Congregant gets the last laugh when pizza recipe wins contest

How much is a recipe worth?

Often that's hard to quantify. But in the case of Sheila Devore Costello's "Paulenta Pizza Faces," the answer is $10,000 — for Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

It all began last June, when Belmont resident Costello, an avid cook, wanted to raise money for her synagogue by entering the seventh annual Newman's Own/Good Housekeeping Recipe Contest.

But when she shared her idea with Beth Jacob's board of directors, everyone, including the rabbi, just laughed.

Nonetheless, the amused board members gave her the green light to test her recipe, which is designed for children, on a group of 3- and 4-year-olds from the synagogue's Camp Shalom Day Camp.

Costello and her charges sliced ready-made polenta rolls into rounds and smothered them with Newman's Own spaghetti sauce and shredded mozzarella. Then she showed the children how to make funny faces on the pizzas using sliced olives, carrots, bell peppers and broccoli.

Somehow, one of the pizzas even ended up looking like Newman, Costello said.

Satisfied with the results, she mailed her recipe, which fell under the "youth organization" category, to contest headquarters on the East Coast.

A month later, Costello received a letter stating that her recipe had won $10,000 to her favorite charity, and that she was selected to fly to New York City for the $40,000 semifinals.

"The judges liked my recipe mainly because it's a creative cooking project to do with kids," Costello said. "Especially how it taught kids to make faces on the pizza."

Last month, Costello and her husband, Brian, took an all-expense-paid trip to Manhattan for an awards ceremony and luncheon in the Rainbow Room on the 64th floor of Rockefeller Center.

Surrounded by views of the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers, Central Park South and the Hudson and East rivers, the eight semifinalists got together to shmooze and dine on each others' recipes, which were all prepared by master chefs.

"I didn't eat anything. I was so nervous hanging around Paul Newman. We were in the same room," Costello said.

The chefs then took all the prepared recipes to Newman and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, to taste. But when the celebrity couple couldn't decide who should receive the $40,000 grand prize, the contest ended in a tie between a Florida woman for her Seafood Gumbo and a New Mexico man for his Creole Posole. But instead of splitting the top prize, each winner's charity was awarded $40,000.

After the decision, which astonished everyone in the ballroom, Costello said, Newman and Woodward "then called us up one by one and gave us our awards. And then we spoke on where we wanted our prize money designated."

During Costello's presentation, she explained how the $10,000 would go to Beth Jacob's family and early-childhood programs.

"As I spoke, they stood behind me and put their arms around me," Costello said.

"It was very exciting meeting Paul Newman. He does such incredible work and it was an honor to be part of this whole contest."

Costello was still glowing when she returned home from the event. When she presented Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray with the $10,000 check, there were smiles all around. "He said, `I'm so sorry that I laughed when you entered the contest.'"