Game on! T & J Villaggio Trattoria Hosts Annual Game Dinner

Local hunters gather for annual dinner in Port Chester, New York

Are you game for a four-hour meal of venison, boar, pheasant, rabbit, quail, elk, and bear? 

The game dinner at T & J Villaggio in Port Chester, N.Y., is an 18-year-old tradition that gathers local hunter friends who contribute their own killed meat.

The annual dinner is in Port Chester, the last New York "village" on Metro-North before Connecticut. The area has seen a resurgence in food and music culture with Mario Batali’s Tarry Lodge and hot musical venues at the Capitol Theatre. It’s an easy 45-minute train ride from Manhattan’s Grand Central.

If you’re lucky, you might catch Bill Murray swinging an imaginary golf club outside the Villaggio after a Capitol Theatre show, or Steve Van Zandt with his Cavalier spaniel in the back room with all his friends eating and praising chef Zumbo’s food.

The annual T & J’s game dinner is the ideal time to visit. This year’s dinner was held Jan. 14 and as always, sold out.

T & J’s is actually two side-by-side restaurants within walking distance from the old Capitol Theatre. The game dinner started with 35 diners at the smaller pizzeria next to the massive Villaggio, but for the last 10 years it has been at the Villaggio in the downstairs banquet room. 

"When it began, it grew within itself, and the following year it kept growing to such a large number that we had to move to the bigger Villaggio," said John Muscatella, one of T & J’s owners.  

Former owner Jerry Vitiello passed on the tradition to his sons-in-law and nephew, Muscatella, Ray Sassano, and John Ruggiero, respectively. 

At $55 a head, this was a manly feast (down to the décor) reserved for males only (even the waitstaff); a taxidermist designed the décor this year. It was a six-course meal that started with antipasti of dried deer and elk meats and various salamis followed by a salad. The third course was venison cannelloni smothered in venison Bolognese. Meatloaf venison and venison cutlets with red peppers and onions and a bear stew followed.

"We’ll do traditional game recipes," says chef Pauly Zumbo, who has been cooking the dinner for the last 10 years, "but we also infuse Italian-style cooking into it, like rabbit scarpariello. We do this with all the game but always with an Italian twist. Every year it changes." 

The main incorporated all the small-boned animals: rabbit, pheasant, and quail. Bear has been used in the past but not every year, and boar is one of the favorites. 

The dinner concluded with coffee and pastries, not to mention a traditional raffle; the prize: a compound bow or a shotgun. So next year, if you’re game (and male) and can get a ticket, make your way to the game dinner in Port Chester. 

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.

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