Originally a one-day religious commemoration, the Feast of San Gennaro started in New York City's Little Italy neighborhood in September 1926. Nowadays, the Feast of San Gennaro is an 11-day street fair centered on Mulberry Street and all are welcome.
John Fratta -- whose great-grandfather Luigi Vitale was one of the Feast's founders -- is a member of Figli di San Gennaro, the nonprofit that runs the festival. On a warm Monday afternoon during the festival, Fratta spoke to me about the past, present, and future of San Gennaro. He then connected me with Tony Danza, who hosted the 2nd Annual Meatball Eating Contest. Beyond his hosting duties, Danza is also active within the community as one of the owners of Alleva Dairy, the oldest Italian cheese store in the United States.
Tony Danza is starring the upcoming Netflix series The Good Cop and headlines upcoming Standards & Stories concerts.
The Daily Meal: How long does it take to put a festival like this together? Is it a year-round process?
John Fratta: At least eight months. If we do it right, it really should take a year.
What’s the hardest part of putting the festival together?
The hardest part is organizing everything. The Feast really runs itself once it starts, and we have mostly the same vendors coming every year. We know who they are, they know they have to fill out the applications, and we just get them in the right spots.
So getting the celebrities is the easy part?
That’s getting more and more difficult. We’ve got Tony Danza, which we’re very happy about. He’s part of our community now. We always try to get new celebrities to come down here. We were trying to get Lady Gaga, and we’re still trying to get her down.
Tony, do you remember the first time you went to the Feast of San Gennaro?
Tony Danza: Yeah, you know I have been coming to the Feast of San Gennaro for a long time. First of all I fought out of this neighborhood [as a boxer]. This is the neighborhood where my manager was located… so since the 70s I have been here… It is just something you do when you live in New York.
So it is not a coincidence that your cheese shop, Alleva Dairy, is right in the middle of Little Italy?
It is not only a coincidence… I mean, one of the reasons that my friend wanted to buy it and get involved with the store was its location. It is really centered in the middle of what now is like the Times Square of what is left of Little Italy.
What is your involvement with the store? I know that a lot of people see you around there very often.
I am a partner. I am a co-owner.
A lot of people have mentioned seeing you behind the counter at times.
Yeah, well, I work at the store. I am here sometimes. I don’t do a lot of serving. I do a lot of quality control. I eat everything. (laughs)
I am just managing. A small business in New York is not easy. There are many things, so many regulations, and the rent is astronomical. It is an effort; you have to put in effort to keep something like this alive. I think it is important because it is a 125-year-old store. It is a piece of New York, American, and Italian-American history.
Were you ever involved in the food business before working with Alleva?
I grew up in the restaurant business. I grew up in the catering business. I worked my whole life as a busboy, bartender… I did everything you could imagine.
What was the first year you remember coming?
Fratta: I’ve been coming all my life, but probably I was five years old. Everything looks much bigger when you’re five years old. But the parades were spectacular. There was a greased-pole-climbing contest, which we don’t have anymore because of insurance. That was a phenomenal event, which always closed the Feast. After we did that we opened the [fire] hydrant and washed ourselves in the street. I think the last one was in 1978.
Is there anything you’d like to see grow or change about the festival?
What we’re trying to do is get the younger people to realize the tradition of the Feast.
So, John, any last words for the kids?
Learn your culture… One thing about Little Italy, even though we don’t have a lot of Italians living here anymore, this is the place where Italian-Americans first stepped foot in this country. That’s why this is so important and why we’ve had it declared a National Historic Place.