Friendship at 'steak' in Jersey Shore BBQ championship
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 10:30 a.m. ET July 7, 2017 | Updated 2:24 p.m. ET July 23, 2017
PAULSBORO - On any other weekend, Mike Licciardello and Ercole Chila are just two friends standing around a smoker, tinkering with time and temperature for perfect brisket tenderness.
They live less than a mile apart. They're friends. Their Paulsboro families vacation together.
But this weekend — the annual New Jersey Barbecue Championship in North Wildwood — Licciardello and Chila are competitors.
"We're both there to win, but we both hope each other wins as well," Licciardello said.
Chila calls it a "friendly rivalry," one that is supportive but competitive.
"If it's a fairy tale ending — a first- and second-place finish — I'd say, 'Congrats on your second place,'" Chila laughed.
"The best thing about me and Mike — if he needs something from me, I'd give it to him. He'd do the same for me."
In their backyards, they smoke out ideas to evolve each team's recipe for pork, chicken, ribs and brisket, the four categories judged at the state championship.
But sharing secret ingredients is off limits, Chila emphasized.
"You have to evolve in this sport," he said.
Both men have a deep respect for the hours and attention good barbecue requires. The reward is a tender, flavorful product.
Chila, owner of Chila's Car Care, started Uncle Pig's Barbecue Pit in 2010, spinning the award-winning barbecue team into an East Greenwich BBQ joint in 2015.
Licciardello, a shift fire chief for Paulsboro Refining Co., was a founding member of Uncle Pig's, competing with Chila until 2012. Now he heads Sir-Porks-Alot BBQ, a barbecue team formed from Uncle Pig's rib. Sir-Porks-Alot has also spun into a barbecue-based catering service.
"We both love barbecue," Licciardello said.
Last summer, both teams finished in the top 10 overall in the state championship: Among 65 teams, Uncle Pigs placed fifth and Sir Porks-A-Lot was eighth.
In 2015, Uncle Pig's was crowned overall champion.
The competition is sanctioned and judged by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. More than $10,000 in awards are at stake, plus the opportunity to qualify to compete in the World Food Championship with a total prize purse of $300,000.
The state championship started Friday and runs through Sunday in conjunction with the Anglesea Blues Festival supporting North Wildwood's Anglesea Fire Department.
Barbecue champions are crowned Sunday. Judging for barbecue sauces and desserts goes on Saturday, and meats are judged Sunday.
Chila and Licciardello began their prep this week.
"It's three days worth of prep to get down there for the day of competition," Licciardello said.
Wednesday, he picked up supplies, made sauces and mixed the rubs. Thursday, he made his flavor injections, and trimmed the meats.
Chila made his sauces, rubs and injections Thursday, and trimmed the meats Friday.
Competition officials will inspect each team's raw ingredients before they can start cooking. Meat can not be pre-marinated, injected or seasoned.
"We'll start our cook probably around midnight Saturday night," Licciardello explained.
"Light the smoker up, bring it up to temperature, and once the big meats go on, you have to maintain and watch your fire throughout the night."
Teams camp out next to their smokers at Old New Jersey Avenue and East Spruce Street between Westy's Irish Pub and the ocean.
"The sea breeze and the barbecue - nothing beats it," Licciardello said.
His teammates — wife Denise, aunt Chyrle Morina, cousin Tony Morina, brother Paul Licciardello and brother's girlfriend Maureen Wright — take shifts throughout the night keeping an eye on the temperature.
Uncle Pig's is high-tech. Chila uses a digital thermometer linked to his smart phone to monitor the temperature from his trailer.
"We've now reached the 21st century," he said.
"In the beginning we never slept. It makes all the difference in the morning. ... But I always sleep with one eye open, waking up to check the temperature."
When the meat hits the right temperature, Licciardello will spray it with apple juice or wrap it up.
Each of the four meats is judged on appearance, taste and tenderness.
"I'm a spicy guy. I like the heat," Licciardello said.
"But I found out very fast spicy does not work in the barbecue competition world. Judges tend to go to the sweeter side."
Presentation can be on point, "but if it doesn't taste good, and it isn't tender, you're not going win," Chila added.
"You have to hit the tenderness part of this," he said.
"Tenderness of the meat shows you can cook."
Like any craft, Licciardello said, practice makes perfect.
"We do a lot of testing. I test a lot of flavor profiles at home to try to find the right balance of sweet and heat," he said.
Liccairdello's wife and daughter are often the taste-testers.
"Uncle Pig's and I get together on a Saturday, throw some ribs on or practice our chicken technique," he said.
"It's barbecue 24/7 here."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; email@example.com