On September 14th, the 91st annual Feast of San Gennaro began it’s 11 day festival in Manhattan’s Little Italy, spanning several city blocks.
For those of you who have never heard of the festival before, it’s considered one of America’s biggest cultural festivals. The restaurants located on the route of the festival extend their seating all the way out into the middle of the street to accommodate the hundreds of people who flock to the festival each year. Prices are even lowered in a bid to attract more business.
However, as enticing the restaurant food may seem, one must try their best to ignore it and instead eat food from the stands lined up alongside the curb. Such places sell delicacies like zeppoles, gelato, chicken parmigiana, meatball heroes, rice balls, etc. Among which are several purveyors of what I consider the pinnacle of Italian-American sandwiches: the sausage and peppers on a hero.
To me, there are few sandwiches I hold in high esteem that can top a sausage and peppers hero. That combination of either sweet or spicy sausage (your choice) and peppers mixed with onions is one of the food wonders of the world. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, I’d consider cheating for just one moment to try this piece of heaven.
However if one settles on trying this incredible sandwich, one must siphon out the plethora of different vendors who all claim that they’re “The Original” or “Been here the longest.”
Disregard all of that, because it’s mainly bullshit to get you to buy their overpriced versions of the sandwich. If you want the no-nonsense, but all goodness, version of the sandwich that embodies all the flavors this Italian-American speciality has to offer, go to Gigi’s.
Bearing the likeness of Jesus, sweaty Italian men clothed with t-shirts bearing the image of a tricolored Italy and golden chains churn out sandwiches at unholy rates. Each sandwich artisan shows an incredible consistency for each and every sandwich. Don’t think that just because they make several sandwiches at once that the quality is going to be hit or miss. Every time that I’ve gone to Gigi’s, they’ve always hit their mark.
Ok, I know I’ve mentioned sausage and pepper sandwiches a lot, but Italian cuisine is not limited to just sandwiches. There are a great many things besides sandwiches that the Italian food culture is known for. Since you’re already in Little Italy, you’d be remiss to pass by Ferraro’s bakery and not go inside to at least look upon the pastries they have to offer.
Ferraro’s bakery has been around since 1892 and is considered to be one of the neighborhood’s original establishments. Housed within the glass display near the entrance are most of the traditional pastries: napoleons, sfogliatella, cannolis, etc. On top of the usual pastries, they make exceptional gelato with flavors ranging from regular vanilla all the way to blackberry. Their espresso is quite good as well.
Aside from food, the festival has other attractions exhibiting the full breadth of Italian culture. One instance being the Italian American museum, which contains period artifacts that were once owned by first generation Italian Americans and their immigrant parents.
Antique coffee/espresso pots, pasta makers, books, pictures, and clothing are just some of the notable items. There are 100 year old percolators with intricate patterns engraved on the side, hand-crank pasta makers whose original color faded long before it reached the museum. Old cookbooks containing traditional old-world recipes that one’s grandmother might have learned to cook from her mother.
One thing that sets it aside from a standard museum like the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan is that every artifact’s story is known. Each item has the name of the person or family who owned it and a statement from them that gives the attendee a glimpse into the past and what that family’s experience was like in this country.
Personally as a fourth generation Italian American, I don’t know too much about what life was like back in the “Old Country.” I rely on testimonials from my grandparents who tell stories about their life growing up with first generation American parents and how the Old Country wasn’t so old to them. To this day I still find that these stories resonate with my own childhood. It’s the little things that struck a chord with me, like how both my grandfather and I preferred homemade lunches of pasta and fish over anything served at school.
I’m getting off topic. As much as I’ve built up this festival as a proud showcase of Italian-American heritage and pride, those weren’t the only people at the festival. People from virtually every background were at the festival enjoying it as much as everyone else. They all ate the same food, drank the same wine, and blasted the same music.
So if you ever get the chance to visit the festival, I implore you to leave whatever baggage you have at home and embrace cultures different from your own. You just might discover something new you like.