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Quail prosciutto for cooking in Chinatown

Quail prosciutto for cooking in Chinatown

By CAROLINE SHIN

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A whole cured quail hangs from a ledge at the Bayard Street Meat Market.

The Bayard Street Meat Market has been selling whole dry-cured quail, a prosciutto of sorts, for as long as Michael Huang can remember.

Now the manager of his parents’ store, Huang, 21, came to the U.S. from China when he was 9 years old. He sells about 50 of these quails weekly for $7 apiece to Chinese immigrants, his main consumer market. Why is the quail cured? “So it doesn’t go bad quickly and you don’t waste it.” He said his supplier does the dry curing.

Huang said Chinese people value the quail for “health” and “medical” reasons. Chinese cooks at the restaurant or at home serve the quail in soup, but they don’t actually eat the bird because its protein has already simmered into the broth. They also fry or steam it in soy sauce.

But, Huang says, “I don’t eat quail. I’m almost ABC.” As an almost “American-born-Chinese” person, he does not know how to cook it nor does he eat it nowadays.

While Arthur Schwartz, cookbook writer and former food critic of the Daily News, says that food is one of the mainstays of an immigrant culture, one can also wonder which dishes get lost between generations.

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Pasta with… Flying Fish Roe or Sea Urchin

Pasta with… Flying Fish Roe or Sea Urchin

By CAROLINE SHIN

Basta Pasta bustles at the open kitchen and dining room.

Basta Pasta bustles at the open kitchen and dining room.

Toshi Suzuki opened up a replica of his Tokyo-based Italian restaurant, Basta Pasta, about 20 years ago on 17th Street and 5th Avenue. His international response to Japan’s recession at the time, Basta Pasta is now a bustling eatery, busy with chefs at the open kitchen and guests at the dining space cum gallery.

Tall, down-to-business with a pencil mustache, Suzuki, 51, sells two curious dishes: spaghetti with tobiko or flying fish roe and linguine with fresh sea urchin. “The fish roe pasta is the only Japanese-Italian dish we have,” Suzuki said. “Everything else is Italian.” That includes the sea urchin pasta, which is considered a delicacy in Italy.

Italian cuisine is very popular in Japan. Katsuya Nishimori, 50, an artist-turned-florist, came to the U.S. after college 27 years ago, and dines at Basta Pasta regularly. He said, “There are many Italian restaurants in Japan. We love Italian food.”

Spaghetti con uova di pesce or flying fish roe is a signature Japanese-Italian dish at Basta Pasta.

Spaghetti con uova di pesce or flying fish roe is a signature Japanese-Italian dish at Basta Pasta.

The tobiko spaghetti blends both cultures in a delicious colorful dish. Clumps of tiny bright orange bubbles of tobiko sit atop a swirl of spaghetti with tomato sauce, shiso or perilla and shredded basil. The taste is subtly fishy and the texture, complicated. The tobiko lends a soft crunchiness to the smooth pasta, and, by the end, it mixes in with the soupy finish at the bottom of the plate. He sells about 200 units of the $15 dish per month. (His most popular dish, spaghetti churned in a parmesan cheese wheel and topped with parma prosciutto at the table sells 600 units at $16 every month.)

In comparison, Suzuki sells about 400 dishes of the sea urchin pasta monthly at $19. “People know it and love it,” he said. “It’s very popular in Italy and Japan.”

Linguine ai ricci di mare or linguini with sea urchin is an Italian delicacy.

Linguine ai ricci di mare or linguini with sea urchin is an Italian delicacy.

Kyriaki Vlachopoulou, 38, who works at the Greek Consulate, sat at the bar—just two seats from Nishimori—on a recent evening. “I’m the biggest fan of the sea urchin pasta,” she said. “I only get the uni pasta.” The bartender, aware of Vlachopoulou’s three-year commitment to the dish, laughed in agreement. Several thin salmon-colored slabs of sea urchin rest atop linguine sautéed with tomato sauce and Serrano peppers. The light brininess of the sea urchin melds with the savory pasta with each forkful. “It goes down smoothly,” said a contented Vlachopoulou after finishing a plate of the notable dish. “It’s full-flavored. But it’s not very fishy.”

