Mark Damon Puckett
It was game time.
The bar buzzed with a couple hundred men, hunters attending the 18th annual T & J Villaggio Trattoria Game Dinner in Port Chester, N.Y, a tradition that gathers local hunter friends who contribute their own killed meat.
Coats were not allowed on the backs of chairs, so everyone checked his before being seated in the gorgeous dining room of chandeliers and tables covered with white tablecloths and waiters circling like magic.
In the corner stood a compound bow and rifle waiting to be raffled later.
As the men lined up at the upstairs bar for drinks, the noise of the room was loud with the talk of hunting. And while this was technically a stag event, a few women, perhaps five, were intermixed in the crowd.
One hunter in a plaid flannel shirt and hunting cap spoke to his friend avidly; venison barbecue and jerky techniques were discussed.
As the excited group moved to their tables in the downstairs banquet space and in the overflow tables upstairs, never did the talking ebb. Bottles of wine, pitchers of soda, and endless beers appeared; men leaned into conversations. There was upstairs seating near the bar as well for the spillover from the banquet room, and it was referred to humorously as Staten Island by emcee and co-owner John Muscatella.
Around one table sat seasoned hunting veterans mixed with white-collar hedge fund guys asking endless questions about the art and skill of how to hunt. "Why do you hunt? Is it the meat? The sport? The trophy?"
Hunters responded with alacrity and intelligence. Did you know you tell a deer’s age by its back teeth? If you’re bow hunting, were you aware that a deer can you hear you cock the bow and will run if it does?
A cellphone photo of an eight-point buck was circulated around the table by Vito Forgione, a bow hunter. "The first time you go hunting," he said, "you know whether you’re a hunter or not."
What’s bow hunting like?
"Well," Forgione continued, "it’s a different mindset. You have to be at least 40 yards away unlike a gun where you can be 100 yards. You have to use no-scent shampoos and no-scent detergent because the deer have a great sense of smell."
Hunting with a bow, in other words, is harder. You have to be patient and track much closer than you would with a gun, and you never chase a deer. There are also different types of bows, including traditional, compound, and cross, all quite different.
As for the men themselves, it was a local New York community coming together. All the meat served was hunter caught and prepared right there at T & J Villaggio by chef Pauly Zumbo. Although in the past years bear, boar, moose, and bighorn sheep were used, this year’s meal consisted mostly of venison with quail, rabbit, and pheasant.
"My uncle Jerry would bring deer from the Hunting Club 18 years ago," said Johnny Ruggiero, one of the restaurants three co-owners. "And it just kept getting more popular. Some of these hunters here tonight have been coming since the very first dinner. For some, it’s their first time."
"For me, it’s the great friendships," said Al Albano, who has attended the dinner twice.
The meal came out in waves, starting with traditional antipasti of different salamis and big hot eye-watering peppers, followed by salad, rich venison cannelloni, salted venison sausage, venison parmesan, and tender, succulent venison cutlets over mashed potatoes.
"The food is just excellent," said one satisfied hunter. "You would never know this was venison."
To give their stomachs a break, a raffle of the compound bow and rifle followed.
All the men sang a resounding "God Bless America," then a man stood up to sing Italian arias for several minutes.
Rabbit, quail, and pheasant scarpariello made up the main course, all the small-boned animals in the same grouping.
"The quail was made in a white wine tomato sauce with mixed mushrooms in venison stock," said chef Zumbo. "It was grilled with salt and pepper then we put a sauce over the quail and baked it."
The rabbit, which was thick like breast-meat chicken but moist as it slid off the bone, was made with roasted peppers, garlic and venison stock, puréed then dredged in flour and pan-fried. Sauce was poured all over the rabbit and also baked.
After talking, eating and laughing for hours, the 200 men finished their dinners and some headed back upstairs to the bar.
First-timer Terrence McCarthy probably summed up the night the best when he said, “"I’ve completely never been a part of a dinner like this. Makes me want to get out and hunt someday."
The game, in other words, ended well.
Mark Damon Puckett has written for Saveur and Greenwich Magazine. He is the author of The Reclusives, YOU with The Ill-usives, and The Killer Detective Novelist (October 2012), all available on amazon.com and bn.com. Please visit him at www.markdamonpuckett.com.