Salsa And Pie Get Westville Dancing In The Streets

Lucy Gellman | August 9th, 2023

Salsa And Pie Get Westville Dancing In The Streets

Culture & Community  |  Dance  |  Arts & Culture  |  Westville  |  Culinary Arts  |  Westville Renaissance Arts (WRVA)

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Top: Naomi Senzer and Chef Arturo Franco-Camacho adjudicate the pies. Bottom: Salsa! Lucy Gellman Photos.

Chef Arturo Franco-Camacho lifted a fork nimbly to his lips, pausing to study a  toasted, crackly white peak atop a soft, pudding-like pool of chocolate. His eyes closed, then fluttered back open as he took a bite.  He turned to Naomi Senzer, his brows furrowed. Bits of pie, none larger than a slice, surrounded him on the table. 

"That—" he started pensively, as though he were watching a culinary ballet unfold in his kitchen at Camacho Garage. The taste of burnt sugar and fudge still danced on his tongue. "That was the one with the marshmallow?"

Tuesday night, Franco-Camacho was just one highlight of an unexpected Hi-Fi Pie Fest, Beecher Park Summer Concert Series and outdoor salsa mashup in the heart of Westville Village, as dozens flocked to the Central Avenue Patio for sweet treats, fancy footwork and live music from Carlos y Su Momento Musical. This week, over a dozen bakers submitted "Freestyle Pies," or pies that do not fall into any of the four other Hi-Fi Pie Categories. 

Those categories include berry pies, quince, apple, and pear pies, savory pies, and stone fruit pies. Just as in years past, the pies are only half of the magic: musicians performing at the Beecher Park Summer Concert Series are the other half. While attendees jam out to music, pie sales go to the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance (WVRA)

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"It brings people together," said longtime volunteer Naomi Senzer, who has been baking since she was about two, and helped with the Hi-Fi Pie Fest since its inception 11 years ago. She gestured to a table where kids and adults stood side by side, methodically cutting pie into even slices. "Everybody comes to help."

Senzer, a flutist and music educator who likes to bake on the side, has been bringing the sweet summer tradition to Westville for over a decade. In 2012, she founded the contest with Chris Heitmann, who ran WVRA from 2009 to 2016. When Lizzy Donius took over WVRA in 2016, Senzer stayed on. The $5 spent on each piece of pie goes back into the neighborhood-based nonprofit, which runs cultural events in Westville all year round. 

Tuesday, over a dozen pies lined a long table covered in butcher paper, all waiting for their moment in the spotlight. At one end, a fragrant, gem-colored almond plum crostata from Kate Bradley sidled up to slabs of sesame, walnut and pistachio pie from seasoned baker Ravit Avni-Singer. At the other, a perfect layer of meringue held against the evening's waning heat, sturdy atop thick, sunshine-yellow lemon filling. 

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Bradley, who has been bringing pie for over a decade.

Somewhere in between, two vegan pumpkin pies and almost half a dozen s'mores pies made their tooth-aching debut, some decorated with toasted mini-marshmallows while others showed off their chip-studded and chocolate-slicked sides. Buzzing lazily above the dishes, two dozen yellowjackets held court, as if they could be the first taste testers if they just stuck around long enough.  

As teenage volunteers stacked the table with individually boxed slices, a line formed down the block. Bradley, who submits a pie every week, watched with a sly smile as people made their selections, many murmuring over her crostata. After entering the contest for the first time 11 years ago, she's rarely missed a Hi-Fi Pie night in the neighborhood. 

For her, it's part of what makes Westville into the tight-knit community that it is, she said. After moving onto West Rock Avenue in 1989, she can't imagine ever leaving it. Her baking, which has won her several Hi-Fi titles, is just a pathway to building a network of neighbors who know each other. Her gardening, for which she is known across the city, is another. 

"I just felt like it was a good way to support the community," she said. "You know, when you cook, people come out. And I like people."

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Ortiz: "When I'm dancing, it's just me. You can feel everything out." 

Around her, the night felt like it was just opening up. As slices of pie disappeared on one end of the patio, musicians struck up a salsa beat at the other, Carlos Santiago dancing in place as he sang at the mic. From the moment he heard the sound, DJ Antonio Ortiz gingerly set aside his equipment, and turned the pavement into a dance floor. Within moments, his feet were hammering out a familiar rhythm atop the patio’s faded mural, bringing its pinks and blues back to life with each step. 

A salsa and bachata DJ by night, Ortiz started dancing seven years ago, through lessons with Alisa's House of Salsa and the salsa group Rumberos. Almost a decade in, he said, it helps him shake off the stress of working at a Mexican restaurant in Durham during the day. On the patio turned dance floor, he was rarely without a partner, beaming as he fell into lockstep with dancer after dancer. As salsa flowed into cumbia and bachata, he welcomed new dancers, showing them each move.   