Customer loyalty such as that of Vlachopoulou and Nishimori has helped Suzuki focus on his New York Basta Pasta. He commuted back and forth between the sister restaurants until seven years ago when he closed the Tokyo location. “The market here still is better,” he said.

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Angel Moinas and the American dream

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El Maguey is Angel Moinas's new Mexican restaurant at 142nd and Broadway in Manhattan.

By JON CROWELL

Angel Moinas paid a coyote, a smuggler of illegals, $800 in 1982 for a ride from Tijuana, Mexico, to Los Angeles.  The trip from Ecuador, where he is from, to Mexico had been legal, and he traveled by bus.  This leg of the journey, however, meant four hours lying in the trunk of a car. “Full music in my ears — when I get out in Los Angeles, I can hear nothing,” Moinas recalls.

Once Moinas arrived in Los Angeles it was a simple matter to fly to New York City. In those days, airlines were not overly concerned about the immigration status of their customers.  He soon found work as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

Now, Moinas, 47, has a new restaurant, El Maguey, at 142nd and Broadway in Upper Manhattan.  It is  Mexican, family style, with orange walls and seating for 60.  Three flat-screen televisions playing muted action movies are mounted on the walls and Latin music plays softly.

It is a Wednesday night, October 21st, and El Maguey has only been open for six days.  So far, business has been slow, but he is not concerned.  He doesn’t have a liquor license yet, and he expects that when he is able to sell alcohol his business will improve dramatically.

Moinas has good reason to believe that a liquor license will improve business at El Maguey — his other restaurant, La Posada, is literally a block away at 143rd and Broadway and is doing well with its liquor license.  La Posada is less suited to family dining and feels more like a bar, but the establishments are similar enough that Moinas expects to be able to replicate La Posada’s success.

Becoming a restaurateur was not a speedy process for Moinas.  His first obstacle was his immigration status.  Fortunately for Moinas, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act on November 6, 1986.  The act allowed certain illegal immigrants to apply for amnesty, and Moinas made the cut.  As a result, he is now a U.S. citizen.

The second obstacle for Moinas was money.  He didn’t make much as a dishwasher, but soon worked his way up to becoming a cook and then a sous-chef.  He worked long days, saved fastidiously, and after about 12 years had acquired enough money to return to Ecuador and open a restaurant.  A year and a half later, however, Ecuador converted its currency from the sucre to the dollar. The U.S. dollars Moinas had saved had gone a long way when converted to sucre, but didn’t seem to stretch as far once the currency converted. The cost of running his restaurant rose, but his revenue didn’t keep up. Eventually, he went broke.

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Moinas relaxes in his new restaurant.

Moinas returned to New York in 2000 to start over. This time he started as a “black car driver” for a company that chauffeured corporate executives.  He worked long hours for four years to save money.  On some days he would start an afternoon shift at 3 p.m. and not return home until 8 the next morning.  He had a new wife and baby daughter at home, but he needed to earn enough money to pull ahead.  Finally, in 2004, Moinas took the plunge again and opened La Posada with two friends.

Owning a restaurant did not make Moinas rich. He couldn’t afford enough staff to run the place, so he worked as a cook himself, often putting in 14-hour days.  After a year he bought out one of his partners and a year later he bought out the other.  The buyouts only put Moinas in debt, however.  He  needed $50,000 and the only way he could get it was through loans from friends and family in the Ecuadorean community.  Those loans came with exorbitant interest rates.  On a $5,000 loan, for instance, he would have to make payments of $250 per month in interest until he had paid off the principal, a rate which is approximately 60 percent annually.

Moinas has had to fight and pay for everything he has acquired in life.  Now that he is the sole owner of La Posada and has paid off his debts he still isn’t in the clear — his landlord has not yet renewed his lease, which expires in two months, so Moinas is on tenterhooks again.  He has opened El Maguey partly as a hedge against the possibility that his lease for La Posada will not be renewed.

Operating two restaurants means that Moinas must pay $14,000 a month in rent.  Asked if he was rich, he laughed.  “I have too many bills,” Moinas said.  “It’s crazy.”  In fact, Moinas and his wife, Janet, both still work full time.  La Posada stays open until 4 a.m., which means that Moinas often doesn’t get home until almost six in the morning.  As a result, he says, he rarely sees his daughter, Hailey, who is now 8.  He is asleep when she gets up to go to school and she is asleep when he gets home.

