Every September, my neighborhood goes crazy. One day, we are a relatively quiet shopping district, full of tiny cafes, historic tenement brownstones and cutesy boutiques. The next, we are ablaze with neon lights, metallic streamers, thousands of tourists and the smell of all things fried.
This is San Gennaro.
The Feast of San Gennaro has been celebrated in New York City’s Little Italy for the past eighty-two years, and remains New York’s oldest street festival. The Feast is an outdoor carnival and street fair, spanning Mulberry Street from Houston Street to Canal Street, cutting through the heart of ever-shrinking Little Italy. Featured in all three Godfather films, San Gennaro is a staple of Italian (and pseudo-Italian) culture in New York City.
San Gennaro has certainly changed over the decades, but the focus of the modern festival is the food. From zeppoles to calzones, pizza to antipasti, you can find all types of Italian fare here. Beyond the more authentic (albeit greasy) choices, classic street food is also dished up in metal vats: sausage and onion sandwiches, corn dogs, funnel cakes, and something called “jelly apples.” Daquiris are served in neon-striped plastic goblets. The dessert stalls are the most impressive: cupcakes are slathered with icing and crowned with toppings; tiramisu, sfogliatelle and biscotti crowd the shelves. Cannoli, of course, are abundant: you can have mini or jumbo, chocolate-dipped or pistachio-encrusted, pre-stuffed or stuffed upon request with chocolate cream or marscapone or peanut butter and jelly (really.) A study in San Gennaro’s cannoli would be an evening well spent.
Beyond food, San Gennaro offers entertainment as well. Gregarious hawkers shout to you from midway game stalls, heavy with low-hanging giant teddy bears. Mini carnival rides and a trailer housing the Snake Lady are tucked away on side streets, and don’t get that much attention. At the south end of Mulberry, the Church of the Most Precious Blood displays effigies of Mary and San Gennaro, with long red ribbons tied to their hands and feet. Dollars pinned to those ribbons come from both curious tourists and influential dons, in an unintentional tribute to New York’s continued status as a melting pot.
San Gennaro’s food may not challenge the palate and the shopping may not be anything novel, but that’s not the point. You go to San Gennaro to savor the soul-killing goodness of fried Oreos, to slurp heavy over-sauced pasta and one or two or five Italian pastries, to buy a shirt proclaiming how Italian you are and win a teddy bear for your girlfriend. You go to ogle the greased hair, the baseball caps, the low rise jeans and the low cut shirts, the tattoos, the old Italian grandmothers and the large Italian families.You go to San Gennaro, ultimately, to have a good time. Isn’t that what Italians are all about?
The Feast of San Gennaro runs until September 20th. It is open from around noon till approximately eleven pm. Go on a weekend: the crowds are larger, more raucous and more fun then.