Little Italy will always have a special place in my heart because Italian is my favorite food and I have many fond memories there. What does Little Italy mean to me? Home, friends, family, and festivities, and the annual local tradition, The Feast of San Gernarro. We all go, my friends still go with their families and friends.
When I was little I would eagerly await for The Feast. There was always tons of food, games, rides, fortune tellers, etc; it’s a great family event. The two things we anticipated the most were Italian sausage sandwiches with roasted peppers and zeppoles (fried dough balls covered in powered sugar, great for proud carb loaders like me).
The feast is open day and night. For most my childhood, my Dad would take us for our annual fill of zeppoles and sausages. We rarely ever played the games but one year I played the fish bowl one. In the fish bowl game, there are all these small fish bowls (no fish are in them) and you toss balls into them; If you get the ball in you win a goldfish. One year I won one fish and I walked home a very happy kid. Another year, my grandparents took me to the feast after school because I really wanted to play the fish game and won 10 fish. The guy was like, “I’m not going to have any fish left.” Thing is, after I kept winning, I tried so hard to throw bad balls to loose. I remember walking home holding my grandma’s hand and staring at my fishes in two bags dangling from my grandpa’s hands. That night we put my fish in a temporary home of Chinese plastic food containers. The next day my mom rushed to buy a fish tank for all my new fish friends.
There was a period where my Dad would walk us to the palm reader and we’d all have our hands read. This thrilled me too, hearing about my ‘future.’ My family was into new age stuff and when NYC had more personality, you could find the occasional new age store (not anymore). My Dad got really into fortune telling and would take my sister and I to occult stores near Union Square. There was one whose name I can’t remember which was located in a brownstone building. The store was up one flight of steps and we’d be greeted with snake skins upon entry that would scare little me. The other store was called Weiser’s, this one was not creepy and little me liked it. Guess what, I found a little written about Wieser’s on wiki, click here to read bout them. Yes, we had a lot of books on reading tea leaves, thumb prints, palms, etc.
Now that I’m older, my parents and I started going to the feast again, our annual pilgrimage has resumed. It’s not like we ever stopped going but I stopped eating this type of food for about a decade and a half (was super organic and went vegetarian for a year – fell off that wagon hard, no regrets).
The neighborhoods are fading like my Dad’s memories. A lot of the new boutiques and residents don’t like the feast even though it’s been a tradition in Little Italy since 1926. In the late 1990s when the neighborhood started to gentrify, there was a nice balance, the new residents that arrived would take part in our festivals, shop in our stores and we in theirs. They were the something new we needed to refresh the neighborhoods (these are the creative people). Fast forward to 2017, landlords are hardcore intimidating rent control/rent stabilized tenants out of their homes with very little being done to help the renters (market rents average $2000-3500 for a 300-450 square foot studio in Little Italy, you are lucky if you get a doorman, dishwasher, washer/dryer; sometimes you may get all of that, some or no amenities and it may even be a walk up building). There are advocacy groups that fight but fail. The newer affluent residents don’t like the noise, don’t like people going in their shops with grubby little fingers, etc. They say they move to places like this for the old NYC feel but that’s utter nonsense, if they can’t respect our traditions, they are what’s tearing the fabric of our neighborhoods apart; them, the developers, and local politicians who sell us out. I don’t welcome people to my neighborhood that can’t respect the way we live, the ones that do deserve to live here. It’s sad that people like to maintain cultural ignorance, the Lower East Side has been a melting pot since before the country was founded. The feast, although touristy now, it’s roots are from Italian immigrants from Naples and it is them I owe all my feast happy memories. So far, San Gennaro is staying to my stomach’s delight. This time of year means zeppole hunting time, I don’t like the doughy ones, my mom and I hunt for the fluffier ones and she’s really good at finding them. I try zeppoles wherever I go and San Genarro and a bakery called, Tasty Pastry in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn make my favorite ones.
The Feast of San Gennaro used to be a 1 day celebration. The immigrants that arrived from Naples, Italy continued the tradition they followed in Italy to celebrate St. Januarius (San Gennaro), the patron saint of Naples. They gathered on Mulberry Street where the feast still takes place. St. Januarius feast day is September 19 in the calender of the Roman Catholic Church.
A group of cafe owners whose immigrant families started the feast, built a chapel for their patron saint. All were invited to participate in the festivities. The devoted were asked to pin ribbons that are hung from the statues apron. Money that was raised went to poor families in the neighborhood. In time, the celebration would grow into an 11 day festival street fair, the larger festival was managed by people from outside the area.
There’s a Roman Catholic procession during the feast, The Grand Procession is held on the last Saturday of the feast at 2pm. Candlelights are used and the statue of San Gennaro is carried from Most Precious Blood Church through the Streets of Little Italy.
Another festival is held in the Italian area of the Bronx. In 1986, Tony Sacca brought the feast to Las Vegas. In 2002, Jimmy Kimmel, Doug DeLong, and Adam Carolla founded the feast of San Gennaro in Los Angeles. In 2013, The Mascio family formed the San Gennaro Foundation of Seattle to bring the festival there, it’s held in Georgetown, WA where many Italians settled when they moved to Seattle.
I’m a bit late with this post the feast ended September 24th but there’s always next year if you are in the area and want to check it out.