LITTLE ITALY — The neighborhood that's a culinary paradise at the best of time was awash with tempting trays of colorful cannoli and heaps of gelato in celebration of the 87th annual San Gennaro Festival which kicked off its first weekend on Saturday.
Mulberry Street's sidewalks were packed with people and vendors offering up Italian delights like sfogliatelle, which means "small thin leaves" in English — a shell shaped pastry filled with vanilla cream, it is so named because of it's resemblance to stacked leaves.
Festival-goers could choose from an array of cannoli, served in the traditional vanilla flavor as well as strawberry and chocolate, pistachio, and double chocolate. Some vendors couldn't keep up with the demand, and were hustling to fill extra pastry shells as they were ordered. Cannoli gelato was on hand for those looking for a way to keep cool.
Margaret Foley, a fourth-generation Italian American, has been coming to the festival since she was a child, she said. Having grown up in a predominantly Italian area of the Bronx, she thinks the festival is an important part of her heritage.
"I've been coming my whole life," she said, while helping her neice pick out a handful of cannoli. "It is a tradition, and it is part of our culture and it's good to respect that. We are passing on a meaningful tradition to the next generation."
Wending its way through the melee of pizza, meatballs and pastries was the San Gennaro Grand Procession, which travels from the Church of the Most Precious Blood on Mulberry Street up to East Houston Street. Crowds were gathered on either side of the roadway to cheer on the procession, which features the Statue of San Gennaro, a saint and the festival's namesake.
The procession was led by ex-governor Mario Cuomo and his wife Mathilda, and mayoral candidate Joe Lhota who added the parade to his campaign schedule. A brass band accompanied the parade, playing traditional Italian music for the crowd.
Trumpeter Joseph Kaminski has been playing in the procession for 16 years. He revels in the chance to play the traditional music of Italy, he said.
"But I am looking forward to getting done and eating the food," he said. "The meatballs are my favorite!"
Italian student Paola Silvigni, who studies Italian American culture in New York, said she loved the vibrancy of the festival. "I have been coming for four years, and the food is the best thing," she said. "But it is very multicultural, it is so open. It is a good thing."
The festival is set to continue through next weekend, with the saint's Feast Day celebrated on Wednesday, September 19. See an events schedule here.
In a statement, Figli di San Gennaro president Jospeh Mattorhe said that the feast was a day for rememberance, community, and celebrating Italian American heritage and culture.
"The feast brings Little Italy to the world and the world to Little Italy," he said.