This morning I drove past a church in my town known for its Italian heritage. As I sat at the traffic light, I noticed they set up the red, white and green archway which means the summer festival is upon us. This annual event is the perfect way to spend a summer evening, and it’s also important to the community and parish. I couldn’t help thinking about the Italian festivals I attended during my childhood in the Bronx. While it seems like a million years ago, as I stared at tinsel shimmering in the morning sunlight, it might as well have been yesterday.
When I was a little girl, our family waited all year for the Italian festival, or “feast” as we called it. The feast was held over a few nights in the middle of the summer and occupied several blocks adjacent to our church. Overnight the streets we traveled through on a daily basis were transformed into a wonderland. Because the streets were closed to cars, the only way to get there was by foot. We’d make the short walk from our brownstone apartment to the action. It was only a few blocks away, but by the time you hit the corner of our street, the aroma of the magnificent food hit you full on and guided you to this unforgettable destination.
All our local businesses participated, so you knew you were in for a gastronomical event of epic proportions. The first smell to hit you was sausage and peppers. I dabbled in vegetarianism even as a kid, so while it smelled heavenly, I wasn’t interested. Instead, I’d try one of the many kinds of pizza for sale. Whether you wanted traditional New York style, Sicilian style or foccacia, it was all there waiting for you, and it was all delicious. After I had my share of pizza, it would be time for entertainment. As if the cast of local characters who attended this event wasn’t entertainment enough, there was plenty to do. There were tons of carnival games: water-shooting guns, glass bottles and rings, balloons waiting to be popped with darts and every kind of game involving a spinning wheel. I lusted after the prizes! Beautiful dolls and cuddly stuffed animals called to me from every booth. After driving my parents crazy with requests for additional money, we’d head down to the school parking lot where the rides were set up. There was a Ferris Wheel, bumper cars, a carousel and more to tempt you, depending on how full your stomach was.
At one end of the street, there was a little stage where locals would sing their hearts out to the music of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Vale, Dean Martin and Connie Francis. Tables were set up in one area where folks could sit down and eat, but more importantly, hang out, catch up, and gossip. After all these activities, it was time for my favorite event—dessert. The options were endless! Italian ices, gelato, cookies, pastries, candies and zeppole as far as the eye could see. If that wasn’t enough, there were traditional carnival treats like cotton candy, roasted peanuts and candy apples. I’m telling you . . . Willy Wonka had nothing on the Italian feast.
The parish stopped hosting the feast a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience it now. Close your eyes. Feel the humid summer weather hanging heavy and moist on your skin. The glow from the endless strands of Christmas lights outlining every booth is downright angelic set against the backdrop of a midnight blue summer sky. Listen to symphony of sizzling grills, spinning wheels, popping balloons and the vendors calling out their offerings to those far and wide. Follow the laughter that wafts through the air atop the scents of powdered sugar and vanilla and meet me at the corner booth opposite the church. I’ll be the one holding a cannoli and smiling ear to ear.