There’s more to Little Italy’s San Gennaro festival than cannolis. You can find sausage and peppers, meatballs, zeppoles and family traditions, too.
This year marks the 92nd anniversary of the 11-day feast that brings more than two million tourists and locals downtown, and the 88th time the Sabatino/Fratta family has set up shop on the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets.
“That’s why I call [the stand] Danny on the Corner!” says Danny Fratta, a member of the feast’s organizing crew, the Figli di San Gennaro. The nonprofit organization, which translates to children of San Gennaro, is composed of locals, and founding family members and has organized the feast since 1996.
Aside from helping to finalize competitive-eating events, concerts and more during the feast that stretches Sept. 13 through Sept. 23, Fratta has been prepping up the fryer to fill his stand that’s been passed down for generations.
“Years back, that was my great grandmother’s corner,” says Fratta, 38, who took over the stand a few years ago. His great grandmother on his mother’s side of the family, Antoinette Sabatino, first opened the stand. “She used to have chestnuts hanging from the stand in bunches; things she took from her town in Naples.”
Decades later, Danny on the Corner has switched its menu to delicacies more commonly enjoyed at an Italian street fair: fried foods.
“I say it all the time, though, things change and the old-timers who used to come down and appreciate [the traditional foods] are no longer with us. We change with the times,” he says.
Keeping up with those changing times, Fratta’s stand will serve up zeppoles, fried Oreos and fried Twinkies, but it’ll keep one special treat in his great-grandmother’s honor.
“We are one of the only stands left to sell torrone, an Italian nougat candy that’s hard to find these days. You chop it with a hammer and a knife,” he explains. The specialty, made of sugar, egg whites and honey, is often stuffed with almonds, pistachios or other mixed nuts. “That’s something really rare that you really don’t see anymore at the feast that we keep.”
The feast’s audience may have changed nearly a century after its inception, but it remains 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, Danny’s uncle, 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 John, 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.”
Although faith is at the root of the event, it’s well known for its Italian eats, like the ones found at Fratta’s stand.
“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 Umberto’s, In Bocca Al Lupo and Alleva Dairy, are making their menus available for streetside dining during the event.
If you prefer competitive over casual eating, the feast hosts two annual competitions: a cannoli-eating contest, which takes place on Sept. 14, and a meatball-eating contest set for Sept. 22.
The meatball contest, which made its debut at the festival in 2016, is held in honor of the “unofficial Mayor of Little Italy,” Johnny “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, who died in December 2015 at age 75.
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, including the annual procession of the statue of San Gennaro (Sept. 15), can be found at sangennaro.nyc.
Who: Celebrity judges haven’t been announced for the competitive-eating contests (last year Tony Danza was the host of the meatball event), but Brooklyn-born comedian Vic Dibitetto will be leading the procession. Dibitetto, famous for his 2013 “Bread & Milk” snowstorm video, was chosen as the grand marshall of the Italian feast, a role held by “A Bronx Tale” actor Chazz Palminteri in 2017.
When: Thursday, Sept. 13, to Sunday, Sept. 23; 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 Houston streets, and on Grand Street, between Mott and Baxter streets.