Passing the garlic torch

Family and friends surround Greg and Lora Bozzo during their

Calamari, oregano, chopped garlic, white wine and lemon juice
all sizzled in the sauce pan
– just like at the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s Gourmet Alley, but
without the dramatic flame-up.
Calamari, oregano, chopped garlic, white wine and lemon juice all sizzled in the sauce pan – just like at the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s Gourmet Alley, but without the dramatic flame-up.

Wearing aprons, father-son duo Sam and Greg Bozzo were cooking their beloved Italian dishes in Greg’s home for their family, not the 100,000-plus garlic fans who flock to Gilroy every year in late July. However, both Greg, as chair of Gourmet Alley in 2004, and Sam, as chair in 1983 and 1984, have plenty of experience feeding the festival crowds.

“Greg spoke at my retirement party saying that, ‘Most kids grow up with a father who has a tool box in the back of the car. I grew up with a father and mother who had a pot of sauce in the back of the car,'” said Sam, 69.

Sam and his wife, Judy, former restaurateurs, sit down every Saturday at noon – usually with a plate of pasta and a glass of red wine – to watch PBS Italian chef Lidia Bastianich.

Greg, 42, not only learned to cook Italian food from his parents, he also learned to give back to the Gilroy community. In its 32nd year, the Gilroy Garlic Festival is a community event like no other. It gathers more than 4,000 volunteers to raise money for more than 160 local charities.

Twenty years after the elder Bozzo served as president of the Garlic Festival, Greg is filling the role in addition to his day job as owner of G.B. Horticulture. He and his wife, Lora, have two children, Gianna, 5, and Olivia, 7.

All were gathered for the Italian feast. Also cooking on the stove were meatballs made from Sam’s sister’s recipe and Italian spare ribs. While the red sauce simmered, Sam waxed poetic about his favorite dishes at the Garlic Festival: the pepper steak sandwiches, paella and, naturally, the garlic chicken ginger stir fry, which he created with Gene Sakahara, his usual cooking partner. They call themselves SakaBozzo.

The ‘dumbest idea’ that ever worked

Before SakaBozzo and the thousands of hungry visitors to the Garlic Capitol, Sam was approached by Rudy Melone with the idea of starting a festival to celebrate the annual harvest of the pungent bulb in 1978.

Sam and Judy had moved from San Jose to Gilroy in 1976 and were running a steakhouse called Digger Dan’s.

“I was a skeptic. I said, ‘That’s the dumbest idea I have ever heard of,'” Sam said.

Making a half-hearted effort, Sam and Judy opened a minestrone booth at the first Garlic Festival in 1979.

“The weather was 102 degrees,” Sam said. “Needless to say we didn’t sell a lot of soup.”

But the heat didn’t deter the crowds. To Sam’s amazement, 15,000 people came, and the Gilroy Garlic Festival was on its way to becoming one of the preeminent food festivals in the country. Converted, Sam became one of the festival’s biggest proponents.

He served as the president of the 12th annual Garlic Festival in 1990. During his tenure, he became the first president to be invited to visit Takko-Machi, Gilroy’s sister city in Japan, which hosts a yearly Beef and Garlic Festival. While there, the town’s mayor suggested creating a new position, a coordinator of international relations, for a young Gilroyan who would spend a year or two in Takko-Machi as a cultural ambassador and English teacher.

Sam immediately thought of his son, Greg, who was graduating from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo with a degree in horticulture and had his bags packed to travel to Italy. Greg changed his plans and flew to Takko-Machi in 1991, staying for two years.

“The furthest I had been from home was Tijuana, so it was a really good experience,” Greg said.

Have garlic, will travel

Their volunteer work with the festival served as a springboard to a series of worldwide excursions for both father and son. Greg and Sam visited Monticelli, Italy, to check out its garlic festival held within a castle’s walls. Sam has also traveled to Edmonton and Hamilton, Canada, and Delray Beach, Fla., to talk about the festival.

“I love to tell the story about the Garlic Festival,” Sam said. “It’s amazing how a town comes together once a year.”

Sam also loves to entertain people at the festival as part of SakaBozzo, giving comical cooking demonstrations on the cook-off stage.

“This year, we’ll be cooking with (former San Francisco 49er) Eric Wright,” Sam said. “We get to do all these fun things.”

Sam and Sakahara co-authored a cookbook titled “Any Bozzo Can Cook” in 2008 for the 30th anniversary of the Garlic Festival, and they’ve sold 3,000 copies. The two retired education administrators host a weekly show on Gavilan College’s local channel, 18, called “Great Kitchens of Gilroy.”

Finding more ways to give back, the cooking team created the SakaBozzo Scholarship for graduates of Gilroy High School who are pursuing a career in the culinary arts.

Cooking a calling

Despite his own involvement, Sam never pressured Greg and his brother Dave to volunteer at the festival.

“We were involved, they got involved,” Sam explained.

It’s a similar family affair for other festival leaders. Sakahara and his son, Tim, and daughter, Gena, started out picking up trash together for the Gilroy Presbyterian Church. Festival co-founder Don Christopher’s son, Bill, who manages Christopher Ranch, the largest family-owned producer of garlic in the U.S., chairs the garlic topping contest and judges the Gilroy Garlic Queen pageant.

“We’re starting to see the next generation take over,” Sakahara said. “That’s the whole idea of the Garlic Festival. Once people get into it, they get hooked. It doesn’t start as adults. It starts when they’re young.”

Greg got his start painting booths for the festival when he was in his teens and advanced to chairing the information booths, serving on the advisory committee, leading the cook-off stage, chairing Gourmet Alley, being elected to the board of directors and now serving as the president.

“I’ve met with Greg two or three times. I am impressed. He is a real go-getter,” Don Christopher said. “He has been around the festival for so long he knows the places that need to be fixed so he seems to be really fixing them or really trying to.”

The challenge, Greg confessed, is trying to keep the Garlic Festival fresh and new while respecting the tradition that got the festival to where it is today.

“There needs to be innovation in terms of food and the way the festival is managed,” Greg said. “Where we live, we’re pioneers in new food. We have to always be looking for something new.”

When he was chair of Gourmet Alley in 2004, he introduced Garlic Pasta con Pesto, which included a creamy white sauce and fresh tomatoes.

Greg plans to serve more sustainable foods that are grown close to home and compost food scraps and dinnerware at this year’s event.

“What he’s doing is saying, ‘We have to be better,'” his proud father said. “‘It’s not hot dogs and garlic.”

Leave your comments