For almost a hundred years now, locals and tourists have flocked into Little Italy, New York City to celebrate the Feast of San Gennaro, a two week event which centers on food, music, wine, costumes, parades, games, amusement rides, large crowds, souvenirs and more food. Since 1926 New York has welcomed visitors to downtown Mulberry Street as the restaurants open their doors and food carts flood the traffic lanes. The festival is in honor of St. Januarias, or Gennaro, a bishop of Benevento and the patron saint of Naples, who was killed by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the year 305 A.D. So important is the festival to Italian culture in New York that it was used not once, but twice in the highly popular Godfather trilogy. It was at this festival that a young Vito Corleone (played by up and coming Robert DeNiro) shadowed the villainous Don Fannuci, an extortionist, before shooting him dead in his apartment. The murder of Don Fannuci is what started Corleone on his own infamous life of crime, as depicted in The Godfather, Part Two. Not to be outdone, in The Godfather, Part Three Vincent Santino Corleone (played by up and comer Andy Garcia), shoots rival Joey Zaza in the streets of the festival while riding a police horse, no less.
But believe it or not, the festival is more than just a picturesque location for gunning down rival gangsters. Each year The Feast of San Gennaro brings in approximately a million people to Mulberry Street in Little Italy to eat, drink, play games, buy souvenirs, ride the rides and eat some more. While the restaurants are still open to the public and doing nicely, the street vendors is where the real action takes place. Sausages, pizza, meatball sandwiches, chicken, cannoli, calzones, gelattos, empanadas, fried oreos, lemonade, pina colada and more move quickly from proprietor to consumer as people eat and drink while they walk.
The jewelry and clothing range from the expensive and chic to the rather gaudy and cheap as the festival strives to accommodate all budgets.
There are seating areas for those who tire of the constant motion where you can sit and have a glass of wine in peace….or as much peace as one can have while thousands of tourists laugh and shout and point and take selfies within a few feet of you. Cash is king at the festival and most of the vendors refuse to accept credit cards.
The Grand Procession kicks off the festival – a parade of baton twirlers, marching bands, political dignitaries and so on which very slowly makes its way down Mulberry Street. This year the parade was led by Sopranos and Blue Bloods star Steve Schirripa. It makes perfect sense that the part of Grand Marshall go to an actor. Besides The Godfather movies The Feast of San Gennaro has been featured multiple times in television and cinema fare; utilized in such shows as CSI, The Sopranos, Laverne and Shirley, The Golden Girls, Family Guy and Billions. The Godfather II was not even the first time it was used in a Robert DeNiro vehicle; Martin Scorcese filmed it for his movie, Mean Streets. The music played during the parade is usually an odd blend of Italian classics, opera, New Orleans jazz and John Phillips Sousa, which may be a bit schizophrenic but everyone seems to have a good time.
It’s not illegal to leave the festival without buying something to eat but it’s awfully hard. The look and smell and sound of the food is overwhelming and the prices are reasonable enough that it’s difficult to justify not having a taste of one thing or another. I was tempted to try a whole variety of Italian delicacies but time and my waist line determined I limit myself to a select few. I grabbed a pepperoni calzone ($8), a half dozen zeppoles with powdered sugar ($5) and a large cannoli for later ($5.50). All of them were terrific, although next time I may substitute the calzone with a sausage submarine or a plate of calamari.
I am not sure what sadistic civil engineer of years past decided that it would be a great idea to put one incredibly crowded, popular tourist site (Little Italy) a short block away from ANOTHER incredibly crowded, popular tourist site (Chinatown) but the result is more people than should legally be allowed in that small a space. It’s bad enough even without the added influx of souls descending to view the festival but for the two weeks of The Feast of San Gennaro, the area of Little Italy and Chinatown merge into an ocean of humanity rivaled only by Mardi Gras in New Orleans. People looking to get home, people looking to get to work, people looking to buy things, people looking to sell things and many people just plain looking. At its height you literally cannot dictate the direction you want to go in, you simply have to move with the crowd until an opening develops and then for the love of God take it or there’s no telling how long you might wander those narrow streets.
The Feast of San Gennaro ends Sunday, September 24th. If you haven’t made it down there, not to worry. It’ll back next year before you know it. That should give you time enough to build up quite an appetite.
All photos by Tony Sportiello