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Tongue tacos in Manhattan

By DANIEL WOOLFOLK

Walk down a street in any given Mexican city and you will find many taco stands, the good ones before the bad ones.  The aroma of spicy meat and vegetables will guide your feet to the perfect stand.  Most have meat or pork tacos, but every once in a while you might run into one that serves lengua, Spanish for tongue.

While Manhattan doesn’t have the stands on every corner, you can find tongue in Harlem at the brick and mortar hotel, Cinco De Mayo  Restaurant at 1028 Amsterdam Ave. has them.  No such aroma on the sidewalk, but you’ll know to go in by it’s big Red, Green and white canopy on the west side of the street.

They charge $2.95 a taco, which isn’t too bad.  In Northern Mexico they go for about a dollar each.  The tongue isn’t made directly from the meat.  It’s boiled, peeled then sautéed, normally with tomatoes and onions.  Then it’s topped off with cilantro in true Mexican fashion.  And to make it even more authentic, you have to squeeze a little lime on it, preferably from your cold Corona.

It’s most common to eat them with corn tortillas.  You might need two, because the tongue tends to be somewhat watery.   A normal person will probably be satisfied with about six tacos.  The beauty in that is to vary them.  If you’re not feeling bold, have a couple steak tacos, maybe some head-meat tacos.  Once you have tongue, you can graduate to tacos made from head muscles.  And that’s the gateway drug for entering the adventurously delicious world of brain and tripe tacos.

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Day of the Dead starts at the bakery

Day of the Dead starts at the bakery

By DANIEL WOOLFOLK AND NUSHIN RASHIDIAN

Mexican bakeries all over New York City are preparing pan de muerto, Spanish for bread of the dead, for the Day of the Dead celebration on Nov. 1. But Panaderia Caotzingo on 76-11 Roosevelt Avenue in Queens is anything but dead during the week before the holiday as customers bustle in and load trays with pan de muerto fresh from the oven. Baker Sergio Rodriguez, 22, makes 270 pieces of dome-shaped ‘’dead bread’’ each day, sized as small as the palm of a hand for $1.50, or bigger than a grown man’s face for $12. The sweet, cinnamon-infused bread is decorated with bits of cooked dough shaped like bones.

Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) has been celebrated by Mexican Indians for centuries. To them, it is the day the dead come back to visit the living–friends, relatives, and loved ones. Often, Catholic families make offerings at the graves of their loved ones, leaving them their favorite food, or even their favorite vice, be it cigarettes or alcohol. But they always leave pan de muerto, says bakery worker Yessica Rodriguez, 23, who is originally from the 300-person Southern Mexican town of San Jose Chilipa.. Rodriquez’s grandmother on her mother’s side died six years ago; each year, her family back home takes the 25-minute walk to the local cemetery.

When they arrive at the cemetery, located between mango trees and a cornfield, they make a velvet shrine and lay offerings of bean and chicken tamales, chocolates and purple flowers—any kind, as long as they’re purple. Her late grandfather gets a single Marlboro Red cigarette. When Rodriguez dies, she says she would like to have an offering of bean and chicken tamales, just like her grandmother. But she’s too busy to think about death right now—she must finish a sale to Cristian Moran, 26, from Guerrero, another state in Southern Mexico.

Moran has lived in the United States for six years. His grandfather died one month ago, but instead of going to Mexico, he sent $200 to relatives back home. He said people don’t celebrate Day of the Dead in New York City as much as they did in his hometown.

Bakery manager Sergio Najera, 54, agrees. Most Mexicans who die in New York City have their remains sent home, he says, so there is little reason to celebrate in local cemeteries. Adults tend to honor the dead privately, and children have another tradition to enjoy: Halloween.

Zeltzin Rosendo, 10, is excited for the 31st of October.

“They give you candy on Halloween and you get to get dressed up,” she says, standing next to the window displays that shows off piles of pan de muerto to people who walk past. She is not a fan of putting food on graves.

“That kind of creeps me out a bit,” she says.

Her brother died in the womb this past year, and this will be the first time they lay an offering to him. They will leave him pan de muerto.

