There’s nothing quite like Vince Padula’s Polish pizza.
Not because it was the best dish at the two-day Polish American Harvest Festival in Schenectady this weekend — though some might say it was — but because there is literally nothing else like it. It’s a Vince Padula original — pizza dough topped with mozzarella cheese, kielbasa and kapusta, a Polish dish of stewed sauerkraut.
“I’m actually Italian, so I never did any of this Polish stuff,” he said before opening a pizza box inside FDR Elementary School and showing off his creation. “Somebody at another fair had something like it once. Being that I’m Italian, we had a pizza shop. A hobby of mine was making pizzas at home. So about 10 years ago I was tinkering around so I made one. And you know what? It actually came out better than the one I had at the fair. My son thought it looked disgusting until he tasted a piece.”
At the 30th annual Polish American Harvest Festival, there were 4,200 pierogis. There were 2,300 galumpkis. There were 1,500 pieces of kielbasa. There was dish after dish of kapusta and lazanki. All classic Polish food, all prepared lovingly weeks in advance by parishioners of St. Adalbert’s Church off of Crane Street, which is where the two-day festival is held.
But it was Vince “Padulski” Padula’s Polish pizza — a merging of an Italian classic with beloved Polish foods — that best represents what the festival is all about these days: a celebration of a neighborhood that was majority Polish once upon a time, but whose residents quickly embraced other cultures that would later move in. The Polish festival, attendees say, is really for everyone.
“A lot of them have Polish roots,” said 76-year-old Pat Biggica, a longtime parishioner who helps organize the festival. “The complexity of the Mont Pleasant area has changed a lot over the last 40 years. In terms of diversity, we used to be strictly Polish and Italian. Now we have the black population. We have the Spanish population. We have Guyanese. It’s a mixture of everything. It’s a melting pot. And they all come to enjoy our food and our heritage.”
Schenectady once boasted the third-largest Polish population in the state, behind only New York City and Buffalo, back in the 1920s and 1930s. Polish immigrants came here for jobs at General Electric and the American Locomotive Company, and occupied entire stretches of Crane Street and Mont Pleasant, said festival chairman Joe Kaczynski.
“That is why St. Adalbert’s was formed,” he said. “It was for all those immigrants coming in. They kind of stuck together up here. Crane Street, back then, was a lot of Polish bakeries and delis and stores. Even the drug store — there was a Polish druggist who would talk to patients in Polish.”
The 30-year-old Polish festival had some growing pains, for sure. The festival is a way to raise money for the church, but for years it was held at the adjacent FDR Elementary School or the Polish Community Center in Albany and no one really knew about it but for the area’s Polish residents. Four years ago, it was moved back to the church and suddenly everything felt right, parishioners said.
“It was the best thing that we could have done because it brought the community back together,” Biggica said. “This is the heart of the community, not only for Polish people but for people who live in this area today. They’re able to come down and enjoy our food. We have our neighborhood watch come down and help out. The Christian church on Crane Street comes down and helps out. It’s more fun here. It’s out in the open. It’s free. It’s just a true festival now.”
The event itself is free, but it’s the food people pony up money for. That’s how organizers count attendance, which is usually anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 across the two days, Kaczynski said. Attendance was down Saturday because of the rain, but he hoped the warm weather and sunshine Sunday would boost overall attendance.
The scene outside the church Sunday was a lively one, with kids running around playing games while elderly parishioners and neighborhood residents relaxed at tables under a canopy. A DJ and band played classic tunes and polka music, but a highlight of the event was a demonstration of dances from Poland by young children in traditional Polish costume.
The kitchen at the nearby FDR school was sweltering, as Polish native Richard Joachim fired up his kielbasa and Padula fired up his Polish pizza.
“I’m the kielbasa-cooking man,” Joachim said, a big smile on his face. “We’ve got two stoves and after you cook, you gotta warm up everything. They gotta be fresh. Galumpki fresh, never been freezed. Kielbasa fresh from a man on Congress Street. They’ve never been frozen.”
Attendees largely agreed: The food is the best reason to get out of the house and come to the festival. But Biggica, who’s helped put on the festival for all 30 years, said only one thing tops the food.
“Camaraderie,” she said. “The camaraderie to me is the best thing. The food is second. The food is great. We make it all ourselves. But it’s the camaraderie, it’s the community coming together. It’s people helping people that keeps our church going.”