By Jerry Zezima
Even though I can barely make scrambled eggs, which become scrambled when I try to make fried eggs, I am more than just a flash in the pan.
That’s why I am celebrating the 25th anniversary of my supreme culinary triumph, a dish called Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger, which not only was first runner-up in the pasta sauce division of the 1998 Newman’s Own & Good Housekeeping Recipe Contest, but earned raves from legendary actor Paul Newman, who wolfed down a bowl of the stuff after I assured him that it didn’t kill my dog.
The previous year, someone from the Newman’s Own office in Westport, Connecticut, called to ask if I would like to play the impossibly handsome movie star in a game of ping-pong at the Rainbow Room in New York City, where a luncheon for the recipe contest winners was being held.
I happily accepted, not so much because I would get a celebrity interview, but because I would get a free lunch.
In front of a crowd of about 100 people, including notables such as Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford, I stood at one end of a ping-pong table and Paul Newman stood at the other. We each held a paddle.
A woman from the Newman’s Own office, dressed in a black and white striped shirt, was the referee.
Newman hit my first serve into the net.
“Point, Mr. Newman,” the ref said to gales of laughter from the audience.
He hit another shot long.
“Point, Mr. Newman.”
I quickly realized that this guy’s propensity for cheating was even greater than mine. But I admired him because his food company donated all of its after-tax profits to charity and the rigged game was for a good cause.
Later, Newman told me, “You should enter next year’s recipe contest.”
So I did. I concocted Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger following contest rules, which stated that at least one ingredient had to be a Newman’s Own product.
I used two jars of the company’s spaghetti sauce. I also used chicken, hot sausage, garlic, a green pepper, an onion, crushed red pepper, salt, black pepper, basil and half a cup each of red wine and vodka. It all went over a bed of ziti.
To my astonishment, my recipe finished second in a field of thousands, so I brought a bowl of the stuff to the following year’s luncheon for Newman to try.
“Looks good, kid,” he said, fork in hand.
“It is,” I said. “I even gave some to my dog.”
Newman paused and asked, “Is your dog still alive?”
“Yes,” I answered.
His famous blue eyes twinkled. Then he scarfed it down and lived for me to tell about it.
Now, a quarter of a century later, I figured it was time to resurrect the recipe.
I made another batch of Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger and, with my wife’s guidance, did not burn the house down.
“I like it,” said Sue, who was, appropriately, the sous-chef. “It’s a little spicy, but I really like it. You outdid yourself.”
Unfortunately, Paul Newman wasn’t around to try it again because he died in 2008. And not from a delayed reaction to food poisoning.
So I brought a container of Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger to Rocco’s Ristorante, my favorite Italian eatery.
“It’s good,” said owner Paul DiGirolomo. “It’s got a nice little kick to it.”
“Is it good enough to put on the menu?” I asked.
“We have our own recipes,” he answered. “But this one is a winner.”
Finally, I took a container to the ultimate arbiter: my mother.
“This is really good!” she exclaimed.
“You like it?” I said.
“If it was good enough for Paul Newman,” my mother replied with a satisfied smile, “it’s good enough for me.”
Copyright 2023 by Jerry Zezima