Some people prefer neither Halloween nor a Day of the Dead in America. Queens resident Enrique Jimenez remembers his childhood experience with pan de muerto as he makes a quick visit to the bakery.

“I would buy the bread when I was little, or my mom baked it, but not too much anymore,” he says.

This year he will gather with his cousins and his brother, who is bringing pan de muerto from Mexico.

“This bread has a different flavor,” he says. “The original flavor is from Mexico.”

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A Korean Thanksgiving at the Fulton Fish Market

By CAROLINE SHIN

Seafood buyers and sellers enjoy traditional dishes prepared for the Korean Thanksgiving at the Fulton Fish Market.

Seafood buyers and sellers enjoy the Korean Thanksgiving at the Fulton Fish Market.

Trays of Korean food lay steaming against the refrigerated air of the Fulton Fish Market. There were thin slices of beef sautéed with soy sauce and garlic (bulgogi), glass noodles stir-fried with beef and carrots (japche), and sweet crescent-shaped dumplings filled with sesame seeds and honey. The table stood beside boxes of whole trout, sea bass and blue crab, and about fifteen men, ending a hard day’s work at 7 a.m. on a Friday in October, waited in line to scoop the hot food onto their plates. For some, it looked familiar; for others, colorful and interesting.

This celebration of the Korean harvest festival—also informally called the Korean Thanksgiving—marked a small victory for Dong Joo Park, 57, president of the Korean Seafood Association of New York, who had organized the event. “This is the first party for Korean people at this market,” he said in accented English.

And it is a culmination of a long history of immigrant politics, corruption and solidarity in the briny underbelly of New York City’s seafood business.

Since the 1970s, Korean seafood workers have been slowly gaining clout in the Italian-dominated Fulton Fish Market. Last Friday marked the first Korean cultural celebration on the floor of the first Korean wholesaler in what is now the largest seafood market in the country.

The Korean Seafood Association started in 1977 following an influx of Korean immigrants in the 1960s and 70’s. Though many headed towards produce, a small but growing network of Korean immigrants became seafood retailers and purveyors—the middlemen between the retailers and wholesalers—and they bought seafood from the wholesalers at the Fulton Fish Market.

At the time, the Genovese mafia family, following waves of Italian emigration in the 19th century, controlled the Fulton Fish Market, which was then operating beside the docks of South Street in Manhattan. “People could not complain. If you complained, you got beaten. One person per year was killed,” Park said. Scale readings were also miscalculated; prices were arbitrarily determined; cheap fish were switched for expensive fish: and the Koreans received the brunt of the discrimination. Afraid to alert the police, they quietly went about their business.

A couple of changes started taking place in parallel in the 1980s: a sweeping anti-mob crusade led by then U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani and a surge in Korean immigration to New York. In 1987, Giuliani filed a racketeering suit against the Fulton Fish Market, effectively leading to the successful federal prosecution of mafia bosses through the 1990s and the eventual diminution of organized crime in New York.

Tony Lee, the first Korean wholesaler at the market, stands in his office above his lot.

Tony Lee, the first Korean wholesaler at the market, stands in his office above the ground floor where Captain Blue sells seafood to retailers and purveyors.

In 1986, Tony Lee, a nuclear power plant engineer, left South Korea and became a seafood purveyor, supplying retail shops and restaurants in New York City. “I liked my [former] job, but I came for my family. My mother wanted me here.”

Shortly after his arrival, he met Il Yeon Kwon, 53, Chairman and CEO of the Korean supermarket conglomerate H-Mart, which was recently highlighted in Forbes. Lee explained that, at the time of their encounter, there were only two H-Marts in Flushing, Queens, a haven for Korean immigrants then and now. As Lee supplied the H-Marts with seafood, the number of Korean immigrants kept growing and fueling a greater demand for Korean food, which in turn, grew Lee’s business more and more. H-Mart now has 33 stores from New York to California, according to the company Web site, and Lee is their sole seafood supplier.

In 2005, as part of the ongoing cleanup, the city moved the Fulton Fish Market’s 38 wholesalers and 600 employees—mostly Italian—to a new $85 million facility in Hunts Point, Bronx. “Before this market moved from downtown Manhattan, all the mafia people controlled this market. Since Giuliani cleaned up all the mafia people, the situation is very different than before,” Park said. Now it is “very clean. No crime. No nothing here. Now, Koreans can buy fish without problems. They can negotiate prices, complain.”

