Smoke rising in the air, pizza scents drafting through the streets, masses and masses of people trying to claw their way throw the crowds. There is possibly only one time of year during which Little Italy is about as crowded as can get: during the Feast of San Gennaro. If you are in New York during the fall season, you should possibly swing by and see what this part of Lower Manhattan has to offer in any culinary means.
As the story goes, the San Gennaro Fest was dedicated to only one saint and only one day – as is usual. Over the years from 1926 to now it has turned into a 10-day-mass-worship and extended onto several streets along Mulberry Street. And voila, here you find approximately a million people squeezed into the smallest space possible over the duration of less than two weeks, trying to digest every Italian sausage out there and stuffing themselves with about every cannelloni they can find.
This overcrowded street festival has to date remained a mystery to me. For some reason I had strictly avoided the parts of Little Italy during this crucial time period. However, after spending two falls here already and looking forward to exploring something new every year, I followed my friend’s advice and jumped into action or rather into a suicide attempt by walking Mulberry Street on a sunshiny Saturday. I should have known better, I suppose!
“Of course every tourist in this city will be out and about in this part of town”, is all I thought when I hopped off the R-Train and stood in front the Spring Street section of the festival. Around me cops, kids, strollers, overweight Brooklyners and camera-carrying tourists. I felt like turning around and forgetting about my very best intentions. Luckily I decided against my initial impulse and threw myself into the masses. Eventually you learn how to be carried away by the persons in front and behind you…
Not without eyeing almost every single stand in the first half hour or so I was there. It started off with the vendor offering “free refills” on cocktail mixes coming in huge glass tubes. “Neat! This reminds me of Coney Island and some awesome summer nights I spent here”, were the thoughts racing through my mind before I went on to the next vendor. Spanish food served with rice and beans. “Looks like every other street festival I’ve been to” was my next train of thoughts. Finally, a T-shirt seller offering some fine collections of shirts with the imprint “San Gennaro – Festival New York 2012.” How original, how mind-blowing, how very much… touristy. And indeed, it seemed to work. A swarm of people was standing around him and practically fighting for a plain black T-shirt with a cheap imprint.
As the path lead on I discovered my first cannelloni stand. Yay too stuffed dough in small and big variations. Nay to the price tags on them: 5 bucks for a medium sized piece and 2 Dollars for a tiny sample. I went on to the sausage stand. Spanish speaking servers selling “original sausage” in curled up format. I was fascinated! And of course the pizza could not be amiss right next door. While I had lost my appetite when looking at the grease swimming in pots and pans, the food was still nice to look at and it started to feel more original.
When I passed the candy apple and caramelized fruits, I was mesmerized. Determined to get a least a little piece I turned to wait in line – and lost my determination to frustration over the long waiting time. It seemed to be one of the only ones around and I wasn’t going to turn around and walk past in the other directions. The way towards Canal Street led past many typical Little Italy restaurants. Albeit already filled to the rim with hungry festival attenders and tourists about to be fed, the host waved a menu into my face and asked me if I wanted a table by myself. I even overheard him say “Free Sangria all night long” to the group behind me, which made them burst out in laughter, demanding the food to be less than 50 Dollars per head.
One highlight I found, also completely unrelated to San Gennaro but nonetheless pretty to look at, was a Cuban cigar roller sitting on a lone chair in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. After watching him wrap his hands around the leaves and rolling them into a tight mass, I felt much calmer.
And at the very end, or the very beginning, depending on which way you go, I saw a little festive character mounted inside a niche, open for viewing and familiar-looking. Indeed, it was a small San Gennaro figure, just like in the pictures of the saint, surrounded by an array of candles and single dollar bills flying ahead of it.
Fortunately for me, I did not get discouraged by only one visit. After all, I wanted my candy apple! So I made my way back on a random Thursday weekday and indeed, the streets were less crowded, the people less aggressive, the mass less touristy. I got my tasty piece of fake red apple after all.
The Feast of San Gennaro took place from September 13 to 23 this year. It shall return next year. highlight of the fest were fried oreos sold in half a dozen and a garlic press that left you with “a lot more garlic” than if you had cut it with a simple knife.
For more pictures go to The San Gennaro Street Festival in Little Italy (1) and The San Gennaro Street Festival in Little Italy (2)