Buffalo’s Italian Americans celebrate heritage and tradition as festival’s main event - The Buffalo News

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Buffalo’s Italian Americans celebrate heritage and tradition as festival’s main event

They don’t call it “Piccola Italia” for nothing.

Buffalo’s “Little Italy” along Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo boasts the largest Italian-American population in the city, a Buffalo News analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows. And, it’s within a bocce ball’s roll of Kenmore – the Erie County community with the greatest percentage of people who identify themselves as of Italian ancestry.

In that sense, Hertel makes a perfect spot for the annual Galbani Italian Heritage Festival, which organizers call the nation’s second-largest Italian street festival. Celebrating its 27th year in North Buffalo after beginning in 1976 on the West Side, the four-day festival is expected to attract upwards of 200,000 visitors.

“What makes this so great is that this is a neighborhood festival,” said Mona Rinaldo, the festival’s business manager. “We make it as Italian as we can from the music and the decorations to the dancing and the food. It is all about heritage.

“When we’re here, we’re all Italian – we’re all family.”

And, North Buffalo is where a lot of “the family” lives, according to the census data.

Some 4,771 strong in the Buffalo neighborhoods of North Delaware, North Park and Starin Central, the Italian-American community there represents more than 21 percent of the residents in those areas – the highest in the city along with a small enclave of 1,037 more in the neighborhood bounded by Forest and Elmwood avenues and Grant and Ferry streets.

“It’s a tradition,” said Steven Marasco, a proud Italian-American resident with ancestry in the Calabria region, about flying the red, white and green flag of Italy in the front lawn of the Dakota Street home where he has lived since 1978. “I usually put it up on Monday or Tuesday before the festival and take it down the following Monday and put back up the American flag. You’ve got to love your country.”

Stir in the 4,194 more in the village of Kenmore proper alone – including a neighborhood bounded by Elmwood Avenue to the west, Delaware Avenue to the east, Kenmore Avenue to the south and North End Avenue to the north where a region-high 32 percent are of Italian descent – and there are nearly 9,000 Italian-Americans within walking distance of the Hertel Avenue festival.

Perhaps there was some method to the oft-disputed decision in the late 1980s that relocated the festival from Connecticut Street in the historical bastion of Italian-American culture – the lower West Side – into North Buffalo.

“This is the spot for it,” Rinaldo said.

The census data shows that 13 percent of Erie County residents – more than 119,000 people – and 15 percent of Niagara County residents – some 32,000 – have some Italian ancestry.

Kenmore contains the top three – and four of the top six – census tracts of residents whose ancestors came from Italy. Other local communities also show strong representation of Italian heritage, including the eastern portion of Grand Island where 1,393 of the 5,374 residents – nearly 26 percent – reported they’re of Italian background. It’s the fourth highest concentration in Erie County.

Nearby, in Niagara County, the census data shows that neighborhoods in Lewiston and Niagara Falls show 29 and 30 percent of residents, respectively, have Italian ancestry. And, there are also other enclaves – suburban and rural – rich in Italian-American heritage and ethnic pride. In the town of Brant, for instance, nearly 22 percent of the southern Lake Erie shoreline community’s 1,989 residents are of Italian-American ethnicity. It’s reflected in the acres and acres of vineyards in the town, and in one of the region’s other most recognizable culinary institutions: Chiavetta’s chicken.

Thomas and Eleanor Chiavetta began as poultry farmers in town before barbecuing their first chicken in the Southtowns in the early 1950s.

“It’s grown a bit since then, I guess,” quipped Phil Pericak, a 48-year veteran of the company who is now its vice president.

The work ethic, creativity, determination and entrepreneurial spirit are common themes that run across the local Italian-American community, agreed Pericak, whether as far away as Brant or as near as the West Side, North Buffalo and Kenmore.

“It was about surviving,” explained Pericak, who is Croatian and Italian. “It’s more or less the Italian work ethic of supporting the family.”

Another of the “gifts” from local Italian-Americans also grew from a story of survival.

Angelo Costanzo Sr. started by baking “four or five loaves of bread a day” in “the Hooks” of Dante Place along the Inner Harbor in 1933 to help his family through the Great Depression.

“He lived upstairs from the bakery,” said Angelo Costanzo II, the son of the company’s founder. “He had to help feed his family.”

The bakery now puts out 12,000 rolls an hour from its Union Road facility in West Seneca. Costanzo insists pride in the product they sell, quality ingredients, good customer service and hard work are behind the company’s exponential growth. That didn’t happen by accident. It came from within.

“Italians have a certain work ethic,” said Costanzo. “They put their mind to something, they don’t want to fail. They’ll work as many hours as it takes.”

Joseph A. Carriero, owner of the new Joe’s Panini Grill on Delaware Avenue in that top-ranked Kenmore neighborhood, identifies with that.

“Most of what I got was from my grandfather. He owned a shoe-repair business,” said Carriero, who said he has worked since he was 10 years old. “He told me, ‘you’re never going to get anything out of life if you don’t work hard for it. Nothing’s going to be handed to you.”

Italian heritage is often worn like a badge – on T-shirts, bumper stickers and tattoos – but it’s far from just skin-deep, most Italian-Americans agree.

“To me, it’s everything,” James “Felix” Oliver said. “This culture? There’s nothing like it in the world for food, for music and for love. It’s at the basis of it all. It’s all wound together.” Oliver, a longtime restaurant manager, now counsels his cousins Pam DiPalma and Marianne Argentieri at Gino’s Italian Bakery at Kenmore and Colvin avenues where treasured cuccidiati and giguleni cookies have jumped from the family recipe book into the pastry counter. Gino’s will be at the festival peddling 1,700 cannoli, 500 of the bakery’s pasticiotti and 3,000 slices of pizza.

Make no mistake, there’s much more to Italian heritage than food.

That’s where Peter LoJacono comes in.

“We’re not a community that’s represented by a sausage,” explained the Italian Festival’s cultural director.

And LoJacono knows “una cosa o due” – a thing or two – about Italian heritage.

He teaches Italian in the Buffalo Public Schools, served as a script writer and line producer for the 2007 local film “La Terra Promessa” and organized this year’s festival theme featuring the “diversity of the 20 regions of Italy.”

“We want to pass it on to our children and grandchildren,” LoJacono said. “We owe too much to the people who brought us to where we are.”

For the first time this year, the festival will feature flags from every region of Italy, located near the cultural center and stage at its eastern end.

Also, there is a long, real-life gondola from Venice and the statue of St. Anthony of Padua, a special patron of Italy and the patron saint of lost articles.

The faithful will often pin dollar bills to the cape of St. Anthony in gratitude for favors received or in hopes of finding something they have lost.

Grape-stomping, bocce ball playing, authentic Italian crafts and music round out the festival’s focus on the “religious, culinary and artistic” aspects of Italian heritage.

“We want to pass it on to the next generation,” added LoJacono, “all the beautiful traditions of Italy.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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