Dominic Palmieri is a carnie of a different sort. The tall and humble father of four is part of a traveling carnival food court, one that offers increasingly outrageous items. It's a new world of carnival food that's vastly different than the hamburgers and corndogs of yore.
Palmieri has spent 27 years on the rodeo and county-fair circuit operating food stands that are posted along the midway, the core section of rides, games and grub that forms a carnival's nucleus. From the small trailer with plexiglass windows where he started out by cooking his Italian nona’s recipes, Palmieri runs a family business (his wife is third-generation in the industry) that's grown into seven massively successful — and massive in size — food stands, all of which are at the L.A. County Fair through the end of the month.
The most notorious of his stalls is Biggy’s, which is visible after walking only a few steps into the Fairplex grounds. It’s hard to miss its sound system bumping a nightclub-worthy mix into the crowd and the high-resolution images, which tower more than 30 feet in the air, of the already-oversized meat. There’s also an open-fire grill the size of a New York apartment topped with rows of two-pound ribs, bacon-wrapped pork belly skewers and giant, glistening turkey legs.
“We’re always trying to innovate and come up with different items that are delicious but also have a great visual appeal,” Palmieri says, watching customers walk away from registers with turkey legs larger than their heads. “In our business we appeal to the senses, and we’re competing with a hundred other vendors. So when I wanted to do curly fries, I decided to put them in a giant paper cone. It’s enough to feed four people, but sharing is the whole point.”
A few years ago, he introduced the two-pound beef rib to Biggy’s menu. Instead of an old-school regular corn dog, Palmieri does a pecan-smoked sausage that’s two feet long. And the scale on which he operates is as large as the meat items he sells; thousands of gourmet sausages get shipped in every week from Texas.
“Food trucks can’t do the kind of volume a fair attracts,” he says. “Food trucks service maybe a couple of hundred people a night. If I’m not doing 1,000 people an hour, I’m in trouble.”
According to the festival’s own exit survey results, food is the No. 1 reason people go to the fair, and Palmieri insists this move toward larger-than-life food — and the obsession with all things deep-fried — is the result of food lovers spending the last decade watching the Food Network. He says they've become accustomed to experiencing new flavors, different textures and bigger portions.
Across the midway, At the sweets stand owned by Palmieri’s sister-in-law, you can get Oreo funnel cake and bacon cotton candy. At Pickle O’ Pete’s, which invented the Pickle Dog (a hollowed-out hot dog with a pickle inside dipped in corn dog batter), you can get the recently launched (and bizarrely delicious) Frosted Flakes fried chicken, which, yes, uses the sugary cereal in place of traditional breading.
Chicken Charlie’s has its signature phrase “Totally Fried” stamped across images of everything from frog legs to Klondike Bars to vegetables such as avocado and zucchini. Its hamburger is a triple decker and uses Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead of buns.
At Enzo’s Pizzeria, Palmieri’s Italian joint named after one of his sons, the slices are New York-sized, foldable for one or fit for two.
But not all food at the L.A. County Fair is excessive. You can still find your basics — like moderate portions of un-buttered popcorn, ordinary-sized ears of grilled corn and hamburgers with regular bread buns — along with food stalls serving everything from gumbo to tacos to Navajo fry bread.
“Food is what binds us all together,” says Palmieri. “Go take some photos, go on rides, get a dog — the usual. Every family has their tradition at the fair. We create opportunities for families to come together and create their own traditions. ”