By Preeti Singh
As cloudy skies gave way to a bright sunny day early Sunday morning, more than a dozen merchants, dressed in white or red aprons, started to organize their displays on long tables set up along Arthur Avenue between Crescent Avenue and 187th Street.
A smorgasbord of Italian foods, from wheels of parmesan and provolone, slabs of prosciutto and small piles of rice balls and traditional Italian breads, to rows of torrone (a confection made with honey and almond), biscotti, cannoli and sweet puffs were laid out to be sold. There was fruit in wine, wine with fruit, and free tastings of Italian red, white and rose wines.
More than 20,000 people visited the merchant’s tables as the day unfolded for the Italian-American festival known as Ferragosto that is held in the Bronx every year on the Sunday after Labor Day. Once an Italian stronghold, Arthur Avenue has seen demographic shifts in the last decades. Albanian, Latino and black populations grew in the neighborhood and the shops along Arthur Avenue began to change. A Chinese take-away, a Hispanic grocer and an Albanian restaurant now co-exist with the neighborhood’s Italian American stores and eateries. On Sunday, however, Arthur Avenue was all Italian.
“ This is a labor of love,” said Philip Marino, executive director of the Belmont Business Improvement District. “It showcases our heritage, and also boosts our commerce.”
The festival, in its 19th year, has its roots in Italian history. The day marks the defeat of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium by Gaius Octavius ‘Augustus’ in 29 BCE, according to historian Richard Overy’s book ‘A History of War in 100 Battles. It also has religious significance.
In Italy it is celebrated on August 15th, the Roman Catholic feast day of the Assumption of Mary, when Mary the mother of Jesus Christ, was taken to heaven upon her death. In Italy, the day marks the beginning of summer holidays; in the Bronx, Ferragosto signals the end of summer, as merchants come back to their businesses, and local schools and colleges re-open for the new academic year.
For many festival-goers, however, Ferragosto is foremost a homecoming. Grandparents, parents and children, wheelchairs and strollers, jostled for space on the crowded street. There was much greeting, hugging and kissing on the street as people caught up with each other. “People come here to rediscover friends and neighbors they have not met for decades,” said Eddie Teitel, whose family owns the 100-year-old store, Teitel Brothers, that sells gourmet Italian foods like olives, olive oil, meats, cheeses, coffee and pasta on the street. “It is a day to celebrate our community and neighborhood.”
And celebrate they did. Italian music played out at every corner of the street. The official line-up included The 70’s Project (whose members grew up on Arthur Avenue), Two Gents and a Lady, Vincent Ricciardi, Salentinetti and others; on the other side of the avenue, the restaurant Pasquale Rigoletto played its own live and recorded Italian music. Old-timers danced. Others, like Mario Veralli and his friends stood among those cheering on the musicians, including his brother, a drummer near the stage. The Veralli family, who moved into the neighborhood in 1921 and then moved upstate in 1980, comes back to the Ferragosto every year. “This is home,” said Veralli.
Etta Macaluso’s son and his elementary school friends also left the Bronx decades ago. Now in Westchester and Long Island, the group has been coming every year for the last 12 years. On a table outside on Sunday, they feasted on Italian meats and sausages with beer, wine and sangria. And they had plans to stick around for awhile.
“We are going to wait for the suckling pig that will be carved at 5:30 p.m.,” said Macaluso. “It is tradition.”
Indeed, the suckling pigs on the spit pulled in the crowds to Peter’s Meat Market table, where Peter Servedio’s children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren served customers that waited in a long queue for grilled Italian meats, porchetta and sausages. “Every year, all my family comes back to become part of the celebration,” said Servedio. “They must not forget their roots and heritage.”
The three generations of Teitels also helped customers pick up signature Italian fare including olive oil, cheeses and cold meats, on the street and in their flagship store. At one of the Teitel tables, chefs Pasquale Martinelli and Gianni Nocella of Divella pasta cooked up the Italian town Amatrice’s signature dish: “pasta amatriciana,” which is penne with guancilla (a type of meat), pecorino romano (cheese) and pomodoro pelati (a variety of tomatoes). They handed out samples for free and raised funds for Amatrice because it was devastated in the recent August earthquake.
Throughout the afternoon, the aromas of grilled meats, charcoal and cigar smoke hung in the air. Workers from the street’s cigar shops even demonstrated how to roll cigars. Occasionally someone would step out of the long food queues to take pictures with people dressed in Italian costumes.
The festival this year, celebrated on September 11, the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks, was inevitably tinged with sadness. It made for a somber start.. The master of ceremonies, Nick Vero, then a major in the United States Air Force, said he watched the September 11 horror in 2001 from his office at College Point in Queens. Thick dust and an acrid smoke wafted all the way to Queens, he recalled. “ After so many years, I have gratitude that Americans refuse to bend to the will of the terrorists,” said Vero. “We have rebounded and are together. That is cause for celebration.”