For 91 years, the Feast of San Gennaro has been converting the streets of Manhattan’s Little Italy into a mecca for the overconsumption of meatballs and fried dough. Much to the chagrin of antsy commuters, the 11-day food festival (on now through September 24) takes over Mulberry Street between Houston and Canal -- but to the benefit of everyone else, it’s a veritable feast of authentic Italian-American eats.
Created in 1926 by Italian immigrants who took up residence in the downtown neighborhood, the feast was intended to pay homage to San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Today, the series of 40+ kiosks that line the streets for the event are managed by local vendors, nearly all of whom have brick-and-mortar shops in the area, and most of whom have been manning a stall at the festival since Day 1.
Make no mistake -- the feast is not for upscale Lilia-style Italian dining. It’s for classic, Italian-American comfort food, prepared en masse. Lucy’s Palace, among the most popular of the vendors, makes enormous sausage and pepper sandwiches in a smoky hut, while the stand’s dessert outpost down the street serves classic Italian zeppoles (a globe of buttery deep fried dough) coated in powdered sugar. A vendor called I Got Balls appropriately serves traditional fried rice balls stuffed with things like pesto and vodka sauce and topped with ricotta, while Cannoli King serves everything from a classic take on the fried pastry to a version served in an almond-spun cheesecake cone. In short, expect to leave the festival with your pants unbuttoned.
While making our way through the festival, we found ourselves in front of Alleva, a 125-year-old cheese shop stationed on Grand Street, part-owned by none other than former actor and professional boxer Tony Danza (if you’re wondering who really is The Boss).“This neighborhood has played a big part for every New York Italian,” Danza told Thrillist, while manning the front of his sandwich-serving kiosk. “We’re all small businesses being forced out by rents, and [the festival] is like a crusade to keep the area alive.”
“People from the neighborhood always come by -- you know, old men and old ladies who have been here for 70 years” Danza explained, while rapidly slicing mozzarella for the line of patrons forming outside of his own kiosk. “They come and sit and eat -- and sometimes they even get the ukulele out and sing Italian songs.” More than simply a feast of simmering red sauce and fried rainbow cookies, the San Gennaro festival is a way of celebrating Little Italy and its long-standing history in New York.
“It’s just the feel of being in this neighborhood,” Danza explained, “the feast is a whole tradition -- we’re lucky to have it, you know?”
Check out the video above for more from New York’s longest-running food festival.