaro, he’s added competitive-eating competition judge to that continuously expanding resume.
Growing up an Italian kid in Brooklyn and being the current co-owner of Alleva Dairy in Little Italy, it’s not completely surprising that he’d end up mixed in with the annual festival, a tradition in the area for 91 years. This weekend, he’ll return to be “The Boss” of the event’s second-annual meatball-eating contest.
“I fought out of this neighborhood when I was a prizefighter,” Danza said while helping to set up his shop’s street-side stand on the first day of the feast last week. “I’ve been a part of this neighborhood for a really long time and I really love it.”
Danza’s former boxing manager, the late John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, a name known well in the Little Italy community, was behind Danza’s decision to invest in Alleva, which prides itself on being the “oldest cheese store in America.” He’s also the sole reason Danza decided to take part in the meatball contest, named in Cha Cha’s honor.
Amid the sizzle of grills cooking up sausage and peppers and the bustle of visitors passing in front of Danza’s shop on Grand Street, the actor explained how his roots intertwined with Cha Cha, remembered by locals as the “unofficial mayor of Little Italy.”
“I was a club fighter and a bartender [in the ‘70s] and I was looking for a manager. I had a crummy manager [at the time]; couldn’t get fights; my record was 1-2. I was in bad shape. I talked to a friend, who talked to somebody, and they talked to somebody, who said, ‘There’s this guy Cha Cha…’ He came to see me box at Gleason’s Gym on 30th and Eighth Avenue and he said, ‘I’m gonna take you on. You put some asses in the seats.’ We became not only good business partners, as he was my fight manager, but we became really good friends.”
Four years ago, Cha Cha asked Danza to partner up again, this time through a business investment in Alleva Dairy, a small shop which opened on the corner of Grand and Mulberry in 1892 by Italian immigrant Pina Alleva.
“The Great Cha Cha, was [buying into Alleva] and so we did it together. Unfortunately, Cha Cha passed away two years ago and it brought me out to be more involved in this,” Danza explained.
Cha Cha, who owned Cha Cha’s In Bocca Al Lupo, a restaurant on Mulberry Street, also made a name for himself in the acting scene, starring alongside Danza in “A Brooklyn State of Mind.” The Little Italy celebrity died Nov. 21, 2015, at NYU Langone Medical Center after falling ill at age 75, sparking 2016’s inaugural meatball contest.
“He was the best guy. Everybody knew him and I miss him so much,” Danza said, adding that working on an upcoming NYC-set Netflix series (“The Good Cop”) and living on the Upper West Side is making it easier for him to show face in the nabe often — which wasn’t always the case.
“Something he said to me before he died, he said, ‘you know, you’re not around anymore.’ Cha Cha, he just wanted to be around, so that’s one of the things that really breaks my heart about the feast, is thinking about him,” Danza said.
In tribute to his friend — who, in typical Italian fashion, loved spaghetti and meatballs — Danza has taken on the judge title in the competitive eating event. The winner of the 2016 competition, Michael Pinga, a Rhode Island state senator, ate just under 50 meatballs in 8 minutes, leaving Danza in shock.
“I marvel, last year someone ate 47 meatballs. Now, wait a minute, that’s a lot of chop meat!” Danza laughed. “Holy mackerel. That’s a lot of meat. They weren’t bite-size, seriously.”
This year’s competition is expected to bring 20 hungry eaters to the feast. According to Mort Berkowitz, who has been handling production on the feast for the past 20 years, the balls won’t be coming from a restaurant in Little Italy to ensure “uniformity.” This is no joke: The meatballs will be pre-weighed by a machine ahead of the contest to make sure they’re all the same size.
The competition will kick off 1 p.m. Saturday at the main stage at Grand and Mott streets.