This week I introduced my dear friend C to the Feast of Santa Rosalia, Bensonhurt’s annual street fair honoring the patron saint of Palermo, Sicily. “The feast” was the highlight of our summers growing up. Yes, we loved getting out of the city, hiking, swimming, etc., but nothing thrilled us more than a sticky August evening at the feast. It was just a few blocks from my Nonna Rosalia’s house (yes, she had an entire feast dedicated to her), so we’d go on Sundays after everyone–all 18 cousins, plus aunts and uncles–piled into her apartment for dinner. We’d spend the night trying to win goldfish; eating fried dough, gelato, sausage, and clams; listening to terrible Sicilian folk bands; watching people tuck dollar bills into the Santa Rosalia status. It was chaotic, ridiculous, and delicious: like most good things in my life.
It’s amazing how differently things from childhood look after so many years. This feast was HUGE when I was a kid. Walking up those seven blocks of 18th Avenue took all night, it seemed. You were always sandwiched by people; getting poked in the back by someone’s canolli, some stranger’s gelato dripping on your shoe. I once lost track of my family thanks to the fat guy with that giant snake draped over his shoulders every year. They were gone for a full few seconds (i.e., eternity) when I found my brother Sal and attached myself to him. I don’t think they realized I was missing.
Snake guy wasn’t there this year, and the crowds were a little thinner than I remembered. The neighborhood’s changed—immigrant groups come and go and the Sicilians are fewer and fewer—but it was still as magical as ever. Only this time, those seven blocks took about 30 minutes to cover, and that included a stop at the venerable Villabate Bakery. I know I’ve gotten bigger, but did the feast also get smaller? No matter. Here’s our night, in pictures.
First stop, stuffing dollar bills into Santa Rosalia’s skirt. C and I didn’t do this, nor did my family ever do it. Seems like a strange ritual, no?
First on the menu, some high-quality cheese sauce and sausages. We didn’t partake in this, though, because we were saving ourselves for…..
THIS thing of beauty. We call them sfingi in Sicilian, but they’re also known as zeppole by some. (Another pastry with the same name is made for St. Joseph’s day. It’s confusing.) Call them what you want, they’re fried dough balls. Funnel cake in ball form, if you will.
You can’t walk 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst without a stop at Villabate, the best bakery in town. After sfingi, our dinner consisted of….
Chocolate and coffee gelato. But not just any old gelato cup…
Gelato on a brioche roll. If you’re going to do gelato for dinner, this is really the only way to do it.
We decided to be nice and bring something home for our boys…
The canolli won. They fly in their ricotta from Palermo for these babies every day. Not exactly eco-friendly, but….still a beautiful end to an evening.