In 2008, with new market conditions and financial strength backed by Korean immigration, Tony Lee opened Captain Blue, the first Korean wholesaler in the 187-year history of the Fulton Fish Market. “Since I started in seafood, I always wanted to be a wholesaler here,” he said. After nearly 25 years in seafood, he now runs a multi-ethnic 19-person company selling fish and shellfish from all over the world. According to his long-standing business partner and salesperson, Paul or “Paulie” Muzzio, 38, “he could sell you a bag of rocks if he could.”

Lee admits his main challenge as a new entrant is acquiring new customers who have been using the same vendors for years. “A lot of companies got more than one hundred years of business. It’s generational.” Currently, H-Mart represents 60% of Captain Blue’s sales, and Muzzio, who has been a seafood salesperson for 23 years, has brought his own customer following to Captain Blue. But they want to grow the business.

Lee said, “It’s very hard right now,” but “a lot of Korean people try to help me by buying from me.” Park has also been supporting Lee’s business by strategically placing the Korean festival on the floor of Captain Blue.

Outfitted in his glossy blue Members-Only jacket, Park said, “We are right in front of Captain Blue wholesalers. It is run by Korean people. It is owned by Korean people. It’s a big operation. It was not easy.”

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Happy Thanksgiving, eh!

Happy Thanksgiving, eh!

Pumpkin pie is a Thanksgiving staple for Americans and Canadians. (Photo: Megan Gibson)

Pumpkin pie is a Thanksgiving staple for Americans and Canadians. (Photo: Megan Gibson)

By MEGAN GIBSON

This year, Thanksgiving fell on Oct. 12.

Oh, to clarify — Canadian Thanksgiving was on Oct. 12 (although Canadians just say Thanksgiving).

Along with the metric system, universal health care and a penchant for the word toque, celebrating Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October is just another example of the subtle differences between the United States and Canada.

For Zachary Sniderman, 22, a Canadian who has been living in the U.S. since 2005, Thanksgiving marks a particularly pertinent time in which American/Canadian differences are highlighted. He has found the emphasis on the feast to be more significant in the U.S., noting Americans’ affinity for large-scale celebrations. “It’s huge, it’s much more of a holiday.”

Despite fascination with their own holiday, Sniderman says Americans often demonstrate a general unawareness about the Canadian version. “When you tell Americans that you’re celebrating Thanksgiving they look at you like you got it wrong,” he said. However, being questioned about the earlier date over the years has forced Sniderman to examine the meaning of his holiday.

Thanksgiving traditionally celebrates the end of harvest, and is held earlier in Canada because being farther north, colder temperatures mean that crops must be gathered sooner.

The American holiday is believed to have begun at Plymouth Colony in 1621 when English pilgrims feasted with Native Americans. But the Canadian holiday has two contenders for its origins. In 1578, Martin Frobisher, an English explorer , settled in Newfoundland and celebrated his explorations and long journeys with a feast. Similarly, French explorer Samuel de Champlain was also known to have eaten celebratory feasts in the region that is now Quebec, in the early 1600s.

The October date of the contemporary celebration was fixed by Parliament in 1957 (Parliament—another difference from the U.S.). But the modern holiday celebration is largely the same in both countries. Traditionally, a turkey is roasted (not a Canada goose), dessert is pumpkin pie (no traces of maple syrup), and there is football to be watched (in addition to NFL and U.S. college games, the Canadian Football League always has the Thanksgiving Day Classic).

But the difference in dates does pose a problem for those Canadians living in America but accustomed to celebrating in October. Erika Berntson, 22, came to the U.S. five months ago to start her graduate program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and soon suffered culture shock. “I was really surprised when it happened because I was not expecting it,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Since the Canadian holiday isn’t recognized with time off in her American curriculum, Bernston will not be celebrating with her family this year. However, she does confess to maintaining one tradition: “I’m going to make pies here, though.”

Some Canadians don’t feel particularly disconnected from the holiday when in the U.S.  Ryan Taylor, 19, has been living in New York for work and this is the first year he hasn’t celebrated with his family, who are in Toronto. Taylor said that Americans are aware of the difference in holiday. “Most people know that we have it on a different day. They just forget.”

