St Anthony in Boston
A glance at the colored overhead lights, the sound of the band, and one deep breath to take in all the familiar smells, and I was transported back to my childhood; but this was Boston, not New York.
I traveled with my sister Genevieve and her family to Boston for the weekend, but I might as well have traveled back home to New York, over 50 years ago. It was the Feast of St. Anthony, the “Festa” as we call it, when all the Italians take to the streets to celebrate one of their very favorite saints. My Aunt Linda was so devoted to him, she called him “Tony".
If you have never been to an Italian street fair, it is an explosion of food, music, family, and lights. The streets are closed to traffic, and small tents are set up along the curb. Most sell food, some sell tee shirts proclaiming the glory of being Italian, and others are devoted to games of chance where you can win stuffed animals of all varieties and sizes.
Everyone comes to see the statue of St. Anthony, in his familiar tonsure and brown habit, holding the Baby Jesus. (No one ever questions this, even though St. Anthony lived centuries after Jesus was a baby.) He's carried down the street draped in dollars from devotees all pinned to satin ribbons flowing from his shoulders. He is preceded by the Italian American band playing way above the cheers of the crowd. They call it a Procession or even a parade, but in reality, it is a moving mob, and if you are not careful, you’ll be swept up into the current and find yourself blocks away from where you started. Some are lucky enough to have apartments along the route, and lean happily out their open windows, waving and cheering on St. Anthony and his followers.
The street food is the star of these events, and the real reason most people come… just don’t tell St. Anthony. Walking down the street is an olfactory journey… one aroma after another. Sausage and peppers, fried calamari, arancini, grilled sweetbreads, and of course, fried zeppoli, smothered in powdered sugar. One strolls from vendor to vendor, stopping along the way savoring a favorite item.
As children, we loved going to La Festa San Gennaro in New York City. It was in September, the last hurrah before school and winter setting in. Some of my father’s patients were food vendors there. I especially remember Frank Valone, "the clam man." Daddy loved to stand there in the cool night air under the bright lights, slurping down freshly opened iced cold clams, squirted with juicy lemons, and chatting with Frank.
There was also the man who grilled sweetbreads, stuffed the charred treasures in crusty rolls wrapped in paper, and handed them out to those who waited on line. Daddy particularly enjoyed these.
Personally, I couldn’t wait for the zeppoli! These fabulously fried pastries started with blobs of yeasty dough puffing up as they hit the vat of boiling oil. When golden brown, they were scooped out with large strainers, showered with powdered sugar and piled high in a brown paper bag. We would all grab some right away, and eat the rest in the car on the way home as we passed the oil-soaked sack amongst us. They would always be the last thing we got before heading home.
I’m close to 60 now, but for a few hours in Boston’s North End, I was a kid again.