When Mark Sciortino was 9 years old, he sat at the Galbani Italian Heritage Festival in its original Connecticut Street location, peeling onions and chopping peppers for Mineo & Sapio.
Today, he is the face of the 50-year-old fest, as well as Galbani-sponsored Italian festivals in nine markets across the country.
The Buffalo Italian Festival began in the 1950s at St. Anthony's Church downtown. It moved to Connecticut Street in the 1970s, to Hertel Avenue in the late 1980s, and to Buffalo's Outer Harbor this weekend.
Even with a new a $5 admittance charge, as many as half a million people are expected to attend.
Sciortino, whose great-grandparents came from Sicily, is a member of the board that sponsors the festival and is in charge of marketing. He has been a restaurateur since 1988, when he opened Marco's, which is now on Niagara Street. He also owns a string of deli restaurants called Marco's Italian Deli and has a TV show called "Come Dine With Me WNY" on Channel 7.
Q: How is real Italian food different from Italian-American food?
A: Italian-American food is way overdone. Real Italian food is simplicity. Quality. Not a lot of steps. Everything is the highest quality you can find, the freshest ingredients and simplicity.
Q: Do the old-timers tend to have different taste than the current generation?
A: You know old-timers, a snack to them was a loaf of Italian bread and a glass of red wine. That was an appetizer. Now, everybody's overdoing dishes and calling them Italian.
Fava beans, pasta e fagioli. That's the simplicity of Italian cooking that we grew up on. Dandelions and things that are really not anything spectacular but when you cook them the right way, they're phenomenal.
Q: What have you picked up from the older generation?
A: I mean, working with the older chefs, it's a lot of fun; the lingo they have. Some of them are just so off the wall. You have to learn from them, you have to look at it and say, I don't need a machine, I'm gonna do it by hand and that's the way it's done.
We still to this day roll gnocchi by hand at the restaurant. We make pasta from scratch using our hands, we roll it out with a rolling pin. At home, same thing. I make pasta with my kids on Sundays, especially in the wintertime. We make macaroni right on the counter, we make linguine, pappardelle, spaghetti. Learning the old traditional way is way more fun than opening a package.
Q: The Outer Harbor will be the festival's fourth location. Why move?
A: It keeps getting bigger and, logistically, we've outgrown the space as far as Hertel Avenue is concerned in North Buffalo. Currently, at the Outer Harbor, we have the ideal venue to create the festival and the space we need to create an incredible Italian event. It's more condensed and easier to access. You're in the center of the event the entire time, rather than being on Colvin and something's going on on Delaware Avenue and you're missing it.
There's parking for over 2,000 cars and free shuttles to the gates. That in itself – you go to the Italian Festival, and you drive around the neighborhoods for an hour, you find a parking spot and then you walk 17 blocks. So now, we're able to make it more convenient for the clientele that really does enjoy the festival and comes down to explore the heritage and just enjoy themselves.
Q: Will the fest lose anything by not being in the Hertel neighborhood?
A: I don't think it's going to lose anything. Of course, it's not going to be called a street festival anymore. But I think this is something that's really going to promote our heritage as well as bring it closer to everybody. Having it at the Outer Harbor, it's one of the hottest regions in Buffalo, it's where everybody wants to be, it's on the water, it's such a beautiful setting. I think it's just going to enhance our festival tenfold because of where it is. Everything is so accessible. Hertel Avenue is great, but if you're coming from the Southtowns or the Northtowns, it's a hike.
Q: There's a $5 charge for admission now.
A: The costs of putting on these events are extremely high, so we're supplementing our gate entry fees to put on the event. Age 62 and older is $2. Veterans with IDs and children 12 and under are free. So, it's not an excruciatingly high amount to pay to get in. Parking is free. The shuttle is free.
Q: How do people feel about it being in a new place?
A: Change is always difficult. The only thing I can say to everybody is, please give us a shot. See what it is before you judge. We've worked tirelessly for the last year.
We couldn't be more proud to have our roots planted in North Buffalo. We couldn't be more proud of establishing Little Italy and making Hertel Avenue what it is today. We just saw a time that we needed to grow and make it something a little bit different and reinvent ourselves. Picking the Outer Harbor and the rebirth of Buffalo is just the direction we had to head.
Q: Do you notice a difference among Italian communities in Buffalo and other places?
A: You know, every festival I go to, the Italian communities are all the same. They are all about fun, they're all about food and No. 1, most importantly, they're all about family. They come to these events because they want to relive their heritage. And when they come down at the Italian festivals and enjoy themselves, it is just such, such an honor to be part of it and such a blast and a blessing to be involved with these families that are coming to relive, recapture and just enjoy the moment. It's a blast; it really is.