Gifted hands make stylish packages

Monica Ficarrotta says she wraps 500 to 600 gifts a year, practice that could pay off with a $10,000 prize.

By Judy Stark, Times Homes and Garden Editor
Published November 24, 2007

TAMPA - It's not visions of sugarplums that are keeping Monica Ficarrotta awake these nights.

Instead, it's wondering how she's going to wrap a pair of ice skates no box . . . or a snowmobile (ditto) . . . while the clock ticks and judges are watching . . . in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize.

Ficarrotta is one of eight finalists in the 11th annual Scotch brand Most Gifted Wrapper Contest. (Scotch, of course, makes transparent tape; you can see the connection here.) On Friday the finalists will compete for the top title from 8:30 to 11 a.m. at New York City's Rockefeller Center.

"I've always been a paper person," said Ficarrotta, 53, who figures she has been wrapping "probably for 40 years."

Her mother wrapped just the tops of gift boxes and reused them year after year, "and I thought, 'I've got to do better than this,' and I went into it full-fledged," Ficarrotta said. "It's in my nature. I love to create pretty packages. I didn't want to just throw a piece of wrapping paper around something."

There are no clothes in the closet of the master suite she shares with husband Ron, a Hillsborough County circuit judge. That closet is packed full of paper, tissue, ribbon ("I have 1,000 yards on the wall"), cellophane bags, stickers and adornments. There's a card rack in the master bathroom.

Ficarrotta read about the wrapping contest in a magazine ad. Contestants or their nominators had to submit an essay of no more than 100 words by Oct.1 explaining why they should be chosen as finalists. At first Ron declined to nominate his wife, but late on the evening of Sept.30 he sat down at the computer.

The essay started, "Have you ever met a woman who would rather shop for gift wrap than shoes? Meet my wife, Monica."

A few weeks later the call came and Monica wrapped herself in paper from head to toe to make the announcement to Ron and other family members that she was a finalist. She was selected by 2002 winner Christine Fritsch, who chose the eight finalists solely on the basis of the nominating essays. The contest organizers have never actually seen any of the finalists' work. (Ficarrotta wrapped the gifts pictured here at the Times' request to demonstrate how to have a "green" Christmas.)

Ficarrotta is assistant sales manager at Estella's, a gift shop on Bay to Bay Boulevard in Tampa, and also runs her own calligraphy business. Between wrapping at the store and wrapping at home (friends drop off bags of gifts for her to wrap), she figures she wraps "500 to 600 gifts" every year.

She makes all her own bows, she said: "No premades. That's a definite no-no. And no gift bags."

Ficarrotta still qualifies in the amateur category; the four professional wrappers who will compete are people whose livelihood is gift-wrapping. Two years ago Tampa had two amateur competitors in the contest.

Judges will be looking for crisp edges, style, creativity and other evidence of wrapping superiority, a spokeswoman said. Besides the skates and the snowmobile, contestants have to wrap a scarf and hat in a box and a snowboard with bindings and boots attached, no box. There will be a time limit on each round. The morning chat shows have been invited to cover the wrapping competition, so check the programs Friday morning for coverage.

"My mom said, 'If any contest was meant for you, this is it,' " Ficarrotta said. "Most people hate to gift-wrap. I would rather wrap gifts than I don't know what. I love to put a great package together."

Contact homes and garden editor Judy Stark at (727) 893-8446 or jstark@sptimes.com.