Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Feast Of San Gennaro 2009 - Trip Report

(This post originally appeared on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Oct 6, 2009  )

A while back, I wrote about my annual visit to The 9th Avenue Food Festival; in my review, I mentioned that my Summer was unofficially bookended by two food – related street fairs: this one and The Feast of San Gennaro in the Little Italy section of downtown Manhattan. It’s these two street fairs that for me define the beginning and end of Summer. With a couple of weekends ago marking the last of Summer, I made my yearly pilgrimage to The Mecca of Boot Country Food. I won’t go into a great deal of explanation about the history of the festival or who San Gennaro was because you can read all about that (if you choose) on the Web site I linked to above.

The weather on this late Summer weekend was nothing short of perfect to close out this 10 – day long event – not a cloud in the sky and mild mid – September temperatures. The heart of the Little Italy section of downtown Manhattan runs along Mulberry Street; the festival itself is held on Mulberry between Houston Street (pronounced HOUSE-tun) at its northern point and Canal Street at its southern end (this is where Chinatown is located). Although it gets particularly crowded at night, the weather was so good that it brought out large crowds during the day. Here’s a view from Canal Street looking north:

In New York City, the street fair season runs for half the year – from Spring (April) until Fall (October). During that time, I try to make it to as many street fairs as possible because they’re fun, you can pick up good bargains while shopping and the food is always terrific. Many of these street fairs serve a good deal of Italian food, such as hot or sweet sausage, braciole and mozzarella sticks. Because of this, I usually try to avoid some of these more common Italian dishes when attending San Gennaro because I know I can always get them any time; instead, I try to seek out the types of food that’s usually unique to The San Gennaro Feast.

Last year’s feast was my first taste of stuffed artichokes; I decided not to revisit them this year because I wasn’t a big fan of the ones I sampled previously, but maybe I’d retry them someday. Instead, I decided to hit up as much of the seafood vendors as I possibly could. The clams and oysters I enjoyed this year were much better than the ones from 2008 because they were less gritty; with lemon juice wedges squeezed on top and a bit of Tabasco sauce, them boys was mighty tasty. I marveled at the speed at which these guys could open them after plucking the raw little things from large tubs of ice – just watching them, I knew that if I ever tried it, I’d surely lose a finger or two. One stand also served lobster, either steamed or grilled; I had mine grilled and I have to admit it was something of a disappointment – not too much meat on the body or claws, but the tail certainly made up for it. Then again, at only $8 per, I guess I couldn’t complain. Much.

The Feast of San Gennaro is considered The Mother of All Street Fairs by many New Yorkers. One reason is because it always seems to draw people from outside the immediate area. And by “outside the immediate area”, I don’t just mean the suburbs of NYC – I mean people visit from other states just to attend this event. When people visit from all over, I do mean from all over … as this vendor’s sign might suggest …

Among the great Italian seafood restaurants in Little Italy is Umberto’s Clam House.

One of the reasons why it’s considered a landmark – aside from the delectable food – is because of its history with the mob in this part of town. I remember when I was in college, a hit took place at the restaurant’s original location and it took center – stage on the news ...

I mentioned above that folks from regions outside of NYC came to this immense street fair and here’s a good example. While much of the northeastern corridor of these United States is blessed with great Italian food, it has been made painfully aware to me that some areas have no idea of the delights this cuisine has to offer. This year’s visit to the San Gennaro Feast provided several examples. While waiting on line at a seafood vendor’s stand, I heard a woman order a plate of fried shrimp; the vendor then asked her if she wanted marinara sauce. The woman stood stone silent, staring at the vendor for a moment before admitting, “I’m afraid I don’t know what that is”. The vendor simply responded with, “It’s marinara sauce, lady!”. I was tempted to explain it to this woman, but I figured it was best for her to discover it herself. And besides – like the vendor, I was too dumbfounded by the idea that someone didn’t know what marinara sauce was. (I can vividly recall fights in my high school between Italian boys arguing over whose mother made the best “gravy”)
And then there were my attempts to get some braciole.

Searching the various booths, I found one that had the longest line – clearly a sign that they had the best food. It was a long wait, but turned out to be worth it. The vendor asked what he could get me and I answered the only reasonable reply: “BRA-ZHOHL”, I shouted. He tossed one on the grill with peppers and onions and I awaited my transportation to ecstasy. The meat lay cooking on a slotted grill, with flames lapping a good eight to ten inches in the air – reminding me that I had picked the right place. While I awaited my treat, I heard a couple of others try to order. 
“I’ll have a BRASSY-OLEE”, screamed a non-Italian (and/or non-Brooklyn) woman next to me, who couldn’t resist my meat temptation. She drew a stare from the vendor who took a moment to figure out just what the hell it was that she wanted; once reality set in, he tossed another braciole on the grill to keep mine company. 
I felt a finger poke my right arm – what followed was another embarrassing question from a tourist. “What exactly is a braciole again?”, asked the effeminate gentleman beside me. He accepted marinated lamb with onions and peppers as an answer and thanked me, then told the vendor, “I’ll have what he’s having!”.

It was well worth the wait. The braciole was so well – cooked, it crunched between my teeth, a smoky flavor lingering before, during and after each bite. Yes, among all of the booths that advertised braciole for sale, this was the only one that knew how it should be cooked. Despite the interference from The Great Unwashed, it was without a doubt braciole the way it was meant to be experienced.

While the Feast of San Gennaro is about food, what would it be if it forgot desserts? Tiramisu, Gelato, Biscotti and of course, Cannoli so good, it’ll make you leave your gun. While I couldn’t partake in all of the desserts, I did find an Italian ice vendor selling the sugar free variety and I succumbed to the refreshing temptation of their Orange Ice therein.

Although my focus of the festival is all about food, I do have to admit that it does take on something of a carnival quality. There are rides, games, performers and other forms of attractions throughout the day/evening. Performers include an Italian band that strolls up and down Mulberry Street playing familiar tunes -- traditional Italian folk songs, others more mainstream pop culture, like the theme from The Godfather. Other performers include opera singers and pop music groups that sing on a stage set up on one of the side streets (but only at night).

This is the stage where the performances take place. It’s empty now because it’s only early afternoon, but believe me, every night at around 8 or 9PM, things really get hopping!

Some Cigar porn …

Here’s some of that carnival atmosphere I referenced above:
Some of the side streets even have rides set up for the kids when families visit:

… And what carnival type atmosphere would it be if they didn’t have a Drown The Clown stand?
Of course, it would be wrong to wrap up this report about the San Gennaro Feast without acknowledging the man who made it all possible … San Gennaro himself …

You’ll notice the dollar bills pinned just below the statue – neighborhood Italians pay tribute to San Gennaro by pinning money to the shawl that hangs beneath. The money is (allegedly) given to the church.

This is the church outside of which the statue of San Gennaro resides. Since Little Italy is downtown, it’s not far from the former site of the World Trade Center. If you go inside the church, you’ll find breathtaking and tragic photographs mounted on the wall taken on 9/11/01.

The Feast of San Gennaro, like summer itself, is now long over – but like summer, many vivid, pleasant memories remain. Also, like summer, anticipation for next year already begins to well.