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Take a bite out of these secrets of

Take a bite out of these secrets of Little Italy's San Gennaro festival. (Credit: Dreamstime.com / Stuart Monk)

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San Gennaro in NYC: A peek into the festival's past

109 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10013

When you think of Little Italy's San Gennaro festival, Italian eats instantly come to mind.

This year marks the 91st anniversary of the event that brings more than two million tourists and locals to Manhattan, craving cannolis. But when the Society of San Gennaro first took to the streets in 1926, the group had something different in mind.

The religious event takes place annually to honor the Roman Catholic patron saint of Naples, Saint Januarius (aka San Gennaro). It celebrates Januarius’ blood," which is saved in a vial in the Naples Cathedral and liquefies three times each year, including Sept. 19, Januarius' saint day. The occurrence is known to be a miracle by millions of people who gather in Italy to watch and in Manhattan to celebrate, said John Fratta, whose great grandfather was the first president of the Society of San Gennaro.

The Figli di San Gennaro (children of San Gennaro), a nonprofit organization composed of locals and founding family members, have organized the feast since 1996. They changed the festival quite a bit after taking over. The group started the iconic cannoli-eating contest and added opera events. Still, they stayed true to their relatives' roots by continuing religious traditions associated with the celebration.

Take a bite out of these secrets of the festival, which takes place in Little Italy through Sept. 24.

Worshipers have noticed the blood's liquefying patterns to

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The blood is an indication of the year to come

Worshipers have noticed the blood's liquefying patterns to be omens of the events that will occur in the year to come. When the blood didn't liquify in September 1980, an earthquake shook southern Italy two months later, taking more than 3,000 lives, Fratta, a member of the Figli di San Gennaro, recalled.

Is it a proven fact that the blood miracle can predict the future? No. But since then, the event's outcome has become known to the faithful as a sign of good -- or bad -- fortune.

A tradition carried over from Naples with Italian

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It all started with a block party

A tradition carried over from Naples with Italian immigrants, the first Little Italy San Gennaro festival was actually more like a small block party.

A group of seven men arranged the celebration, said Vivian Catenaccio, a founding member of the Figli di San Gennaro. Her grandfather was one of them. Nearly 100 people from the neighborhood gathered to worship and, of course, eat.

Today, it spans 11 blocks and lasts 11 days.

The festival is known for its wacky food

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5,000 meatballs are making their way to this year's fest

The festival is known for its wacky food contests, including timed cannoli and pizza-eating. For its 90th anniversary last year, the members of the Figli di San Gennaro decided to add yet another classic Italian eat into the mix: meatballs.

The contest honors Johnny "Cha Cha" Ciarcia, an actor who died in December 2015 at age 75, according to Mort Berkowitz, who has been handling production for the fest for the past 20 years. He had appeared in "The Sopranos" and "Goodfellas." "Cha Cha," whose favorite dish was spaghetti and meatballs, was known by locals as the unofficial mayor of Little Italy. Tony Danza is slated to be this year's judge, Berkowitz said.

The meatballs "are not coming from a restaurant in Little Italy because you want uniformity, so everyone is getting a fair shot," Berkowitz said, explaining that there will be a machine pre-weighing the balls to make sure they're all the same size.

If there was a pole that stretched two

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A favorite contest from the past won't make it back to the fest

If there was a pole that stretched two stories, covered in grease in the middle of Mulberry Street, would you climb it?

That was actually a contest during the festival in the '30s. The members of the Figli di San Gennaro described it as the "grease pole" event. Two teams of "young Italian guys would try to make it to the top of the pole," Catenaccio said. "If they made it to the top, they'd win money."

Unfortunately, current insurance regulations won't let the group carry on that tradition, Fratta said.

You don't go to the feast if you're

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Why is the religious celebration so focused on food?

You don't go to the feast if you're not hungry. The focus is clearly the food, although the festival has deep religious roots.

The reason is simple, Fratta said: Italians love their food.

"When you talk about Italian culture, you're never not talking about food," he said. "When you have a celebration, even other holidays that we celebrate, the food is the main focus."

When you see money tacked to a saint,

Credit: Getty Images / Mario Tama

Money tacked to statues means someone is in need

When you see money tacked to a saint, whether it's during the festival or not, it means there's someone praying and asking for help, Fratta said. By the end of the festival, statues of San Gennaro and the Virgin Mary (pictured) are often covered with bills.

"It's another custom brought over from Italy," Fratta said. "It's a donation to the saint to answer your prayers and the money tacked onto that saint goes to the church."

If you thought the food was blessed at

Credit: Getty Images / Mario Tama

The food technically isn't blessed

If you thought the food was blessed at the feast, you're not exactly correct. Those who are unfamiliar with the religious practices behind the event may not know what really goes on when a priest visits each vendor.

A blessing of the stands takes place on the first night of the festival each year, Fratta said. A priest from the Church of the Most Precious Blood stops by the vendors, where Italian treats are being served, to wish them good fortune, he added.

The tradition is a way of wishing the event in its entirety is a "successful feast" and doesn't involve blessing the food itself at all, he said.

When Italian immigrants settled downtown, in the area

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Carrying San Gennaro in the streets caused trouble for Italians

When Italian immigrants settled downtown, in the area we now know as Little Italy, they brought their country's traditions with them, one of them being the carrying of saints through the streets on their holy day.

"[Other] immigrants didn't understand this. They thought it was an act of Paganism," Fratta said. "So, that's where the bias against Italians took place. It wasn't until much later on that they began to understand that it's a culture and they do this in Italy."

After Mass on Sept. 19, the statue of San Gennaro is carried down Mulberry Street as a sign of honor.

Putting on a street festival that spans 11

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Cannolis for charity, anyone?

Putting on a street festival that spans 11 blocks isn't cheap. It costs the Figli di San Gennaro more than $300,000 to host the event, between lighting, city activity fees and other expenditures, Fratta said.

Still, the group finds a way to donate to local charities each year. After paying the bills and accumulating a slight profit from 300 restaurants, vendors and sponsors, the Figli donates to children's charities and schools in the metropolitan area, Fratta said.

"Over the course of 20 years, we have given $2 million to charity," he added.

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