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San Gennaro Feast in Little Italy

America Domani has the ultimate guide to the history and events of the Feast of San Gennaro

When Italian immigrants migrated to Manhattan’s Little Italy, “Piccola Italia,” in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they brought their customs, food, and language, including religious feasts and processions. The feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint, and protector of the city of Naples, Italy, has been celebrated in Little Italy each year since 1926 along Mulberry Street between Canal and Houston Streets. 

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15: An old festival announcement is seen in the Italian American Museum during the 85th annual Feast of San Gennaro festival on September 15, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

San Gennaro or Saint Januarius was the Bishop of Benevento and his feast day is September 19th. His fame rests on a relic of a glass vial of his blood kept in the Naples Cathedral. 

Initially, what began as an 11-block, one-week festival in NYC expanded over the years. Both out-of-towners and locals happily gear up and prepare for this annual feast and for good reason: the streets are transformed into a sea of green, white, and red, and the best restaurants, shops, bars, cafés, and stands participate in this now almost two-week long extravaganza which is attended by over a million people each year of all ages and ethnicities. 

20th September 1986: New York City - Crowds of people pack the streets of Little Italy in front of Umberto's Clam House during the annual Feast Of San Gennaro Festival. (Photo by Walter Leporati/Getty Images)

The San Gennaro Feast is especially personal for me since both sides of my family emigrated to Mulberry Street at the turn of the 20th century. Furthermore, I was born during the feast while my family still resided there, and we haven’t missed a year of attending and celebrating since.

Little Italy native, Vivian Catenaccio, President of Figli Di Saint Gennaro and member of Little Italy Merchant’s Association (LIMA), and her late grandfather, Alexander Tisi, have been involved in running the feast for decades. Their family owns a couple of the original restaurants and participants, Grotta Azzurra, as well as The Mulberry Street Bar, since 1908, and, since the 1980s, La Mela Restaurant.  Vivian explained that since its inception, there were only three years that the Feast did not run: World War II, 9-11, and the Pandemic in 2020. 

The flavor of the neighborhood is still very much held together by the glue of those original establishments, as well as another original, Cafe Roma. These businesses are still very much the fabric of the San Gennaro Feast we know and love today, as well as those which came later: Caffé Palermo (“The Cannoli King”), Cafe Napoli, bakeries/pastry shops such as Ferrara’s, and La Bella Ferrara, restaurants such as Il Cortile, Casa Bella, and DaNico, Italian salumerias such as Alleva and Di Palo’s, Italian novelty shops such as E. Rossi and Sons and Mulberry Street Cigars, among others. 

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Competitive eaters scarf down cannolis at the Annual Cannoli Eating Contest during the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy on September 12, 2008 in New York. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Some vendors over the years have contributed to the Feast with temporary stands, such as sausage and peppers and braciole, like Lucy’s Sausage and Pip’s Pit, zeppoles, and torrone, nuts, and biscotti. Notably, Danny Fratta (“Danny on the Corner”) who owns the famous zeppole stand, hosts the very popular annual zeppole eating contest.  His late uncle, Vincent Cirelli Sabatini, known as Vinny Peanuts, operated one of the oldest stands in the feast spanning 4 generations, “Vinny’s Nut House,” a permanent fixture for over 50 years on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets.  The stands are traditionally blessed by clergy at the beginning of the Feast and there is a solemn high mass at the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood at 113 Baxter Street, followed by the religious procession through the streets with the statue of San Gennaro. Many patrons stop to take a picture of the shrine, say prayers, or pin money to ribbons connected to the statue as a donation to the church and a sign of respect.  

Man making zeppoles at one of the street vendors, a staple dessert during the Feast of San Gennaro (Photo Credit: Danielle Caminiti)

Aside from the customary rides, contests (eating and otherwise), and games one would typically encounter at a street festival, live entertainment and bands are also prevalent during the San Gennaro Feast.  A large stage is constructed on Grand Street between Mulberry and Mott Street, across from the very famous Ferrara’s pastry shop, and there is singing by a cross-section of talent, including opera night, oldies singers, jazz singers, Italian singers, and pop singers, including a live radio broadcast by WCBS-FM radio personality Joe Causi.  

While some may say that Little Italy has shrunk to a few blocks, others would argue that since the Pandemic, the Feast of the San Gennaro is making a comeback as a cultural haven for Italian-Americans and reigniting religious and cultural zeal in the community. Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, Founder and President of Little Italy’s Italian-American Museum is one such person. “I am thrilled that the Italian American Museum's home will be the heart of what once was the largest Little Italy in the United States, symbolically our first home in America, and to see and be part of this wonderful San Gennaro Feast which still is run by the descendants of the original organizers."

After the festivities, make sure you stop by one of the famous cannoli stops for a treat! (Photo Credit: Danielle Caminiti)

Regardless, one thing is for sure. Each year this Italian-American community of businesses and residents proudly bands together in commemorating that our immigrant ancestors did not settle down as individuals but as as a community. 

The 2022 San Gennaro runs from Thursday, September 15th through Sunday, September 25th and the Grand Marshall is Former NASA Astronaut, Michael J. Massimino. This year’s theme will be Celebrating America and Honoring our Armed Forces. See you there!

Danielle Caminiti

 A self-employed attorney who loves to spend time in the kitchen, Danielle Caminiti made the best of the 2020 global pandemic by reinventing herself in shifting direction and pursuing her passion - cooking!  From Courtroom to Cucina is Danielle’s self-published cookbook featuring 70 authentic recipes that are sure to become favorites, filled with delicious appetizers and sides, mouthwatering main courses, flavorful desserts, and creative drinks.