Taylor said his family usually celebrated the holiday by leaving home and heading north to their cottage. This year will be no exception for his family, despite Taylor’s absence. Although he says he’s envious of his family’s celebration, it’s not all bad in the U.S. “I got invited to go to Washington so it’s just as good.”

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New Yorkers get a taste of Italy at the Feast of San Gennaro

New Yorkers get a taste of Italy at the Feast of San Gennaro

By DANIEL WOOLFOLK

The Feast of San Gennaro in 2007.  Bonnie Natko via Flickr.

The Feast of San Gennaro in 2007. (Photo: Bonnie Natko/Flickr under Creative Commons license)

The famous Mulberry Street is full of games, rides and especially food this week.  There’s even a clown in a dunk tank who, if he doesn’t insult you, might insult your mother.  If your anger and aim holds you through, you can drop him into the water tank.

This is part of the 82nd annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy’s Mulberry Street between Canal and Houston Streets.

More than 1.5 million people are expected to show up during the 10 days of the festival, said Mort Berkowitz, who is running the event.  He estimates about 20,000 people could be at the event at any given time.

One of those people was Anne Grardi. She has white hair and a cane.  She was dancing on the sidewalk on Sunday night with some of her friends to an oldies cover band, Johnny and the Raybands. She was no Fred Astaire with that cane, but she really enjoyed the music at the festival. “We saw a nice little Spanish guy do Frank Sinatra,” she said. “He had the whole crowd standing.”

She had eaten sausage and peppers as well as zeppoles at Sofia’s on Mulberry Street and said the restaurant was surprisingly empty this year — it was standing room only last year.  And even though she noted seeing fewer people, she said she still gets to do one of her favorite festival activities: people watching.

People have been watching people since it began since it began in its first feast in 1926. It had been only a one-day event until 1996, said Chick Pallotta, who has been showing a 10-minute video explaining the history of San Gennaro at the Most Precious Blood Church.  The church has a shrine to San Gennaro,  who served as Bishop of Naples in the second cenury A.D.

And it is just as much about food as it has ever been.

Vincent “Cuzzin Vinny” Patuto sells braciole at the festival and, with his loud raspy voice, makes sure anyone within earshot of his stand knows it.  He said there were about the same amount of people as other years, but fewer people buying his braciole because of the economy.  He should know: he started attending the event about 56 years ago as an 8-year-old and started as a vendor 15 years ago.  He also sells sausages but makes his money selling the bracioles.

“We have not been declared the king of the sausage,” he said. “But we have been declared the king of the braciole.”

He said he’s OK with not being the king of the sausage.

Nick Gennaro Petronella didn’t have either, but the skinny high-school junior did have calzones, potato croquetes, mozzerella pies “and, of course, I had  zeppoles,” he said.

And he wasn’t much of a picky eater.

“I had everything I could find,” he said. “Everything was slamming.”

Julian Armstrong was a little more selective.  The seventh-grader had been there an hour and had a funnel cake, which he said was “good and sweet and fluffy and very appetizing.”

Julian wanted to try brisket, but his mom didn’t let him.

“We had enough to eat already previously before we came here,” she said.

Food wasn’t Julian’s sole objective at the festival.  He had played some of the games and had won a small white teddy bear keychain.  He wasn’t sure if he was going to try his hand with any more game tickets.

“It’s all up to my mom if she wants to buy me any,” he said with a smirk, making sure to check her reaction.

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The Feast of San Gennaro: Not like mama used to make it

The Feast of San Gennaro: Not like mama used to make it


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Flags and decorations overhung this year’s Feast of San Gennaro festival (Photo: Andrew Tobin)

By ANDREW TOBIN

John Labou stood idly at the southernmost end of the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan, and surveyed the scene. It was the last day of this year’s Feast of San Gennaro festival, and thousands of visitors filled the streets. However, very few people were stopping at his booth on the northwest corner of Canal and Mulberry Streets.

For the last 82 years, Labou’s family has sold Italian nuts, candy and paraphernalia at the event.  Since Labou inherited the business a few years ago, his profits have decline annually, and this year he lost money for the first time.

