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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

N. Massapequa retiree wins Newsday's 2018 Great Long Island Tomato Challenge

Anthony Maltese, 86, bested scores of growers to earn Newsday's 2018 Tomato King title.

On Thursday, Newsday held its 12th annual tomato challenge, giving out prizes to Long Islanders in categories ranging from the smallest tomato to the ugliest. Anthony Maltese of North Massapequa brought in the biggest tomato and earned the top prize at the Great Long Island Tomato Challenge. (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware)

What do you get when you mix high-quality, fortified potting mix, horse manure and 50 years of experience? A 3-pound, 8.5-ounce bull’s heart tomato and the satisfaction of a winner well-grown!

Anthony Maltese of North Massapequa knows this firsthand: The seeds he brought back from Sorrento, Italy, a decade ago — and has been saving from year to year — yielded the biggest tomato and earned the top prize at the Great Long Island Tomato Challenge, held on Aug. 30.

More than 150 hopeful readers descended upon Newsday headquarters, vying for top honors in the 12th annual competition. There were newcomer Benjamin Alcine, 14, who watered his entry every day as it grew in his New Hyde Park backyard; Grace Bennett, a retired nurse from Rockville Centre who collects seaweed from the ocean and crushes shells picked up at the beach, then composts them with fish heads to create a proprietary marine soil dressing; and Jeri Ferrante of West Islip, whose strategy for growing an ugly tomato is to insult her plant daily from seed to harvest.

But insults didn’t produce the ugliest specimen of the evening — chance did. Joe Solarino, 66, of Melville earned that honor for a mutation that grew on a plant he started from seeds he’s been saving for the past five or six years. “At the end of the season, I leave tomatoes in the garden, and when they grow in spring I move them around,” he said, adding that the winner, which grew into what looks like multiple conjoined tomatoes, “just came up out of one plant.”

Some embraced meticulously structured growing methods, like Sandralee Capitain, 72, of North Babylon, who enlisted a friend to help rototill, then planted with composted soil, lime and Miracle-Gro, and watered with a drip irrigation system. Others, like Adrienne and Joy Goldberg of Syosset, simply let last year’s tomatoes “drop on the soil, covered them over winter, and hoped for the best this year.”

The youngest entrant was merely 8 months old. While we're sure little Alby Cerrone had some help, we’re excited to see what the infant’s future holds. After all, Wyatt DePace, 4, of Albertson, already has two Tomato Challenges under his belt, and Farmingville siblings Alayna and Evan Gottesman, ages 9 and 13 respectively, have been attending since 2013.

This year, Alayna took first place in the Ages 7-12 category for her 14.1-ounce “Traveler’s” tomato. Her secret? “I sprinkled glitter on it!” James Julian Dunn of Northport, age 4 ½, won among the 6-and-under set for his 2-pound, 1-ounce Sicilian saucer, which the preschooler grew from seed. And Frankie Rasizzi of Northport, 15, reigned in the Ages 13-17 category with his 2-pound, 3.5-ounce tomato of an unknown variety.

Corinn Kraemer, a 19-year-old Suffolk County Community College student from Bohemia who has been attending since she was in middle school, won in the Smallest Tomato category for the third time. Her minuscule ripe-red fruit measured just 12 points on the pica scale, which is smaller than a pencil eraser.

As far as strategy goes, our new Tomato King is onto something. Maltese, 86, removed all flowers on one of his plants except for the biggest one, which he surmised — correctly — would produce the biggest tomato. With only one fruit to mature, the plant was able to direct all its energy into that one tomato, and boy did it!

The retired cabinet maker, who lives with his wife, Lea, started aiming for large tomatoes after reading about the Challenge three years ago.

The third time was a charm for Maltese, who was cheered on by a team of grandchildren, who planned to celebrate by eating the winner over Labor Day weekend — in pasta sauce.

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