Calabria, Part 5: The Chile Eating Contest

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Story and photos by Harald Zoschke

Wettessen-Moderator Gianni Pellegrino mit Assisteninnen


One of the highlights at the annual Peperoncino Festival in Diamante (Calabria) is the Campionato italiano mangiatori di peperoncino – the Italian Chile Eating Championship. The 2002 finals of the contest take place at the Piazzetta San Biagio.

Rows and rows of chairs in front of the brightly illuminated podium aren’t enough to seat all people interested in the event. Viewers line the street, as well as the surrounding stairs and balconies. More than 1000 folks and local TV have come to see the contest, hosted with a lot of humor by popular Italian entertainer Gianni Pellegrino, assisted by two charming local ladies.


The contest rules and preparations are taken very seriously though. There’s a calibrated scale on the jury table next to the podium, and a local lawyer fills plastic plates from a big bowl with chopped red hot chilis. They start with a dozen or so plates, each filled with exactly 50 grams (roughly 2 oz.) of hot pods.

Last year’s record was 760 grams. Will the best of the best top that amount tonight? The contestants will have 30 minutes to beat the record.

Abwiegen der Wettkampf-Chili-Portionen

Vorstellen der Finale-Teilnehmer

10:00 pm – Gianni Pellegrino introduces the five brave chile eaters who made it to the final. Actually, make that four, as one didn’t show up. Maybe still suffering from the previous rounds?

The remaining four are by no means crazy teenagers but a woman and three men, medium-age. The host asks them to tell how they prepared for the finals.

Franciosa Vita isn’t shy at all – she brags how she warmed up by eating 500 grams of chilis (about a pound). Candidate number four shows off how he munched 100 jalapeño pods at a contest in Mexico recently. Will that prove helpful? We’ll find out. The other two, Adriano Gatto and Mario la Viola, don’t talk much. They seem to concentrate on what’s ahead.

Excitement in the audience – the contestants get their first plate of chiles. The only sides allowed are olive oil (to help gulping down the hot chiles) and some bread. How many of those plates will get emptied tonight?

Echt scharf: Die Wettkampf-Chilis

Beep – the starting signal. Now they have exactly 30 minutes to eat as many chiles as possible. All four are hastily spooning the chopped pods, like they had no meals for the last 7 days. The audience is watching closely, as Pellegrino is commenting on the progress. Will all four competitors make it to the end?

Noch drei im Rennen ...

Doesn’t look like it. Number four puts away the spoon after just one plate – “the stomach!”  Maybe still suffering from eating those 100 jalapeños 😉

I have to admit that those competition chiles are really very, very hot. Renate and I had the opportunity to taste those peppers. Both of us eat hot a lot, but we would never ever eat a whole plate of this red-hot dynamite.

None of the remaining three competitors eats any bread – time is too precious for that, and they’re still spooning at an incredible speed. Alternately they raise their hands for another plate of hot chiles. Renate and I are betting on Mrs. Vita, but after four plates she quits, turning somewhat pale. Still, munching 200 grams of this superhot stuff is an enormous achievement, and she gets a big applause from the audience.

Noch zwei im Rennen ...

Die Jury, Chili-Nachschub


Now the competition turns into a a thrilling neck-to-neck duel. The jury is watching closely, and the audience is cheering for both candidates. The two don’t seem to take notice of any of this, still munchimg peppers like crazy.

They just keep raising their hands for more “hot plates”, and as the 30 minutes are over, both of them have finished an amazing dozen plates with fiery chiles, both working on number 13.

So who won?

It stays thrilling till the very end. The lawyer is weighing the remains on the final plates, while audience around him is paying close attention. A viewer from the first row complains loudly that there’s also some oil left on each plate, rendering the weight measurements inaccurate. After a lively discussion the lawyer agrees to drip off the oil. Ech plate yields a few drops, the viewer is happy. Now the two plates get weighed again.

Auswiegen der Reste

And the winner is ... Mario di Viola!

Now it’s official: The name of the  2002 Champion is Mario di Viola, leading with 626 grams of fiery chiles, while Adriano Gatto made a great 2nd place with 602 grams. We envy neither one of them for the “ring of fire” next day.

The organizers did a great job turning the chile eating competition into a 90-minute show which was equally thrilling and entertaining. Truly a highlight of the Peperoncino Festival.

For our 2004 contest update, check here.

In the next part we’ll explore Calabria’s peperoncinos. Where are they growing? Which varieties are available?



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 Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke

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