NEW YORK — As a teenager growing up in East Harlem during the late 1970s, Tito Santiago would often walk to nearby Thomas Jefferson Park on 114th Street and First Avenue to cook out on his personal grill.
“It was a party,” Santiago recalls. “It brings back memories — family time, friends, playing ball, grabbing hot dogs. Eating barbecue was my favorite time of the year.”
Santiago, now 48, says despite his busy schedule as trainer for prize fighter Hector Camacho Jr., he makes sure to get to at least one cookout each year.
“It’s what you do during the summer,” he said. “You hang with your people.”
New York experienced an unseasonably mild winter, an early spring, and summer is just around the corner. Santiago is one of thousands of New Yorkers who will hit some of the city’s 37 barbecue-friendly parks in coming months.
DNAinfo.com New York has collected a list of prime barbecue spots in each borough.
The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation lists just three rules for barbecuing in its parks that permit outdoor cooking: barbecuing is allowed in designated areas only; there is no barbecuing permitted under trees; and all coals and litter must be disposed of in trash receptacles.
However users like Ronda Luchesi of Astoria, Queens, say there's only one rule that matters — be courteous to others.
"Just don't interfere with anybody," said Luchesi, 46, an administrative assistant for a plumbing company.
Luchesi, who frequents Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, usually makes a day of it — and her cook out becomes something of a family reunion, while she prepares hamburgers, ribs and steak.
"We get here at 11 a.m. every Saturday to make sure we get a spot," said Luchesi, indicating her 12 nieces and cousins who help her spray the grill and set up the picnic table in preparation for their feast.
“Anything to not be home and stressed out,” she added. “This is just tradition.”
Dawn Spinnelli, 20, one of Luchesi’s cousins, said that, like Santiago, her best memories were flipping burgers and turning hot dogs with relatives in Queens' parks.
“It’s all about family,” she said. “We all come here. Everyone wants barbecued food.”
Some barbeque-enthusiasts, such as David Garrett a graphic designer from Gramercy who stopped by East River Park in Manhattan with two friends on a recent weekend, come in small groups for just a few hours.
"It's clean and has a great view," Garrett said, with hot dogs on the grill. "We came here with this expectation, and this is a perfect place to hang out."
"It's absolutely beautiful."
At Herbert Von King Park in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, the cookouts each weekend have a different significance.
The Inner City Little League, run by Little League Commissioner Michael Harris, 43, offers players choices of hot dogs or cheeseburgers, juice or water and chips, all for free.
“You gotta feed the kids. Not everyone here can afford to pay for all of this," said volunteer Katrina Reeves, 32, referring to the dozens of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill beside her.
"But if we don’t do it, who’s gonna? We take care of each other."
The cooks are volunteers, such as 16-year-old Tyshawn Brown, a freshman at Boys & Girls High School.
Brown said he cooks for the players each weekend to fulfill a community service requirement that is part of his studies.
Harris said that while his league loses money by providing the food for free to junior baseball players, and at a discounted price for parents and park visitors, it’s more than worth it.
“It’s American tradition — Little League Baseball, Bruce Springsteen and barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs,” he said.
While New York may be better known for its bagels and hot pastrami than its pulled pork and barbecued ribs, city residents such as Luchesi said they can more than hold their own against the South or the Midwest when it comes to the grill.
“The food is better here,” Luchesi boasted. “Those places don’t have nothing on New York!”