NIAGARA FALLS – It was just five years ago when organizer Carmine Bianco, an elementary school physical education teacher in Niagara Falls, found himself in the unenviable role of Italian Festival rescuer.
He jokingly called the 2012 festival on the front lawn of a friend’s Pine Avenue restaurant, “The World’s Smallest Italian Festival.”
Fast forward to 2016 and Bianco, who still works as a gym teacher, also remains at the helm of the festival.
Bocce, grape stomping, music and lots and lots of Italian food will all be part of Italian Festival 2016, from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and next Sunday on Pine Avenue, between 15th Street and Portage Road.
This past year Bianco opened his own restaurant – Carmine’s at 1701 Pine Avenue – just a few blocks away from where he held the rescued festival in 2012.
“I had my catering business in (the festival) the last two years, but this is my first year with the restaurant. Carmine’s opened on Aug. 11 last year.”
His restaurant’s eggplant parmesan won the Taste of Niagara and he plans to dish it up at this year’s Italian Festival, along with his polenta, tripe and rice balls. He boasts that his sauce is so delicious “that people are drinking it off the plate.”
The festival has grown by “leaps and bounds” since he and others brought it back, he said, drawing nearly 20,000 people over the three-day event last year.
“We’re mobbed. We are really packed,” said Bianco.
The festival had long been run by the Pine Avenue Business and Professional Association, but when the group went defunct Bianco and his Pax Romana Commission, the not-for-profit bocce club which he chairs, took over.
“As long as I can remember we’ve always had (an Italian Festival.) There are thousands of people that show up. People actually fly into town. They choose that weekend so they can visit with family and go to the Italian Festival. They want to see all their friends they grew up with,” said Bianco.
He said the location on Pine Avenue, between 15th Street and Portage Avenue, is also vital because St. Joseph’s Church is there, as well as a gazebo and bocce courts. “We do the procession from the church to the gazebo with the (St. Joseph) statue,” said Bianco. He said they have rejected a request to move to Old Falls Street and be closer to the tourist district and state park. “This is for the old Italian couple who wants to come and bring their lawn chairs and listen to the music. It’s big meeting place for all generations.”
He added, “We won’t leave Pine Avenue. This is the heart of the city. We’ve got a lot of new businesses opening up, little by little.”
It is billed as three days of tradition, music and food, but at this festival the food is clearly a big draw. Bianco said he doesn’t double up on one kind of food, but rather offers a wide variety of strictly Italian offerings.
One of the new vendors expected is Rain Forest Cafe, and Bianco said he told them they could only participate if they offered something Italian.
“Even the Chicken Waffle truck is going to do something. They have a chicken parm waffle they are going to try out,” said Bianco.
On Saturday there is an Italian Children’s Pageant at 9:30 a.m., and a spaghetti and cake eating contest for kids at 5:15 p.m. The Remo Lostracco Memorial Bocce Tournament will be held throughout the day next Sunday.
Also on Sunday there will be an Italian Mass at 11 a.m. in St. Joseph’s Church, the St. James Italian Dancers at noon and there will be a grape stomping contest at 1 p.m.
• Noon to 3 p.m. – John Dudley
• 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. – Jack Civiletto
• 7 to 10 p.m. – A List
• 12:30 to 2:30 – Tony Pedulla
• 3 to 5 p.m. – Jamie Holka and Bruce Wojick
• 6 to 10 p.m. – 90 West
• 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. – the Formula
• 4:45 to 7:45 p.m. – Nick Batlistella
• 8 to 11 p.m. – the Fabulous USA Band.