Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli

I remember the first thing my father said I had to do when I got to New York was go to the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy. I figured it would be like festivals usually are in Florida—one long row of vendors, some treats here and there, things like that. But in New York, it’s a little different. Like “Go Big or Go Home” different.

The Feast of San Gennaro runs the length of Mulberry Street, throughout all of Little Italy. It stretches from Canal Street up north to Houston Street, which is six short city blocks, and from Baxter Street to Mott Street, which is two long city blocks. In reality, this isn’t a grand space—it’s only a quarter mile long. But the streets are jam-packed with any kind of Italian food and/or novelty item you can imagine.

My mother initially laughed at me on the phone when I asked her before I went, “Oh, so there’s food there?” I thought by ‘Feast’ they meant festival, I guess.
“Uh, YEAH, ‘there’s food there.’ Are you kidding? There’s practically only food there!”

It is, literally, a feast.
 Cannolis, braciole, sausage and peppers, rice balls, gelato, lasagna—the list of foods simply goes on forever. And the vendors are thick, brawny men with dark hair and names like Vinny or Gino who all shout out at you in thick New York accents—“GETCHA CANNOLIS HERE! WHO WANTS A CANNOLI? YOU WANT A CANNOLI? COME HAVE A CANNOLI!” They smile and gesture wildly, like children on a playground trying to show their parents a really cool rock.

But it is all really cool. The Feast of San Gennaro is actually an annual celebration of the Patron Saint of Naples, started in New York by Italian immigrants carrying over the celebration from the homeland. Originally the Feast was only one day, but now in New York it’s 11 days, and draws usually around one million visitors during the entire span of the event. The Feast has now been a New York tradition for 84 years, beginning with the first saint’s day celebration on September 19, 1926.

The streets are decorated in every kind of red, green, and white decoration imaginable, from tinsel tto crepe paper streamers, cellophane fringe, and more. All of the Italian restaurants up and Mulberry Street put special tables outside and decorate with curtains of Christmas lights in the colors of the Italian flag. Restaurant entertainers play Italian-American standards while women over fifty merrily dance and spin white cloth napkins over their heads like helicopters in time with the music. There are bounce houses and carnival games for kids, Pina Colada stands for adults, and karaoke for those somewhere in between. People walk in endless streams and down the streets, carrying their street food dinner in their hands up and down the length and width of the festival.

At the southernmost end of the event is the Franciscan church, where followers can pray in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary or the Holy Cross, both twinkling with Christmas lights. The festival involves a parade and religious services at the Most Precious Blood Church on Mulberry Street, which holds the National Shrine of San Gennaro.

But even for those without religious background, the festival is a sight and an experience to behold. It’s really just another thing I love about New York—people from whatever backgrounds come together to celebrate holidays just because it’s fun. And probably also because of the cannolis.