BRISTOL — In two hours, Steven Vaccaro and his seven-person kitchen crew cooked about 250 fish dinners.
“We pretty much have it down to a science, you could say,” Vaccaro said while his son, Steven Vaccaro, Jr., manned the deep fryers at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church Parish Center kitchen.
Outside, Father Henry P. Zinno Jr., the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bristol, greeted parishioners and others who drove up to the parish center on March 12 to pick up their Lenten Friday meal orders of fish and chips or baked fish, coconut shrimp and ice cream sandwiches.
“We do it as organized as we can, to try to keep the cars off the street,” said Father Zinno, who added that people who placed orders were assigned a time to pick up their meals between 4 p.m. and 6:15 p.m.
“Then we clean up and go home,” he said.
With the novel coronavirus still restricting in-person gatherings more than a year since the pandemic swept through the United States, parishes like Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church have had to devise creative ways to carry on traditions like Lenten Fish Fries and parish feasts.
In years past, parishioners and others in and around Bristol could stop by the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish Center on a Lenten Friday, order a fish meal, and sit down to enjoy it in the gymnasium space. Public health guidelines during the pandemic prevent that kind of communal meal, but parishioners have adjusted.
“It actually hasn’t made things more difficult. We’ve kind of adapted to the drive-through pickup,” said Vaccaro, who added that Father Zinno and the parish staff begin taking drive-through orders a week before.
“So we know exactly when the people are coming and what they ordered,” Vaccaro said. “Everything’s ready when they drive up.”
Father Zinno, himself an accomplished chef who hosts a weekly online cooking show, said Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, which hosts one of the region’s largest annual Italian feasts, switched to the drive-through model last spring for its culinary fundraisers.
“And it went phenomenally well,” he said, adding that the parish has combined raffles with the drive-through dinners, which in the spring and summer can include hearty Italian meals like stuffed Sicilian meatloaf, eggplant ravioli and lasagna. Parishioners have also prepared meatball sandwiches as well as seafood dinners.
“We have different crews for different takeouts,” Father Zinno said. “Everything is home-made.”
On March 12, Father Zinno and his assistant pastor, Father Stephen Battey, greeted and brought out bagged orders to parishioners like Dot Almedia, a lifelong parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel who pulled up to the parish center to pick up her fish and chips.
“They’re wonderful,” Almeida said of the parish volunteers.
Vaccaro said he and his volunteer crew began preparing the day before. On Friday, they arrived at the kitchen early, got the oil and fryers ready, breaded the fish and for two hours cooked up the fish and put the meals together.
“And from there it’s like clockwork,” Vaccaro said. “We’ve been doing this, probably, for about 15 years now.”
For the parish’s annual feast, Vaccaro estimated that volunteers prepare more than 1,500 meals over the course of a single weekend. For the parish’s two or three annual Lenten Fish Friday meals, they make about 250 fish dinners.
In addition to its big annual feast, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church will host more drive-through dinners in the spring and summer.
“This year for those, I think we might try a drive-through chicken barbeque,” Vaccaro said.