Monday, July 21, 2014

Festa Italiana!

My boyhood parish church, Our Lady of Lourdes in the East New York section of Brooklyn, held a carnival every year to raise money. It was a schoolyard affair with the usual kiddie rides, and rigged games of chance (wink, wink) under canvass tents. It was OK, but not nearly as much fun as the authentic Italian street feast held annually in the parish where I was baptized, Our Lady of Loreto. Pacific Street was closed to traffic from Sackman Street near the church entrance to Eastern Parkway, a main area thoroughfare that led to the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and the upscale neighborhood of Park Slope where my lovely wife was raised.

The street feast was an Italian tradition that immigrants to America recreated as a way to remember "the old country." Throughout Italy, street feasts were common in every town, usually sponsored by the church, most likely as a celebration commemorating the patron saint of the village. It is the very essence of what it means to be Italian. Our Lady of Loreto was predominantly an Italian parish with at least one Sunday Mass always said in that language. It was only natural for these good people to cling to their heritage by staging these feasts or "festas". They may have passed their American citizenship tests, and couldn't be prouder of their new country, but underneath, in their heart of hearts, they would always be Italians.

The feast lasted about 3-4 days...usually Thursday through Sunday. The excitement in the neighborhood was high, after all, this was the poor kids' Disneyworld. There were truck-mounted rides like the Whip, the Ferris Wheel and the Moon Swing. They had games of chance like the spinning wheels where you put your dime on a number hoping to win that shiny new toaster for Mom, or trying to toss a small wooden ring onto the glass neck a Coke bottle, and of course the rows and rows of fish bowls filled with colored water into which you tossed ping-pong balls. If you won, you got to keep the goldfish, which had a life expectancy of about 15 minutes after you got it home. It then got flushed, or as we referred to it, "burial at sea!"

That there was food goes without saying; this was an Italian feast! The next time someone invents a new appetite suppressant pill, I have a sure-fire way of testing it. Let the test subject take the new pill. Then bring him to an outdoor Italian feast and find a stand where sausages and peppers are cooking on the grill. Make sure the sausages have been cooking for at least an hour, and are just starting to caramelize. Position the test subject downwind from the stand for five minutes. If he can resist begging the owner of the stand to sell him a sandwich at any price, then the pill may be considered effective. Most people will cave, as you can readily see in Exhibit A above.

For dessert after your sausage and pepper hero, you must have some Zeppolis. There are two kinds of Zeppolis: one is a pastry shell cut in half, filled with rich yellow cream and topped with a cherry. Traditionally, they are served around St. Joseph's feast day in March. (These may be purchased in Italian bakeries. Don't have your cholesterol count taken within 24 hours of eating one.) The other kind of Zeppoli is the type served at the feast, basically, dough fried in very hot oil, placed in a paper bag and sprinkled with powdered sugar. You shake the bag to coat the hot Zeppolis with sugar, and then shove one into your face. If you don't get some powdered sugar on the tip of your nose, you're not eating them properly.

The feast also featured music, the kind of Italian songs that can be played on simple instruments by old men wearing grey cardigan sweaters with a DiNoboli cigar stub in the pocket. If there was some extra money in the budget, the church would erect a makeshift bandstand that would give any OSHA Inspector palpitations. Sometimes they marched while they played, usually leading the women's Rosary Sodality in the procession carrying the statue of the church's patron saint. Pinned to the statue was money... ones, fives, tens or twenties. Once in a while you would see a rare hundred dollar bill, probably pinned there by a repentant sinner. As corny as it may sound, these old songs, played and sung with real feeling, had a haunting effect on me, as if something was reaching through the centuries and pulling me back to the land of my ancestors. 

The San Gennaro feast in New York City's Little Italy (the few blocks that are left of it) has become well known, and tourists flock there to see an authentic Italian feast. I hate to tell them, but they're too late. It may have been a true neighborhood celebration many years ago, but it has become too commercial, and lost all its ethnic identity. The last time I went it had a distinctly corporate flavor. I'm glad to have my memories of Our Lady of Loreto's genuine festa Italiana.


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The Whiner said...

I am dying just thinking about a zeppoli...or any of that Feast food for that matter. Sounds so deliciious....

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

If you ever stop writing this blog, I will personally come and put a gun to your head to get you to write more! This one was a slam dunk! You slammed me back to my youth, and it was great! Thanks!

P.S. Zeppoli and sausage and peppers!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks to my two most faithful readers. Joe, you inspired me to start writing this stuff, so I'll keep writing if you'll keep reading!

Unknown said...

Roasted chick pea necklaces and huge chunks of torrone.

john said...

Glad I found your blog. Brings back memories.
I see you are in Staten Island. I lived in Brooklyn until after high school, when I joined a religious community on Victory Blvd. It was through that that I ended up in Michigan