There’s more to Little Italy’s San Gennaro festival than cannolis — like sausage and peppers, meatballs and zeppoles, too.
This year marks the 91st anniversary of the 11-day feast that brings more than two million tourists and locals downtown, donning green, white and red.
The festival is historic for Italian immigrants and the Society of San Gennaro, which first took to Manhattan streets in 1926 to honor Saint Januarius, the Roman Catholic patron saint of Naples.
“The feast is very important not only to the Little Italy community but to the Italian community throughout New York,” San Gennaro feast board member John Fratta says. “What happens now is, for people who used to live in Little Italy, it becomes a reunion for them. They come back to the community and enjoy the feast.”
The event is a tradition brought to America from Italy. 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. It’s an occurrence known to be a miracle by millions who gather in Italy to watch and in Manhattan to celebrate, says Fratta, whose great grandfather was the first president of the Society of San Gennaro.
“The Italian immigrants coming to Little Italy, they settled at Mulberry Street and created the borough custom of honoring their patron saint when they first came here in 1926,” he says. “[Saint Januarius] protected the people of Naples from Mount Vesuvius … His blood is saved in Naples right now in powder form and every year on the 19th it liquefies. Scientists have checked this over the years and there’s really no explanation. It’s the miracle of Saint Januarius. On the years it doesn’t liquefy, there’s always something tragic — like the beginning of World War II — so we always hope and pray it liquefies.”
The Figli di San Gennaro (children of San Gennaro), a nonprofit organization comprised of locals and founding family members, has organized the feast since 1996.
Although faith is at the root of the event, it’s well known for its Italian eats.
“When you talk about Italian culture, you talk about the arts, the food and the music. That’s Italian,” says Fratta, who recommends attendees get their hands on traditional dishes like chicken parmesan, sausage and peppers, braciola and calzones. More than two dozen restaurants and shops in the area, including Umbertos, In Bocca Al Lupo and Alleva Dairy, are making their menus available for street-side dining during the event.
If you prefer competitive over casual eating, the feast hosts two annual competitions: a cannoli-eating contest, which took place on Friday, Sept. 15, and a meatball-eating contest set for Saturday, Sept. 23.
The meatball contest, which made its debut at the festival last year, is held in honor of the “unofficial Mayor of Little Italy,” Johnny "Cha Cha" Ciarcia, who died in December 2015 at age 75. This year’s competition, expected to draw about 20 hungry eaters, will be judged by actor Tony Danza.
As far as why the board chose meatballs? “Everybody loves meatballs! When you talk about Italian food, you talk about spaghetti and meatballs and cannolis. These are things that are a part of what we remember eating as kids. I remember people in the neighborhood would make meatballs and on Sunday they’d put them on aluminum foil and hand them out. We’d call out, ‘Where’s that meatball?’”
The full event lineup, from the annual procession of the statue of San Gennaro (Tuesday, Sept. 19) to a 100th birthday tribute to Dean Martin (Saturday, Sept. 23), can be found at sangennaro.org.
When: Thursday, Sept. 14, to Sunday, Sept. 24; Sundays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to midnight.
Where: The feast runs along Mulberry Street, between Canal and Hudson streets, and on Grand Street, between Mott and Baxter streets. This year’s event will have two bandstands set up for performances.