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September isn’t just about back-to-school. Or the beginning of fall. Or awesome TV. It’s also for stuffing your face.


At the Feast of San Gennaro, of course! You’ve probably been at least once in the last 84 years, right?

It began as a 1-day charitable event in 1926, created by 4 families from the Old Country who owned coffee shops. They hung lights and took to the streets in honor of the patron saint of Naples to raise money for the needy in the neighborhood. Nowadays, that neighborhood has shrunk to a single street of Italian bakeries and restaurants, but the festival has grown into an 11-day celebration of Italian culture, cuisine, and tchotchkes.

The staunchest supporters (aka people who get rich from it) insist it’s not a street fair, it’s a religious event. And while there IS a church-led procession or two, this is a religious event the same way Mardi Gras is.

Not so much.

But it is the street fair to end all street fairs, and the longest-running outdoor festival in the US. In the late 90’s Giuliani cleaned things up by shutting down the gambling and locking up a pack of Genovese crime family members who were on the take. Local residents who hate the Feast's noise, crowds, and hucksters reminisce on the good old days when it was under the mob’s thumb.

Apparently, it was better organized back then. Go figure.

Anyway, a good friend and I headed down to Little Italy today to eat our way up Mulberry Street, from Canal to Houston. But we had to go in with a gameplan, or else we’d get trampled.

Here’s mine:

DO GIVE: Respect to Saint Gennaro
You gotta pin a buck or two to the statue. If you believe what Father Grifone says, which I do, The Figli di San Gennaro (Children of Saint Gennaro) has been able to donate nearly $2MM to charities supporting children and education since 1996. I can see how that’s possible -- with over a million visitors and 300 vendors each year, that’s a lot of green. And the city doesn’t fare too poorly either -- they see about 20% of the $180K worth of entry fees collected from vendors, PLUS an estimated $1.6MM in tax revenue annually. I guess these days, Manhattan is a charity too…

DON'T GIVE: $100 for a stuffed pig
Playing rip-off carnie games like Bada-bingo at $5 per card to win the grand prize of a 4ft tall Rastafarian bannana is not for me. No thanks. Call me a stick in the mud, but I skip the games at San Gennaro for the same reason I skip the gambling at casinos: I’d rather eat before I flush my money down the toilet.

DO EAT: Zeppole, rice balls, and potato croquettes
It’s a zeppola (singular), or zeppole/zeppoli (plural), but don’t bother learning the singular form, these are the Lay’s Potato Chips of Italian desserts. Nobody can eat -- or buy -- just one. These deep-fried fritters are crazy good right out of the fryer, when they’re fluffy. But let them sit too long and they become doughy bricks. Find a spot with high turnover, and then gobble them up quick. The same goes for rice balls and potato croquettes, which are made from leftover risotto or mashed potatoes, then breaded and fried. Yum. Plus they remind me of my Italian grandma, so I always make a point to eat one and think about what a great lady she was.

DON'T EAT: Fried Oreos, fried candy bars, or funnel cake
You know I love a good funnel cake, but I say arrivederci to this stuff. Save it for the county fair. At an Italian feast, I mangia Italian food. It’s as simple as that. Capisce? (and yes, other than curse words, that’s the extent of my Italian vocab.)

DO SUPPORT: The arts
I’m told that back in the day, all you heard at the Feast was opera. That seems nice. These days, there are occasional performances, but if you miss one of those, sometimes you can catch a spontaneous serenade. The one pictured here happened at a restaurant, while a family was celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary. When they passed around that puffy hat, you can bet I threw a buck in.

DON'T SUPPORT: Freak shows
There’s not enough money pinned to San Gennaro’s apron to get me to go inside that rickety wooden snake pit. And apparently, I’m not the only one. Safari Joe looks downright bored. I think he’s prank calling the bearded lady.

DO BREAK: The rules and eat street meat
I know, I know, I knooooow. I’ve said that I don’t eat gyros, kabobs, and other assorted street meat. But I bend that rule for a good sweet sausage with peppers and onions or a braciole (grilled pork or beef bundles stuffed with herbed ricotta cheese). They say about 20% of all the vendors at the feast serve up SPO at their stand, making it the most popular eats at the festival. You can’t argue with that. Just find the one that uses a charcoal grill -- they’re better.

DON'T BREAK: Your teeth on a hunk of Torrone
Any food that requires a meat cleaver and a hammer to cut is bad news. The road to your dentist is most definitely paved with honey, sugar, egg whites and almonds.

DO BUY: A local souvenir
I’m a sucker for anything with my name on it. These little license plates remind me of a Snoopy one I had on my bike when I was a kid. You’d think these would be half-price, though, since NY plates don’t look like this anymore. But of all the things you can pick up, anything plastic is a winner -- it’s unlikely to become a vehicle for the free bedbugs that come with some purchases.

DON'T BUY: An homage to stupidity
Aside from parking signs that warn “You take-a my space, I break-a you face” and boxer shorts that declare who the real Italian Stallion is, I can’t get over all the Jersey Shore gear that's out there. I don’t expect that those momos would have the sense to trademark anything, but MTV’s got to be kicking themselves that they didn’t throw a little TM on phrases like, The Situation, Snookie and GTL. Even food stands are getting in on the action -- one had a sign that asked, “Did you GTC today?” Gym. Tan. Cannoli.

Cannolis are one of the few things at the Feast that travel well. And since it’s impossible to eat all the things you want (I'm usually stuffed by the time I hit Broome), you’ve gotta grab something for the road. Or the walk, as the case may be (I walked the 2.8 miles home to try and shake a few newfound lbs off my tail). I picked up a pair from Caffe Roma. They look crispy on the outside, and creamy on the inside -- just like I like ‘em. But why did I stop there and not famous Ferrara's? See below…

DON'T BRING HOME: The winner of the cannoli eating contest
Forget the circus that surrounds other eating contests, this one is for the love of the cannoli, nothing more. No cash prize. No ESPN broadcast. Just free food and a bellyache. This year, Dave “US Male” Goldstein of NJ brought home the title by eating 13 cannolis from Caffe Roma in just 6 minutes -- beating last year’s winner, and local resident, “Crazy Legs” Conti by just ONE bite. Old Crazy Legs totally phoned it in, having eaten 20 last year for the win. In the end, he blamed the crispy shells for holding him back.

Ok. All this food talk is making me hungry. I think it’s about time to dive into one of those cannolis. I’ll save the other one. For breakfast.

Ciao, amici!

tags: city life, food, holidays


Anonymous said...

Oh man. Missed it this year. Remind me again next Sept!! :)

chris said...

You went to the Feast and you didn't call me? I have an eating contest just about every day. I call it dinner.

Anonymous said...

"momos" hehehee

Anonymous said...

You're hilarious! Reading this makes me feel like I was there. Thanks!!!!!

Jenny From The 'Brook said...

Anon #1: Will do.

Chris: I'm sorry -- next year!

Anon #3 & #4: Thanks!