This year marks the 97th anniversary of the Feast of San Gennaro in New York City’s Little Italy, one of the few remaining saint’s festivals in the city. Many were initiated by Italian immigrants who came from small towns in southern Italy, where the patron saint’s festival were often the most anticipated holidays of the year.
This festival commemorates San Gennaro, the Bishop of Benevento, Italy, who was martyred in 305 A.D. by the Romans. His blood was collected and preserved in Naples, where it allegedly liquifies every year on September 19, hence the timing of our own festival. Gennaro is considered the patron saint of Naples.
I went Thursday, the first day of a festival that extends through Sunday, September 24, from roughly noon to midnight. I spent the day grazing up and down the blocks where the festival occurs, from Canal to Houston on Mulberry Street, extending east and west on many side streets.
Consider your choices carefully, because much of the food is relatively expensive and not very good. Read on for the five best things I ate, paying special attention to the traditional festival food of Naples — as well as advice on how to navigate this especially crowded festival.
Pork braciola at Johnny Fasullo’s
Braciola consists of a pounded pork cutlet wrapped around Parmesan, bread crumbs, and herbs. Most versions at the festival are lackluster, but Johnny Fasullo’s is my pick, in part because it’s grilled over charcoal. Piled in a bun with sauteed onions and peppers, it is the best thing at San Gennaro. Don’t forget to ask for a grilled green chile, which they’ll add for no extra charge. If you’d rather have a sausage and peppers hero instead, this is the place to get it. Corner of Grand and Mulberry, $15
Zeppole at Sophia’s
Zeppole are perhaps the best-loved San Gennaro fare, descended from fried strips of dough covered in powdered sugar at the Naples Carnival known as chiacchiere. These amorphous blobs of dough are fried to a golden brown in vast tubs of oil, finished with a blizzard of sugar shaken over the top. It’s also one of the most inexpensive treats at the fare. 167 Mulberry between Grand and Broome, $5 for six
Rice ball at Lucy’s
The are a half dozen stalls along the seven blocks of Mulberry Street attributed to Lucy Spata, who started out in 1971 selling zeppole, sausages, and other southern Italian and Sicilian fare. One of the best things to get is her humongous arancini: rice balls, stuffed with ground meat and cheese and deep fried. Make sure you ask for sauce, which is an essential part of the picture. At 131 Mulberry between Hester and Grand, $10
St. Joseph’s pastry at Ferrara
Ferrara Bakery and Pastry is the anchor of Little Italy, open since 1892, and its stalls can be found up and down Mulberry, and in front of the rather grand looking store at 195 Grand Street at Mulberry Street. Confusingly referred to in Naples as a zeppole di San Giuseppe, the St. Joseph’s pastry is redolent of the Italian past and its reverence for saints. A choux pastry is filled with fluffy pastry cream and topped with either a maraschino cherry or chocolate chips — you choose! 170 Mulberry Street between Grand and Broome, $10
Baked clams at Umbertos Clam House
Umbertos — site of a famous mob hit — maintains a stall at the fare specializing in raw clams and fried clams, but why not sit in the sidewalk area established for that purpose right on Mulberry Street? There you can enjoy a serving of baked clams made from local littlenecks, served with bread and olive oil so garlicky it will make your tongue burn. Drizzle a little of it over each clam before you eat it. 132 Mulberry Street between Hester and Grand, $18
Here’s a little advice for attending San Gennaro, gleaned after 30 years of going to the festival and eating its street fare.
- Most of the better food stalls are found in the three blocks south of Broome Street; north of there is mainly jewelry stalls, kitchenware, and carnival attractions, so stick with those three blocks.
- Avoid the cannoli. A great cannoli is filled with sweetened ricotta to order, and these have often been filled hours or even days ahead of time.
- When buying zeppole, ask for ones right out of the frier, because then the sugar melts over the top. Besides, they’re much better warm.
- Yes, it is tempting to sit in one of the fenced-off restaurant areas, but beware: They mainly offer servings of overcooked pasta of low quality for around $20, and the special menu is pretty much the same everywhere. If you must go to a restaurant, pick Rubirosa at 235 Mulberry Street, or another you’re familiar with.
- Skip the pizza at San Gennaro, no matter what kind of oven it’s been cooked in — you can get better pizza anywhere in town.
- Avoid carnival games, even though the carnies are colorful characters. The hoops on the basketball games are smaller than usual and you won’t get a basket, and besides, do you really need a three-foot Pikachu?
- Go in the early afternoon if it’s the food you are most interested in, if it’s people watching, go at 10 p.m.
- Watch for pickpockets! Especially in the crowded evening hours.