“I’m contemplating not being here next year,” he said.

Many other longtime vendors are in similar situations. They have noticed that as Little Italy and the Feast of San Gennaro have become less defined by Italian culture, demand for their traditional Italian products has diminished.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Italians immigrated to New York. Most of them settled in southeastern Manhattan, forming Little Italy.

Labou’s grandparents emigrated from Naples as part of this movement, helping to form the Neapolitan section of the neighborhood. On Sept. 19, 1926, they and three other families on their block publicly celebrated the first Feast of San Gennaro in the United States. They opened food stands outside of their coffee shops, strung lights from the buildings, and erected a small chapel containing a statue of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, in the street.

The event quickly grew within the Neapolitan community, and eventually expanded into an 11-day celebration of Italian-American identity all over Little Italy. Over the last several decades, the festival has increasingly become a reflection of the entire city.

Mort Berkowitz, the owner of an event planning company, has produced the Feast of San Gennaro since former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wrested it from what was deemed organized crime control in 1996. He said: “The festival is designed to maintain the heritage of Italians in American. It gives people the opportunity to come back and reconnect with their roots.”

To this end, Berkowitz ensured that this year’s street fair took place under green, white and red decorations, and a lot of Italian and American flags. Italian ballads emanated from the main stage near the southwest corner of Mott and Grand Streets, and from speakers throughout the event. All other types of music were prohibited.

In addition to the numerous Italian restaurants that characterize the neighborhood, the streets were crowded with hundreds of Italian food vendors, mostly selling Italian sausages.

However, in some areas gyros, shish kebabs and piña coladas predominated. There were also fair games, rides and even a small freak show, featuring the “Alive Angel Snake Girl.”

Dr. Joseph V. Scesla, the founder and director of the Italian American Museum on the southwest corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets, said that the proliferation of these businesses reflected larger demographic trends.

Tourists and faithful paid tribute to an icon of San Gennaro. (Photo by XXXX.)

Tourists and faithful paid tribute to an icon of San Gennaro (Photo: Andrew Tobin)

Over the last several decades, the community and the borders of Little Italy have diminished. The immigrants that founded the neighborhood have died, and most of their descendants have moved away.

“At this point, there are less than a thousand Italians living in the area,” he said.

Other groups have replaced the dwindling Italian-American population, and the surrounding neighborhoods have appropriated Little Italy’s peripheral blocks.

As Berkowitz put it: “The Chinese came from the south, and the Yuppies came from the north. So Little Italy has become Very Little Italy.” He said that he has tried to preserve the historic character of the Feast of San Gennaro, but that there are no longer enough Italian booths to fill the streets.

In the absence of a local community, the event is mostly operated for and visited by tourists from in and around the city. Berkowitz estimated that one million people visited this year, down from the yearly average of one and a half million, and he said the economy was a factor. Even the Italian-Americans that are involved with the event are largely from other parts of the city.

Joe Rizzo and his wife, Linda Molinari, are from Queens. They both grew up in Italian households, and trace their lineage back to Little Italy. It had been several years since they attended the festival, but this year they took the subway into Manhattan for the last day.

They enjoyed the experience, but were disappointed by the cultural changes they saw. Rizzo said: “This neighborhood used to be rock solid Italian. It was a lot more meaningful to visit back then.”

Molinari agreed, saying, “I didn’t come down here to get a shish kebab.”

On the other hand, they both felt that the changing nature of Little Italy was part of an inevitable process. Rizzo said, “People keep coming to American for opportunity, just like our ancestors.”

Jerry Scivetti grew up in Little Italy and later moved to Queens, but he’s still an active member of the Church of the Most Precious Blood, which conducts a celebratory Mass and parades a statue of San Gennaro through the streets of Little Italy every Sept. 19.

“You don’t have to be Italian,” he said. “Everyone can come here and enjoy our traditions.”

Steps have recently been taken to ensure that Little Italy retains some of its Italian heritage. This September the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council announced the addition of Chinatown and Little Italy to the State Register as one unified Historic District. And last October, the Italian American Museum opened, aiming to educate Americans about the history of Italians in the U.S.

Scesla said, “Little Italy is getting smaller and smaller, less and less Italian, and we need to observe something here.”

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