"I love it," he said. "When I'm dancing, it's just me. You can feel everything out." 

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Closer to the pie tent, Franco-Camacho took a seat, scanning the selection in front of him with pursed lips. His forehead scrunched, as if he’d been preparing weeks for this moment. Beside him, Senzer sat at the ready with a scoring sheet that included categories for appearance, texture and consistency of the crust, mouthfeel, flavor balance, and memorability of the pie. 

Franco-Camacho dipped a plastic fork into a chocolate selection, and let it sit on his tongue. It may have been one second, maybe two, and then he was scribbling down notes. He took another bite, methodical in the taste. A smear of whipped cream remained on the fork.   

Between bites (and sometimes during them), he let the sweet, sticky confections transport him to an earlier time, when he was just a kid growing up in Tijuana, Mexico with 10 siblings. While his dad operated a mechanic shop after which Camacho Garage is named, his mother and grandmother ran a small restaurant where pie was always on the menu. 

Smiling, he remembered a lime- and lemon-tequila pie with citrus, tequila and sweetened condensed milk that became a crowd favorite.

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At home, his dad perfected a quince and Manchego pie, poaching the fruit in wine, cinnamon, syrup and orange zest before baking. His parents also made mango tarts, chilled paletas, and shaved ice with fruit syrup that later inspired cobblers, tarts, crumbles and pies at his restaurants.

From Roomba and Bespoke to his current New Haven ventures, Shell & Bones and Camacho Garage, he’s tried out traditional apple pies, summer fruit crumbles, and a strawberry-rhubarb pie that he can still remember the fragrant, garnet hues of. When asked why he'd taken the time to judge, he beamed.      

"It's about community!" he said, noting the number of young bakers who had submitted their pies. "If we want a better society, we've got to get involved. And if you want to succeed in a neighborhood, you got to be with the community you're part of. This is the way you expand community and create opportunities ... and this is making memories."

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Top: Alison Fitzpatrick. Bottom: Some of the pies. "I'm going to get a sugar high!" Franco-Camacho exclaimed at one point during the evening. 

Young baker Alison Fitzpatrick, who whipped up a dreamy, bright lemon meringue pie, looked on from afar, stealing glances at the judging table every so often. A rising fifth grader at Elm City Montessori School, the dessert marked her first foray into pie baking, but likely not her last. 

"I'm kind of scared but it also feels really amazing," she said of the contest. It's not just her sweet tooth guiding her, she added: she bakes to pay homage to her grandmother, who passed away earlier this year. On visits to her home in New Hampshire, Alison knew she could count on several gestures of love—including chocolate chip cookies that remain unparalleled. "I hope to live up to her," she said. 

Nearby, soon-to-be sixth grader and fellow Elm City Montessori student Theodora (Teddy) Anderholt shook off nerves around a batch of cinnamon-peach hand pies that hadn't turned out quite as she'd imagined. Despite following a recipe, the filling had oozed and she'd had to improvise with muffin tins. She'd still come out Tuesday, carrying the sweet, fruity pies into the event with pride. 

"I think it's pretty cool!" Teddy said of the event. "We're raising money for the community, and it's a fun event where you can hang out and not be alone."  

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Teddy Anderholt: Peach-cinnamon hand pies, with a side of trial and error.

They didn't have that long to wait before the results were in. As dusk fell over Central Avenue, Senzer and WVRA Executive Director Lizzy Donius took the mic, ready to announce the night's winners. Bradley, who had stayed to listen to music from her lawn chair, took first place for her crostata, with Avni-Singer as a close runner-up. 

In a second youth category, Alison and Harris Wallman took home gift certificates to Poké Oli, a new, cozy poke restaurant just across the street. As he congratulated winners, Franco-Camacho admitted that it had been harder judging the youth category, because he knows how personal a loss may feel to a young person. 

Back on the pavement, it felt like the night could go on for hours. As live music wound down, Ortiz spun a steady stream of salsa, his hips rocking even behind the DJ setup. Stepping onto the street, Kennedi Stafford walked towards Tavien Milton, and found herself wrapped in an intoxicating salsa beat. The music rose around them, and she let her feet find their way in the cooling air. Every so often, her younger brother, Shai McKinnie, joined in, guided by the flashlight on his cell phone. 

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Top: Kennedi Stafford and Tavien Milton, who met while dancing Tuesday. Bottom: Music lasted through 9 p.m.

Born and raised in Westville, Stafford said she grew up just down the street, but had never attended a Hi-Fi Pie or salsa event in the neighborhood before Tuesday. A student in psychology at Southern Connecticut State University, she'd come out after "my family dragged me," and been pleasantly surprised. She was already planning to return a week from Tuesday, for another free lesson from Alisa's House of Salsa on the patio. 

"This is nice!" she said. "The community needs things like this. It brings people together."  

For a taste of last night's sound, listen to the video at the left. To learn more about happenings in Westville, visit WVRA's website.