78. The Italian Market Festival

I attended Philadelphia’s Italian Market Festival curious to know what, if anything, would feel genuinely Italian. A centerpiece of the event is the greased pole climb.

Mayor Rizzo looks on.

It’s the kind of thing I would have associated with events like the Iowa State Fair, but it turns out that its roots are in Europe in the Middle Ages, and a version of it, called the Albero Della Cuccagna, is still done in towns throughout Italy, usually in May. The reward, besides the honor of victory, was foodstuffs attached to the top. Likewise in Philly, there were cheeses and salamis hanging from the top of the pole. I wonder if anyone made it up there. No one I saw got close.One regular feature of public gatherings in Italy is the porchetta truck, a purveyor of wonderful roasted pork sandwiches on crusty bread. In case you ever had any doubt about the provenance of the pork, the whole pig is on display, and you can see the meat for your sandwich being sliced off before your eyes. And sure enough, the Festival had not one but two porchetta stations.There were wacky t-shirts on offer,and limoncello stands, and places to pick up Italian-American delicacies. I give George his props for going all in with tripe first on the menu; not so much with his sentiments about wives.In a savvy business move, Anthony’s provided a crazy pronunciation guide to saying sfogliatella in Neapolitan dialect, knowing that Americans hate to be embarrassed by foreign words they’re not sure how to pronounce.But it wouldn’t be a true Italian festival without men, sweating and struggling with the sheer weight, hauling a statue of a saint through the streets on their shoulders. Would that custom survive more than 100 years of immigration to South Philadelphia?

Sure enough, the answer is yes. On Sunday morning (yes, I went back a second day to see) there was a whole parade of saints, all wearing banners to which one could attach contributions. There were perennial Italian favorites like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua, and also Our Lady of Guadeloupe,venerated in Mexico. The parade, led by the parish priest and the first communion and confirmation students, made its way to St. Paul Church, accompanied by the flags of four nations: the U.S., Italy, the Vatican, and Mexico, reflecting the changing demographics of the neighborhood.Big decision: to whom should I pin my money? I ended up going with Padre Pio from the early 20th century, whose image in ubiquitous in Southern Italy.

3 thoughts on “78. The Italian Market Festival

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s