What does an old-style Italian festival look like in a 21st century shopping center?
“Gateway obviously has a more modern feel, but we’re trying to recreate that atmosphere of a street fair,” said Nick Fuoco, one of the organizers of Festa Italiana, happening Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 and 18 at The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City.
“The booths are all clumped together, and you have a lot of people walking around,” Fuoco said. “You’ll hear a lot of Italian. You’ll hear street music throughout the entire festival. We have street performers, like in any big city, or Italy. So there’s an atmosphere we try to create down there. So if people just want to come down and buy something to eat, or sit and listen to music, we just want people to come down, to make it available, and let everyone enjoy the culture.”
Festa Italiana is the work of the Italian-American Civic League, which was founded in 1934, to support immigrants moving to Utah to work on the railroad, in mines and on farms.
Fuoco, treasurer of the IACL’s men’s chapter, said the league is one of Utah’s oldest nonprofit groups. “We got our start providing an avenue for Italian immigrants as they came into Salt Lake City, and Utah, to assimilate to the culture and to bring our culture to Utah,” Fuoco said. “There was a group of us that felt like Salt Lake City deserved and needed an Italian festival, like the ones you see throughout the country.”
The volunteer-run festival — which is free to the public — is an opportunity to showcase the the food, music and culture and Italy. “There was no better way for us to tell our story and our history,” Fuoco said.
The festival kicks off on Saturday morning with a vintage bicycle ride at 10:30 a.m. — an element that’s fairly new to the festival, said Diana Rossi, president of the league’s women’s chapter.
“It was really fun last year,” Rossi said. “It’s not necessarily a race — it’s just for fun. It’s a traditional vintage bike ride. A lot of people dress up in costumes, and have vintage bikes. It’s an easy ride, so it’s fun for all ages. We’re hoping it grows this year.”
Festa Italiana is not “a sausage sandwich festival,” Fuoco said, but serves up authentic Italian food, with more than a dozen vendors serving dishes like arancini (traditional fried and stuffed rice balls), fresh gelato and artisan pizzas. Carmen’s will be cooking fresh pasta in a special pan imported from Italy that can cook 30 pounds of pasta at once.
Chefs, including Mark Sciortino of Marco’s Italian Restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y., will be leading demos at the cooking stage. And for those of legal age, you can purchase a wristband to try bottles imported straight from Italy, including wine pairings curated by Utah’s own Caputo’s Market & Deli.
Fuoco said music is a big part of the festival, with acts from all over the country and the world. Returning this year is Luca De Paolis, who travels from Civitavecchia, Italy, just outside of Rome.
“He’s a super-talented accordion player and singer and plays a lot of modern-day and traditional Italian songs,” Fuoco said. “He’s kind of become a fan favorite and has really become friends with so many patrons of the festival. I know a lot of people are excited to have him back after having to take a hiatus with it and not being able to travel from Italy.”
Also traveling for the festival are Aaron Caruso from Fort Meyers, Fla.; Francesco Cavallini from Calabria, Italy; Cory Pesaturo from Providence, R.I.; the Anthony Nino Lane Band from San Francisco, Calif.; and Mbrascatu, from Calabria, Italy via Portland, Ore.
Pesaturo, Fuoco said, is a Guiness Book of World Records holder for playing accordion for the longest amount of time ever, and Mbrascatu plays modern folk-rock.
“Anthony Nino Lane is also a fan favorite,” Fuoco said. “He’s been with us almost since day one; he started coming in 2016, and we’ve become amazingly good friends with him and his band, which is a great six-person band.”
For those who prefer to combine food and entertainment of the extreme eating variety, Saturday offers a pizza-eating contest (and if you want to compete, registration is available on the festival’s website, festaitalianaslc.com).
Though most people automatically associate food and accordion music with Italian culture, a less expected part of Festa Italiana is the car show, a collaboration with the Ferrari Club of Utah, who will bring unusual and vintage cars.
“So we’ll have a super-cool element where you come down and see some Italian supercars,” Fuoco said. “We’ll have around ten or 12 different Ferraris throughout the festival, and other Italian luxury cars people can check out. It’s kind of a cool way to tell you an element of the culture as well as motorcycles — those big brands also bring down a bunch of bikes. So it’s kind of a nice little way to showcase that aspect of the Italian culture, too.”
Festa Italiana will take place at The Gateway, along Rio Grande St. (450 West), on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 and 18. Saturday’s events start with a vintage bike ride starting at 10:30 a.m., then gates are open from noon to 10 p.m. Sunday, the gates are open from noon to 7 p.m. Admission is free. For details, go to festaitalianaslc.com.
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