Hundreds of onlookers crowded near Mulberry Street in Little Italy on Saturday to watch a parade of red, white, and green floats; Cadillacs flying Italian flags; and marching bands playing Italian music for the 96th annual Feast of San Gennaro.
Since its founding in 1926, the festival – named for the patron saint of Naples, Italy – has grown and transformed far beyond what was just a small neighborhood block party a few decades ago, according to several longtime vendors. Favorite games like roulette and the grease pole climb have disappeared due to gambling laws and insurance. Food stalls sell tacos, boba tea, and cornbread alongside Italian-American staples like sausage spirals and cannolis. And Little Italy has significantly shrunk as gentrification takes hold.
While critics worry the festival has lost its “authentic” or “traditional” Italian roots, several vendors say they welcome the change.
“If we don’t change, we don’t survive,” said Danny Fratta, a vendor selling zeppole, fried dough balls covered in powdered sugar. “So we need to update things and attract newer people because we want to make sure the feast keeps going.”
Beyond adapting to a changing neighborhood and city, the festival also faces other challenges – including driving its massive floats down a narrow street packed with food stalls. This year, some vendor stalls jutted out too far into the street.
That posed a particular problem for the last float to drive down Mulberry Street, which was topped with women calling for donations for the parade’s organizers: the Figli di San Gennaro, or “Sons of San Gennaro.” Meanwhile, a man in a flat cap pinned the bills to a metallic statue of the patron saint.
The Figli di San Gennaro float shattered a glass wind chime hanging on one stall. And it got stuck – twice – so marshals, police, and onlookers had to help the float maneuver around the extra vehicles. This year was the first time a float had gotten stuck during the parade, according to John Fratta, the 69-year-old vice president of the Figli di San Gennaro, and a great-grandson of one of the festival’s founders. Another first, John Fratta said, was the shutdown of two stands selling cannabis.
When the parade’s snare drums and brass bands were gone, some street hawkers blasted the sounds of Latino musician Bad Bunny from their speakers. Several of the vendors were people of color – like Black, Mexican, Salvadoran, Yemeni, or Asian, selling everything from barbacoa to street art. International food vendors started entering the festival about 30 years ago, according to John Fratta – long after 1973, when Ernest Pipoli said his uncle started selling water and soda from two barrels at the festival. But Pipoli says he embraces the new vendors.
“Listen, we’re in New York: you’re not going to put up two gates and say Italians only,” said Pipoli while standing near a taco stand next to his sausage stall, Pip’s Pit. He added: “Everybody deserves to make a couple of bucks.”
And now, the festival has entered the social media age. TikTokers post festival food crawls. The festival even has a P.R. agent and an Instagram page now, too, according to John Fratta. Danny Fratta said he asked a TikTok comedian duo to co-host his upcoming zeppole eating contest.
“I really believe that the way we became stronger again was through social media,” he said. He added: “So as long as we keep that going, we’re here, we’re strong.”
Fortunato Mugnano, of Nashville, Tennessee, said he had wanted to come to the New York City festival because he had heard of it when he was growing up in Naples, which hosts a smaller version of the Feast of San Gennaro. He sees the New York City festival as very Italian-American, which he called “affectionate towards traditions.” For people living in Naples, he said, “You don’t even care about it so much.”
The 11-day festival will take place until Sept. 25.