Thousands of revelers crowded Mulberry Street as the San Gennaro Grand Procession featuring former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino as grand marshal meandered its way through Little Italy on Sept. 17.
Massimino said he was “thrilled” when the organizers asked him to be the procession’s grand marshal, celebrating his Italian-American heritage.
Massimino, who grew up in Franklin Square, Long Island, shared that both sets of grandparents immigrated from Italy -his maternal grandparents settled in Brooklyn, while his father’s parents settled in Little Italy.
“They came here with big dreams and very little education, but they came here to America for the opportunity, and I think this is what it’s all about,” Massimino said. “To celebrate that heritage. It gave me so many opportunities to become a United States astronaut and fly in space and serve my country in that way.”
Little Italy is a special place for the former astronaut, who spent 571 hours and 47 minutes in space on two different missions and was able to honor his American-Italian heritage by flying a Sicilian flag and a replica of Galileo’s telescope into space.
“I really can’t think of an experience or an honor that would be more important to me than this,” Massimino said, referring to his role as grand marshal. “My grandparents, my parents, all unfortunately died, but you know, I think they would be very happy about this. So I’m really happy to be here.”
Massimino, a dual citizen of the USA and Italy, looked forward to all the food the feast offered.
“I mean, the street food is so good,” Massimino said. “Sausage and peppers, and a slice of pizza and a cannoli. I don’t think you can beat that meal right there. Right here in front of us on the street.”
The pizza lover admitted that he was the only astronaut who gained weight while in space indulging in lasagne, ravioli, and biscottis from a Brooklyn bakery. He told amNewYork that pizza was the one food item he couldn’t get in space and ordered a pizza from the galaxy before landing on one of his missions.
“I’m serious,” the spaceman said. “On landing day, I ordered the pizza at a place called Abba Tinos in Florida. Because I wanted to make sure we got the order right, before we closed down the computer, I sent in my order. And we got to eat late that night when we landed was pizza.”
The smell of American-Italian staples like Braciole and Zeppole permeated the air as the procession with a brass band playing Italian tunes, floats, vintage cars flying Italian and American flags, and the Grand Statue of San Gennaro passed by street vendors and onlookers.
Honorary Guest Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Honorary Marshall Mayor Eric Adams enthusiastically greeted spectators along the route and stopped for selfies with New Yorkers.
Adams, a devout vegan -though he has admitted to eating fish- was a good sport when a street vendor handed him an Italian sausage sandwich. It is unknown if the vendor was aware of Adams’ diet status, but the hizzoner handed back the Italian-American street food staple after the photo op.
Gino Donofrio, who serves on the Feast of San Gennaro’s committee and whose wife is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the feast’s founders, was hopeful of breaking last year’s record of almost two million visitors.
“We’re hoping to break last year’s record. The weather looks very promising. We are hoping to bring at least two million in again,” Donofrio said. “The vendors are happy, the people, the community is happy. The Feast is back. And believe it or not, the city is happy. We have a great response and great welcoming from the new mayor’s administration. They welcomed us with open arms.”
The Feast of Gennaro – named after the patron saint of Naples- is in its 96th year and runs through Sept. 25.