Buon Appetito! The 88th annual San Gennaro Festival is being held from Thursday September 11th – Sunday, September 21st in Little Italy, New York.
The streets of Little Italy have deep historic roots dating back to the days when the largest wave of Italian immigrants settled in the early 20th century. For many, it was the first place in America Italians called home. The immigrants came from mainly southern Italian cities, like Naples, for better opportunities in the new world.
The Feast of San Gennaro began in 1926 when the new immigrants wanted to continue the celebration of Saint Gennaro just as they did back home. Saint Gennaro is the Patron Saint of Naples and is celebrated on September 19th every year, according to the Roman Catholic Church.
The celebration started off small- only being celebrated on the Saints feast day. A small chapel was built to put a statue of the Patron saint. Red ribbons are attached to the statue and it is custom to pin one dollar to the ribbon as a generous gift. The money goes to the poor of the community.
Decades later, over a million visitors come to Mulberry Street to enjoy Italian culture and food. Vendors sell everything from sausage and peppers to cannolis and zeppoles. Italian musicians play throughout the streets of lower Manhattan as people stroll and enjoy the music.
The main Grand Procession is always held on the last Saturday of the feast. First there is a mass at the Church of The Most Precious Blood where the statue of San Gennaro is lifted and carried through the streets of Little Italy.
The festival wasn’t always smiles and pizza. In the early 1990’s, internal mafia involvement was exposed. Then mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani demanded the feast be mob-free in 1996. Two years ago, federal prosecutors found the mob was back in an attempt to control the prosperous event.
The demographics of the downtown area are rapidly changing. What used to be filled with dialect-speaking southern Italians has transformed into only a few block radius of second and even third generation Italians. Many Italians moved throughout New York City to other towns in different boroughs like Howard Beach, Bensonhurst and Fordham.
The feast coordinators are always looking for ways do attract visitors. This year marks the 13th annual cannoli eating contest in an attempt to gain attraction to the festival. Although there is no cash prize, the winner gets the reputation and pride of an outstanding cannoli eater. The contest is sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eaters. Contestants have six minutes to eat as many cannolis as possible. Last year’s winner, Yasir Salem, ate 31.2 cannolis. The cannolis will be made by Ferrara bakery.
The historic feast has even been featured in The Godfather Part II and III, CSI: New York and Laverne & Shirley.
The Feast of San Gennaro continues to grow throughout the country making its way to the west coast to Las Vegas and Los Angeles as founders continue to spread the celebration of the Patron Saint of Naples and Italian culture.