Celebrating Italian Style In Boston’s North End

In Italy, feast days tied to saints are the glue that binds communities together. Bands practice all year long so they sound just right when they lead processions through city streets. People get dressed up and buy cannoli and other treats for their neighbors. Young people use the social occasions to hook up, and, everyone, everyone eats and drinks well.

Boston’s North End still clings to the same tradition, albeit with a more commercialized flavor. I stumbled upon the neighborhood St. Anthony Festival, an annual celebrtion started by Italian immigrants from the Italian town of Montefalcione in 1919, a couple weeks ago and was reminded of how important feast days are in the old country. We were driving by the neighborhood, which is directly adjacent to downtown Boston, and when my sons spotted two blowup jumpy houses we were compelled to stop.

My family hopped out and I was tasked with finding a parking spot – no easy chore in the North End, where a good spot is more valuable than a lifetime pass to the Playboy Mansion. I’m generally a very impatient person, but when it comes to parking, I’m frugal enough to hunt for meter spots because I hate paying a lot to park.After about 20 minutes of fruitless searching, I gave up and pulled into a lot, but pulled right back out when a small grumpy man in a folding chair asked me for 40 bucks. Three other cheaper lots were full, and another placed wanted $35. After another 15 minutes, I found a meter spot and felt like I was ready to pop open a bottle of Champagne. Alas, there was also a sign indicating that the spot was only for North End residents from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. But I decided to park there anyway and take my chances.

The streets were filled with vendors selling pastas, pizza, fried calamari, and more traditional American street fair food, like frozen bananas covered in chocolate, and New England staples like lobster rolls. The crowd was a mixture of tourists and locals but heavily accented by older people who knew each other and clearly still lived in the neighborhood.

A classic rock cover band cranked out a Doobie Brothers tune but turned off their amps as a spirited procession with two bands wended its way through the neighborhood streets. Teens and tweens played carnival games in the hopes of winning cheesy framed photos of starlets and celebrities (see photo). I stood and studied the faces that were marching by and was again reminded of Italy – none of the participants would have looked out of places in the villages my grandparents came from in Sicily.

As we sat on someone’s stoop, chowing down on gnocchi, ravioli and calamari, a woman who lived in the apartment next to the one we were sitting in front of stopped to tell us that we had a “beautiful family.” For Italians, there is no better compliment. And before we were done eating, a guy that lived in the apartment we were sitting in front of needed to get out, but my kids were blocking his path, tomato sauce dripping off their chins.

But he was gracious, practically apologizing for wanting to leave his own apartment. Everyone’s in a good mood on a feast weekend in the North End. And so were we, even though we had a $40 ticket waiting for us on the windshield of our car.

[Photos and video by Dave Seminara]