Throughout the eastern United States, many communities where Italian immigrants originally landed began a tradition of hosting Italian festivals. The celebrations, often fundraisers for the local church or other organizations, often include rides, games of skill and, naturally, delicious food.
New York’s most famous celebration is the Feast of San Gennaro, which was first celebrated in the US in September 1926. It started when immigrants from Naples gathered along Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy section to continue a traditional celebration of Saint Januarius, the Patron Saint of Naples.
In New Jersey, St. Ann’s Feast in Hoboken dates back to 1910. In Union County, one of the largest and best loved Italian festivals is held at St. Bart’s Church in Scotch Plains. This weekend, the St. Bart’s Labor Day Italian Festival marks its 45th year.
While today, visitors are used to professionally run food stands, in the early days at St. Bart’s, the cooking was primarily done by women in the north end of Scotch Plains, where many immigrants from Montazzoli, Italy, established roots. The preparation was done in advance.
“The women were in charge of all of the cooking,” said Jack Ley, whose grandmother Albina Appezzato, made legendary meatballs and pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans soup). “My grandmother, Eileen DiNizo, Rose DiQuollo — they started making meatballs weeks in advance of the feast. The food was sitting in freezers all over the place until the festival started.”
Ginger Rachko, who worked for years at Fred's Catering, said her boss opened his kitchen to the ladies and let them use his mixers, slicers, ovens and other equipment. He also let them use his freezers until the food was to be defrosted. For years, volunteers set up tables in the parking lot outside the church to slice peppers and onions for the sausage sandwiches. They produced about 4,000 meatballs — all made from scratch.
Today, because of the sheer volume of food needed at the feast and because of health department regulations, the organizers of the festival contract outside vendors to handle the food. The vendors pay a fee to rent the space and then keep what they take in, although many of them donate back.
Related: Founders Reminisce About St. Bart's Festival Origins (originally published in 2014)
At most Italian festivals, you are likely to find the following:
Sausage and Peppers (and Onions)
According to Domesticman.com, the word “sausage” originally comes from the Latin word salsus, which means “salted.” There is evidence of it being eaten in Italy 2,000 years ago. Sausage uses just about every bit of the animal. In the U.S. “Italian sausage” is usually pork seasoned with fennel seeds and anise, and is sold in mild or and spicy hot versions.
For a sausage and peppers recipe you can make at home, click here.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Spaghetti and meatballs came to popularity when Italian immigrants arrived on America’s shores from 1880 to 1920, according to the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Many of the estimated 4 million Italian immigrants came through Ellis Island and settled in the five boroughs of New York City and throughout New Jersey.
According to TablesideNYC.com, traditional Italian meatballs are separate main courses that are never served with pasta. In fact, the website says that pasta was considered a first course and the pairing of pasta with meatballs is actually an American invention. In Italy, meatballs are called polpettes and are typically made from beef or veal and ingredients including garlic, eggs, parsley and Parmigiana cheese.
Marco Polo is often credited with bringing pasta home to Italy after famously traveling to China in the late 13th century. According to BestofSicily.com, the spaghetti Polo discovered in the Far East was likely made from either rice flour or hard wheat flour.
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Pasta e Fagioli
Although it doesn’t look it, the traditional Italian soup, comprised of pasta and beans, is typically pronounced “pasta fazool” in the US. The soup is mentioned in the song That’s Amore, which was popularized by Dean Martin. (“When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that's amore.”)
To find a pasta e fagioli recipe, visit https://philosokitchen.com/pasta-fagioli-recipe-venetian.
The popular Italian dessert originated in Sicily, according to spoonuniversity.com. There is no need to put an “s” at the end of the word if you are having more than one because cannoli is already plural. (Grammatically, a single pastry should be referred to as a connolo.) Nonetheless, cannoli is perhaps the best known Italian dessert.
A cannoli is a fried pastry tube filled that is filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and dusted with confectioner’s sugar on top. Depending on the chef, the filling include chocolate chips, candied fruits or ground pistachios.
No Italian festival would be complete without a zeppole stand. The soft, delectable Italian doughnuts are between 2-3 inches in diameter and are deep fried and then covered with confectioner’s sugar. While they are popular at summer festivals, zeppole are often associated with St. Joseph (San Giuseppe) Day (March 19). Like cannoli, zeppole is grammatically plural. (A single doughnut is a zeppola.)
Interested in trying to make them at home? Here’s a recipe can be found at Philosokitchen.com/zeppole-italian-doughnuts-graffe.
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