It's called the Sorrento Cheese Italian Heritage Festival. But from Delaware to Colvin Avenue Thursday night, Hertel Avenue hosted an ethnically diverse crowd sharing a common appreciation: cannolis.
Stephanie Negron, 17, of Buffalo, had already downed two of the Italian pastries before opening ceremonies began. "I love the food here," said Negron. "I'm not even Italian. I'm Puerto Rican. But I've been taking Italian lessons since I was 8 years old. This festival is the closest I can get to being Italian."
Also admitting his lack of Italian heritage, Larry Cheeley of Buffalo skipped his art history class to see the Italian flag-throwers in their first performance in the festival's 31-year existence. Eight men from Torremaggiore, Italy, fought the windy conditions to entertain the crowd during opening ceremonies.
"I dropped my jaw as I watched them," said Cheeley. "One of the guys was throwing five flags at once and would catch them behind his knees. You never see these guys in America, but they are famous in Siena."
For the flag-throwers, Buffalo is their first taste of the United States. While they were impressed with the hospitality of the city, they still agreed that nothing compares to the food back home.
"This is a very welcoming city," Salvatore D'Amico, leader of the group, said through a translator. "People are friendly and helpful, and we got the impression that they are like that to everyone, not just us. But we miss real pasta, real sauce and the real cheese we have in Italy."
Following the flag-throwing performance, Eddie Mekka, who played Carmine, the Big Ragu, on the television series "Laverne & Shirley" -- took the stage to perform a few of Frank Sinatra's hits, but only after dropping a few Buffalo jokes.
"What do you do in Buffalo?" Mekka asked. "Mainly wait to get the -- out of here." Then Mekka revealed his true feelings about the festival.
"I like it here; I feel like a kid again," said Mekka. "My mother keeps yelling at me 'Eat something! You look thin.' "
Festival representatives reported having one of the biggest crowds ever for opening night.