Friday, June 25, 2010

"You Go, Grill"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

Now that it is barbecue season, I’d like to say that I am really cooking with gas. Unfortunately, that flammable substance not only is what my grilling usually produces in people, but it’s not the best thing to cook with if you want to be a barbecue champion.

I got this hot tip from Phil Rizzardi, a barbecue champion who has cooked at the American Royal Barbecue Competition in Kansas City, Mo., and the Jack Daniel’s World Barbecue Championships in Lynchburg, Tenn. He also has won barbecue contests in his home state of New York, including “Big Wiener” at Willie Palooza. His trophy is topped by the figure of the back end of a horse.

If that weren’t impressive enough, Rizzardi is the founder of BBQ Brethren (, an international organization whose logo features the words “Brothers in Smoke.”

Because smoke gets in my eyes whenever I barbecue, with the result that I either overcook or undercook whatever I am cooking, and I end up getting cooked myself by washing it all down with beer, I invited Rizzardi over to my house for a private lesson.

“Wood chips are the way to go,” said Rizzardi, who brought his son, James, who at 15 is a wood chip off the old block.

Rizzardi also brought his grill, an old, rickety contraption on which marinated magic is made.

“Do you ever use this thing?” he asked when he opened my grill and saw that it was practically spotless.

“All the time,” I replied.

“Let me guess,” Rizzardi said. “You knew I was coming, so you cleaned it.”

“It was a little greasy,” I confessed.

“That’s OK,” Rizzardi said. “It’s a flavor enhancer.”

In barbecuing, grease is the word.

I told the champ about my first gas grill, which I had to assemble myself. “It took me a week,” I said. “And then there were parts left over. I figured I would blow myself to smithereens, so whenever my wife wanted me to barbecue something, I made her start the grill. I felt like a mob boss who makes his wife start his car.”

Eventually we got another grill, which came preassembled, but the ignitor conked out, so I had to turn on the gas and throw matches at the thing until I heard a big whoosh. Our present grill is the starship Enterprise by comparison.

“A little kettle like mine may not look impressive, but it’s better and it lasts longer,” said Rizzardi, who uses it when he gives barbecue classes (

“A lot of guys need classes,” Rizzardi said. “At a typical barbecue, a wife will marinate a steak, make potato salad and set the table. Then she’ll hand her husband the steak and tell him to hurry up and grill it. The steak will end up charred on the outside and raw on the inside, and the family will say, ‘Great job, Dad. Call 911.’ The poor guy doesn’t know what he did wrong.”

To do the job right, said Rizzardi, a barbecuer needs a good meat thermometer that measures the temperature instantly so heat doesn’t escape.

Also imperative is a chimney, a cylindrical metal holder in which to heat the wood chips. “You can put paper at the bottom to get them going,” Rizzardi said. Copies of this column would work nicely.

“Never use lighter fluid,” warned Rizzardi. “Don’t put meat directly on the flame. And don’t keep opening and closing the lid. If you’re looking, you ain’t cooking.”

Rizzardi, 50, a technology analyst whose biggest barbecue payday was $3,000 (grand champions in national competitions can win up to $15,000), brought two hanger steaks, one to cook on his grill, the other to cook on mine. To help me along, he made a “smoke bomb,” a handful of wood chips that he wrapped in foil, which he then perforated and placed in the corner of my grill. “It’ll help give the steak a smoky flavor even though you’re cooking it with gas,” he said.

When the steaks were done, we had a blind taste test. It was no contest. “Phil’s steak is much better than yours,” said my wife, Sue. I had to agree.

“Next time you want me to barbecue,” I suggested, “I’ll invite him back.”

Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, June 11, 2010


By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

There is an old and wise saying: The best things in life are free. Nothing epitomized that better than my dog, Lizzie. She cost nothing, but she was priceless.

She came into our lives in 1995, when my younger daughter, Lauren, who was then 12, brought home a little black and white puppy that a friend’s neighbor had given to her. The woman told Lauren that if we didn’t want the dog, she would take her back. Otherwise, she was ours.

Even though I love dogs, I was against the idea because we lived in a condo. Besides, the dog would have to be walked through rain, sleet, snow and gloom of night. Guess who would end up doing it.

Approximately five seconds after I saw the pup, I fell in love with her. We fed her, took her to the vet for an exam, and adopted her.

Two weeks later, the woman called to say she wanted the dog back. Lauren was in tears. I got on the phone. Words were exchanged. Threats were made. A custody battle ensued.

Finally, in an effort to be fair, and mature, and reasonable, I told the woman I had veto power.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“If you don’t let us keep the dog,” I replied very calmly, “I am going to call my Uncle Vito.”

And that is how Lizzie became a cherished member of our family.

Nobody knew what breed Lizzie was -- the vet wasn’t sure and the dog wasn’t telling -- but we thought she was a mix of Lab, border collie and terrier, with perhaps a little Italian from her adoptive mommy and daddy’s sides.

What was clear, however, was that Lizzie had a prodigious appetite for lint, grass, acorns, cat treats -- everything but dog food. She ended up on a special diet consisting almost exclusively of boiled chicken.

She loved her snacks, of course, which is why she grew into a full-figured gal.

Eventually, we moved from the condo to a house with a big backyard where she could run and play, though I still took her for walks. She quickly became the mayor of our neighborhood, greeting people with big, slobbering kisses.

She was, in fact, the kissingest dog I ever knew, even winning the Pooch Who Can Smooch contest at Puttin’ on the Dog, the annual fundraiser for Adopt-a-Dog in Greenwich.

Lizzie, whose tail was always wagging, was both a canine alarm system (she barked at leaves that blew past the front door) and the burglar’s helper: If anyone ever broke into our house, she would either drown him in kisses or help him carry out all our valuables.

She was the sweetest creature God ever made.

She also was half of an inseparable team whose two goals in life were to love each other and have fun. As the other half of that team, I can say we accomplished both in Lizzie & Daddy’s Excellent Adventures, which were documented in numerous columns that ran in newspapers across the country and around the world. Lizzie also is in my new book, “Leave It to Boomer.” She’s even on YouTube. Lizzie became a global celebrity, but she never let fame go to her pretty head.

There was the time I had to brush her teeth. (Her breath sometimes smelled like a bean supper with the windows closed.) And the time, after reading about Sonya Fitzpatrick, TV’s “Pet Psychic,” I tried to determine if Lizzie had extrasensory powers. (My wife thought I was “The Pet Psycho.”) And the time Lizzie actually beat me in a blackjack tournament. (I’m not playing with a full deck.) And the time I took her to New York City to meet Lassie. (The canine superstars got along famously.)

Needless to say, Lizzie was smart. I would have to spell out certain words, such as “car,” “walk” and “play,” because if I was talking to somebody else and Lizzie was within earshot, pronouncing them would set her off in a frenzy of excitement.

And she was tough. She twice tore an ACL, and both times, without surgery, she was back in playing shape in no time. Not like these rich, pampered professional athletes. Wimps.

Even when she died Monday, she showed a special grace.

But what Lizzie did better than anything was give unconditional love to Lauren; to my older daughter, Katie; to my wife, Sue, also known as Mommy; and especially to Daddy.

Yes, it’s true that the best things in life are free. Even if Lizzie had cost a fortune, she would have been worth it. She was the absolute best.

Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima