Gennaro fest and cannoli contest pack ’em in

Photos By Georgine Benvenuto
At times waving an American flag over his head, Joe Rose put on a show for the crowd as, seated next to him, the top cannolli eater, Scott Hersh, calmly downed 24 cannolis.

BY COLIN MIXSON | The Feast of San Gennaro kicked off on Sept. 14 along Mulberry St. in Little Italy, and lovers of all things Italian flocked to the former immigrant enclave to celebrate the tastes of the old country.

“I love San Gennaro,” said New Jersey resident Scott Hersh, who won a cannoli eating contest at the feast on Friday. “Being around Italians, and the cannoli and sausage — San Gennaro’s just been one of those things I enjoy going to all the time.”

Italian immigrants first brought the festive tradition to the Lower East Side in 1926, when a feast dedicated to the patron saint of Naples, St. Januarius, first sprang up around a small chapel on Mulberry St.

The Lower Manhattan immigrant enclave has since dwindled to a few shops and restaurants, but the feast itself has expanded into a massive, 11-day celebration of Italian heritage, culture, and — above all — food.

As many as 2 million people are expected to attend over the course of the feast, which snakes through 11 blocks of Mulberry, Grand and Hester Sts., and boasts more than 200 vendors selling every Italian delicacy known to man, according to feast organizer John Fratta.

“Saturday alone we had easily 300,000 people,” explained Fratta, who sits on the board of directors of Figli di San Gennaro, a charity group that produces the event. “You couldn’t move, that’s how crowded it was.”

The event has become so popular that a news crew from Naples came to document New York’s feast for their Italian audience, who were surprised to see that what in the saint’s hometown is a one-day event had become a truly gigantic affair in America, Fratta said.

Actor Chazz Palmenteri, center, was the grand marshal at Saturday’s San Gennaro procession.

“The way they honor him, it’s a one-day festival, but when this crew came down and saw the parade and the procession last night, they were shocked. They couldn’t believe the amount of people and the way we do it,” the organizer said.

Even among the crowded vendors, the 2017 Feast of San Gennaro Cannoli Eating Contest managed to attract hordes of onlookers, who cheered as Tony Danza emcee’d the confection-based competitive-eating event.

Hersh, who looked up eating strategies on his phone just before the event, ended up winning after putting away 24 cannoli in six minutes — an average of one cannoli every 15 seconds.

The Jersey resident claims his victory at San Gannero isn’t his first big eating contest win — he once emerged victorious in a Hyatt Hotel-sponsored event where he ate 59 jalapeno peppers — a far more physically taxing feat, he said.

“With the jalapeno eating contest, my mouth was burning, I was sweating, there were physical things going on,” Hersh explained. “With the cannoli, I didn’t feel nauseous at all.”

On Tuesday, supplicants gathered at Most Precious Blood Church for a celebratory Mass in the evening, before spilling into the street for a grand procession, which saw a statue of the martyr marched up Mulberry St. from Canal St. to Houston St. and back down Mott St. before ending where it began.

The 16-block parade route — especially when marching beneath the weight of the hefty, metallic saint — is no small trek, according to one marcher.

“It’s heavy,” said John Napoli, who carried the statue, with the help of seven other men. “We rotate frequently so guys aren’t killing themselves.”

There was no monumental debate about explorer Christopher Columbus — a hero to the Italian-American community — at Saturday’s grand procession.

Napoli, who has carried the saint in the procession for the last four years, said the parade is an opportunity for him to connect with his heritage, and carry on a tradition that’s been in his family for generations.

“He’s the patron saint of Naples, which is my ancestral home, so it’s a matter of keeping the traditions of my ancestors alive,” Napoli said.

However, not all locals are crazy about the festival’s length — in terms of both its number of blocks and days. A few years ago an effort to rein in the festival resulted in the stretch between Prince and Houston St. being designated a quieter block during the festival. Residents also complain about the piles of trash the heavily attended event creates.