Old Vs. New: An Early Report on Food at the San Gennaro Festival, 2011
April Bloomfield of The Breslin is one of the new food saints at the Feast of San Gennaro, and this delicious pork tonnato sandwich is her benediction.
For over 100 years, the street scarf at New York City's Italian religious festivals remained the same: hot or sweet pork sausages, grilled as you watched and served with sautéed onions and peppers; deep fried zeppole (pronounced "zapp-lee" in New York's Italian dialect, derived from the speech of immigrants from Apulia); bracciole ("brah-zhole"), wrapped and stuffed pork or beef mini-roasts; and cannoli ("guh-noeli"), which, along with most other Sicilian pastries, bore the stamp of the long-term French occupation of the island.
Or you can go Old School with this charcoal-grilled hot sausage topped with sauteed green chilis at Johnny Fasullo's. Excuse my grease-flecked thumb.
This was, basically, the festival food of southern Italy, the celebratory snacks enjoyed only a few times a year back home by peasants who basically ate pasta every day, with meat and cheese being the commodities of the privileged. And for a century, we non-Italians celebrated with them in the streets of Harlem, Williamsburg, Bensonhurst, and Little Italy, following plaster saints as they wended their way through iconic New York neighborhoods. But now everything is changing so rapidly, it makes your head spin.
The mother of all Italian religious street festivals has just begun on the Lower East Side. Commemorating Saint Januarius, a martyred bishop of early Naples, the 85th annual Feast of San Gennaro runs along Mott Street from Hester to Prince -- a welter of food stands, carnie games, vendors of cheap gimcracks, and stalls selling beer, cocktails, and complete pasta-based meals. It began yesterday evening and goes through Sunday, September 25. Today at lunch, the festival was already thronged.
The line at Fasullo's stretched down the block.
The green chilis beloved of Apulians
Non-traditional foods -- many representing modern food fetishes -- have entered the festival in a big way this year.
Over the last 10 years, we've seen deep-fried Oreos and Snickers bars added to the menus of the zeppole and calzone carts, supplemented by the stray Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cake; and occasional mozzarepa and falafel stands have been added to the the mix, too, refugees from the awful commercial block festivals that plague every neighborhood with tube socks and bad art from April to late September.
But now, the most profound change has taken place in the makeup of the food vended since the start of the festival, showing how profoundly the Age of Foodism has affected every phase of American culture. These new-wave stalls are generally located in the northernmost blocks of the festival, and the floodgates are now open to modern notions like sliders, cupcakes, invented beverages, and brine pickles. Call it the religious fare of foodies. It rests somewhat uneasily next to the festival food of southern Italy of a century ago. No one is name-checking celebrity chefs yet, but their presence in being felt.
Rubirosa is one of the newcomers, in this case trying to reinterpret the ancient culinary festival canon in modern terms.
The result: bracciole has now been transformed into sliders.
A little bit of Wisconsin in New York
Well, it is what it is, and some of it is pretty good. At an enclosure representing The Breslin, I enjoyed a pork roast tonnato sandwich, a small bun of roast pork squirted with anchovy sauce and topped with arugula and purple onions. I washed it down with a cucumber cooler topped with mint leaves. And it didn't come in a hurricane glass.
Then, for maximum brain-fuck, I traipsed down to Johnny Fasullo's sausage and bracciole cart, which has parked at the corner of Grand and Mott Streets for the last 50 years. It always sports the longest lines at the festival, partly because some of the meat is cooked over charcoal, shooting up clouds of fragrant smoke, while other carts do their sausages on flat, greasy griddles. (Noto bene: Only the bracciole and hot sausage are cooked over charcoal; the sweet gets the griddle treatment. It's their way of saying "screw you" to folks that don't like spiciness.) Another difference between Fasullo's and the dozen or so other sausage carts (the number has decreased markedly this year), is the vat of long fresh green chilis that sits on the counter, inviting you to burn your mouth twice with the cayenne-studded sausage and the green chilis.
And now I don't know which of the snacks I like best; but I do know which I think really belongs there.
That should be "tonnato," but what the hell?
And please save me a glass of Saint April's cucumber cooler.
By all means, let there be pie!
An ambulance awaits those who swoon from the strains of Sinatra.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.