It is the season of the local festival, or in Italian, sagra.
Growing up, we'd normally hit the local church festival in June just after school let out. It was bodaciously small, but it was just enough to keep a family of six entertained for a few hours. Once every few years or so, we'd travel to the grand daddy of them all, The Saint Anthony's Italian Festival. For a child's first experience with large crowds, it's both exhilarating and terrifying at once. The lights, the music, the people, the sounds- it was quite a scene to take in. The rides were x10 what we had at our rinky dink festival. And the strings of lightbulbs seemed to stretch on for blocks. And they did.
For as many diverse small villages and towns there are across Italy, there is a unique sagra which celebrates all things unique to that town, especially food.
The festival involves all its local residents, their visiting families, friends, the shopkeepers, the church, the restaurants- in short, everyone. Depending on where the sagra is, you may be celebrating with specialties as diverse as wild boar or frogs. Or how about these: "a Sagra della Cipolla (onion) at Cannara, a Sagra della Melanzana ripiena (stuffed eggplant) at
It's not uncommon, actually to be visiting a local sagra and see dozens of locals standing in line for what surely must be the best thing being served. My good friend Dan who was married in Italy was at one such sagra, and he was standing in said line. After about 15 minutes, he said to one of the natives, "Che cosa stanno servendo?" The man replied, "I thought you knew."
Sometimes a pageant of sorts is held, musical concerts are given and some sort of sporting event takes place. There is a lot of wine and everyone dances. Did I mention the food? One of the reasons we love going to the boardwalk in summer is for the combined aromas of french fries, funnel cake and diesel- no wait- barbecue. Okay, maybe a little diesel to operate the rides. But, ahhh- the smells!
What I didn't know some 30 years ago is just how true to an authentic sagra St. Anthony's festival is. Inside the vaunted halls of the parish of Santa Antonio pots upon pots of fresh pomodoro sauce simmer while hand-made pasta and delicate regional pastries are made. Members of the parish who play musical instruments play for guests gathered under temporary tents, while pitcher up pitcher of vino di tavola flows. It is wild, raucous and spirited: everything a sagra should be.
That same festival is in its 37th year and kicked off yesterday here in Little Italy. There is one man many people outside of Lital don't know, but he is responsible for the entire orchestration of festival set-up, electrical engineering, lighting, restrooms, parking, seating, tickets, and now the installation of a six foot fence that encircles roughly 3 by 3 entire city blocks. He is Aldo. Aldo drives the forklift. Aldo maneuvers the cherry picker. Aldo makes sure the regional flags are draped and tri-colored pennants are rippling in the summer breeze. He makes sure the fountains work and the church is in tip-top condition. He is quite simply the reason there is a festival each year.
Aldo is amiable as can be, and as strong as an ox. He speaks his native Italian and is fluent in Spanish and of course English. He can maneuver an 18 wheel rig up a one-way street in three points or less. I watched a Coca-Cola truck trying to leave the parking lot yesterday; it took the guy an hour and no less than seven cars had to be moved as he went up the wrong direction of a one-way street. "Amatore!"
For me, Aldo has come to represent the spirit of the festival. He has immense pride in his native country, and equal passion for his parish and neighborhood. I saw him, I think, ONCE during the middle of the festival one year when he was idle. People were coming up to him and greeting him with "Ciao, Aldo!" and "Grazie, Aldo!" like he was the Cardinal. In Timberlands. I love that guy.
Whether you hate it, love it, haven't been in awhile or never been, the annual St. Anthony's Italian Festival is a great spirited tradition in the truest sense.
end Part I