By Danielle Gamble

Anyone who’s seen the swaths of chatty eaters who annually crowd downtown for Taste of Ellicottville knows “leisurely” is the prescribed way of enjoying the village’s annual food festival.

But after a busier-than-normal Saturday morning, I found myself pulling into a parking space at the ski destination just after 3:20 p.m. I knew from previous jaunts to the event that the tented food booths lined along Washington and Monroe streets would fold rather promptly at 4 p.m.

As I walked up to a ticket tent and handed over $40 for an equal number of food tickets, three older volunteers reinforced my thoughts. “They’ll be closing up soon,” warned one, her knowing look echoed in her partners’ nodding heads.

“I know,” I said with a rueful smile. “Thank you.”

I turned to my food partner for the day, handing him half of my tickets and quickly listing off vendors I knew, asking him to “pick what looks good.” He speed-walked away, and I turned to survey a burst of attendees grabbing last-minute grub.

Time for a food marathon, I thought.

Even in the last hour of the weekend festival’s first day, plenty of hot, fresh choices remained at every booth. Event coordinator Barbara Pump of Ellicottville’s Chamber of Commerce was being handed sizzling samples as I caught up with her.

“Because we are a tourist destination, these restaurants take a lot of pride in what they do,” she said.

Pump was quite satisfied with the day, especially with the crowd turnout. She noted the pocket-sized village hosted 24 restaurants this year — four of whom were first-time participants — while Taste of Buffalo, representing all of Erie County, had 59 total vendors.

“That’s something we like to brag about,” she said with a smile.

Nearby, attendee Dianne Roof of Buffalo said she prefers the atmosphere of Ellicottville’s tasting to her more local festival.

“This is very relaxed,” she said, noting how many open tables and chairs lined the area, beckoning families or older folks to pause and enjoy their food.

Behind her, a male companion bobbed his head vigorously, loudly agreeing.

But I had no time for tranquility. I instead zoomed over to a tent in front of Villagio, the parent restaurant to Olean’s newly-opened Mercato, to check out the tent’s best selling item — a porchetta slider.

As catering manager Andrea Austin heaped strands of seasoned pork roast onto a Costanzo roll from Buffalo — topping it with a zingy salad of arugula, Parmigiano-Reggiano and pickled red onion — she mentioned the tent was also offering a meal on Olean’s menu. She picked up a lid to a verdant mixture of steaming quinoa for those craving a Healthy Bowl.

I then scooted past several sets of families to find my food partner, who in 20 minutes had scored several prime dishes. He had bought so many treats, though, that the employees at Watson’s Chocolates had taken pity on him and given him a spare paper box to carry it all.

After acknowledging that perhaps we looked like a pair of foodie lunatics — what with a DSLR camera strapped around my shoulder and him carrying a carton of food — I headed to Dina’s.

Owner Jim Carls was with his staff as I grabbed a set of baby back ribs and a freshly-caramelized creme brulee. He said this was the restaurant’s 27th year participating in Taste of Ellicottville, which is celebrating 33 years.

“We only try to do things on the menu,” he said. “It’s silly to serve something not on the menu, if someone tries something (at this event) and they want to come back.”

Down the street and around the corner, staff members of Ellicottville Brewing Company looked ready to wrap up. They joked around as they served me a mini shepherd’s pie with veal and a shiny demi-glace, scoffing at my question about festival awards they might hope to win.

An EBC crew member said he was “not really concerned with awards,” though another noted the Southwest rice bowl he had handed me had been entered as a contender.

Local celebrity judges had already wrapped up their favorite food choices — categories are Best of Ellicottville, Best Entrée, Sweetest Sweet, Kid’s Choice and Healthiest Choice, with winners to be announced today, the festival’s second day.

I whisked my dishes over to a table covered with my food partner’s finds, realizing as the clock struck 4 p.m. that we still had six tickets left.

I shoved the tickets in his palm, ordering him to “Spend these now!” as I began taking stock of the food. In a dash, he reappeared with more to eat and a zero fund balance.

We were happy to find that for the price of a cheap dinner out for two, we could feast with both refinement and gusto.

Together, we sampled:

• Barbecue ribs and creme brulee from Dina’s; A porchetta slider from Villagio; a pork chile verde nachos from the Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino; a mini shepherd’s pie and Southwest rice bowl from Ellicottville Brewing Company; a cupcake flight of loganberry, lemon blueberry and chocolate salted caramel from Cupcaked; Reuben meatballs from Finnerty’s Tap Room; a glass of strawberry mint Arnold Palmer from Public House; a steak salad with strawberries and balsamic vinaigrette from Tops Markets; and bag of dark chocolate sponge candy from Watson’s Chocolates.