Some came for the memories and to see old friends.
Others came to introduce a fourth and even fifth generation of local Italian-Americans to enduring traditions.
Almost everyone came to taste the sausage and peppers, the pasta e fagioli, and the fried mozzarella
Yet others come to plumb the mysteries of the secret sauce.
Those were some of the reasons why hundreds of people gathered on Chapel Street near Wooster Square Thursday afternoon and evening to mark the opening of the four-day “festa” or festival organized for the 118th consecutive year by New Haven’s venerable Saint Andrew the Apostle Society.
The fraternal self-help society, with its clubhouse on Chapel by Chestnut Street, was founded by immigrants to New Haven from the Italian town of Amalfi on the Mediterranean coast.
Their descendants, like the redoubtable Theresa Argento and Emilio Sanseverino, whose dad was one of the original group of founders, keep the old traditions of Amalfi going every year with the festival.
The proceedings include traditional food and music, old-world processions through the streets of Wooster Square, and a blessing of the ships in New Haven harbor; the maritime influence of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Amalfi, is credited with saving the town from an attack by Turks in the 15th century.
This year the festival runs through Sunday, beginning at 5 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. A high point is the Sunday morning procession through the streets where you might glimpse some old-timers pinning currency to the statue of St. Andrew that is carried by the processors.
In the old days, that money was sent to Amalfi, said 80-year-old Rose Frattini, who has visited her ancestral town no fewer than 13 times. At the cathedral there, she said, you can read small signs indicating that parts of the altar or religious furniture have been purchased over the years through the contributions sent by New Haven Amalfitani.
These days the money raised at the festa and pinned to the statue goes to the society and a portion, raised from sales of pastry, is earmarked for a scholarship fund set up by the Saint Andrews Ladies Society, which was established a mere 95 years ago, said current President Cindy Rosarbo. She was in attendance Thursday evening with aunt Rose Frattini, daughter Florence Constantinople, and Florence’s 19-month-old Paul Michael Constantinople III.
Paul was seen chugging a bottle of milk in preparation for Thursday’s mini-procession (the major one is Sunday morning) that preceded the unveiling of the St. Andrew statue, the gesture that annually marks the formal opening of the festival.
It’s definitely a family affair.
Frattini, who worked as the school chef at nearby High School in the Community (HSC) for 39 years, said her earliest memory is of helping chop vegetables for the sausage and peppers for sale at the festival, which was held on Wooster Street in the early years.
Frattini was born in a house on the corner of Wooster and Chapel, where Dr. Harry Conte — for whom the nearby school on Chapel is named — delivered her and her seven siblings.
“My mother plunked the baby on the bed, and went in and made Italian coffee for the doctor,” Frattini recalled. After the coffee and the pleasantries, her parents gave Conte ten dollars for the delivery. He gave back five, she said, a gesture acknowledging that the growing family needed the money at the moment more than he did
To help keep such family history and the Amalfitani-in-New Haven traditions alive, Rosarbo said she is planning to start a youth group for girls ten to 17 this year. There are currently 118 members of the ladies auxiliary in the group’s 118th year, and about 200 in the men’s society.
Her daughter, Florence Constantinople, a graduate of HSC who is now a teacher at the Brennan-Rogers Magnet School in West Rock, said she attended Thursday’s event not only so her son could “march” (wheeled in his stroller) in the procession, for the second time in his young life, but also to share the traditions with non-Italians.
Over at the tent Emilio Sanseverino and Ralph Buccitti were keeping the cooking oil at between 350 and 375 degrees, the requirement for fried bread. They were also discussing (at a reporter’s inquiry) how the suffritto they were preparing has changed over the years.
The big difference, according to Buccitti, is that the suffritto — onions and garlic cooked in oil, augmented by a pasta sauce— used to contain a range of diced up internal organs, especially lungs. “That was for the old-timers,” he said. Nowadays it’s mainly diced chunks of animal hearts.
That was all fine with food connoisseur Elena Pace, who said she had come for the fried dough, and in particular the secret sauce.
Buccitti said he could not reveal the secret ingredient of the secret sauce he was doling out into the bowls of the fried dough, but it had to do with fresh, locally grown tomatoes as the base and preparing small batches.
“There’s lots of red wine” as well, Sanseverino divulged.
The festa has always drawn politicians. State Senate President Marty Looney was on hand Thursday. He recalled how 1980, the first year he ran for state representative, now U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLaura and her mom Luisa DeLauro, a ceiling-breaking alderwoman at the time, brought him around to meeting people. Looney won that election; the rest is legislative history. Except for one year when he was recovering from hip surgery, Looney said, he has never missed a St. Andrew’s festa.
He had passed along that strategic campaign recommendation to Democratic attorney general candidate Chris Mattei, whom he had in tow Thursday.
Mattei greeted Theresa Argento and then spent time talking with Theresa (Dolly) Dogolo. She was one of the society members, along with Andrew Colavolpe, who had been honored earlier in the colorful evening with task of unveiling the statue of St. Andrew, which marked the official opening of the festa in its 118th year.