Italian festivals in Amsterdam and Schenectady bring back crowds

Hundreds of people fill North Jay Street in Schenectady for the annual Little Italy StreetFest on Saturday.

Hundreds of people fill North Jay Street in Schenectady for the annual Little Italy StreetFest on Saturday.

AMSTERDAM, SCHENECTADY A public starved for the return of traditional annual events and hungry for Italian food combined with picture perfect weather on Saturday to produce robust attendance at Italian-themed festivals in Schenectady and Amsterdam.

The festival on North Jay Street in Schenectady Saturday marked the 17th anniversary of the first Little Italy StreetFest organized by the Little Italy Business Association in 2005, an event that celebrates Italian heritage and serves as a community showcase for businesses like Civitello’s, Perreca’s and Cornell’s. But the event hasn’t been held with all of its normal activities — musical acts, street vendors, games and bounce houses for children and lots and lots of Italian food —since 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. A slimmed down version was held at the end of the first pandemic summer in 2020, and it was canceled outright in 2021.

Doreen Ditoro, who serves on the Schenectady City Council and owns the Rossi & Ditoro Funeral Home, organized the festival Saturday, She said it cost about $8,500 for the businesses of Jay Street to put on and was worth every penny to see the people of Schenectady and the rest of the region gather again in public after so long.

“I think it’s been very successful,” she said of the crowd size. “People just want to get out of their homes. It’s a beautiful day. It’s downtown. This city is just explosive with everything it does. I love this city, and people come from all over.”

One dilemma for all annual events since the pandemic has been whether to stick with the number of years an event has been planned or the number of years its actually happened. Ditoro said, after some discussion, Saturday’s festival was dubbed the 17th Annual Little Italy StreetFest.

“We decided to go with 17, not to mess anybody up,” she said.

For many in attendance. this was their first time at the Little Italy StreetFest. Among them was Brenda Lubrano-Birken of Clifton Park, who said she came to Jay Street Saturday in part because she thinks Civitello’s has the best Italian Ice around, but also for other Italian food items like cannolis from Perecca’s and piece of pizza.

“I’ve never been to this before, but this is kind of a festival weekend, so we decided to check it out,” she said, holding several food items she’d purchased while waiting in line for an improvisational theater activity at MOPCO:The Mopco Improv Theatre.

Michael Burns, owner of MOPCO, said attendance Saturday wasn’t as strong as the last pre-pandemic year for the Little Italy StreetFest, which traditionally has drawn as many as 10,000 people for good weather editions of the event, but he said it still served its function of enabling Jay Street businesses to connect with new customers.

“What we’ve been doing today is every hour, on the hour, we’ve been three [improv] shows about 20 minutes long, and we’ve been giving out prizes,” he said pointing to a spinning wheel just outside the entrance to the theater. “This is for outreach. Some folks are trying to make a lot of money, right? And I don’t mind doing that either, but it’s more important for people to get to know us and come in and see what it’s like.”

Hundreds of people at any given moment walked up and down North Jay Street trying different foods and listening to live musical performers, like “Ed Clifford, the Human Jukebox” and bands like “Happy Daze” and “The Rouges.”

Ditoro said probably the most popular food item at the festival are the “rice balls” from Perreca’s, although another popular food source were the baked goods from St. Anthony’s Church. Sister Maria Rosa Querini said the church baked a lot of Italian pastries for the festival, including homemade pasta.

“The best? The pepper cookies,” she said, referencing the Italian pastries made with ground black pepper.

Ditoro said one of the themes of the 17th Annual Little Italy StreetFest was making the event as kid-friendly as possible. Toward that end she paid for two bounce houses to be set up in the parking lot of her funeral home after the company that normally operates the inflatable bounce houses  canceled.

“I rented these on my own, because we need to keep the children here, and parents love it,” she said.

More: All NewsEverything Schenectady


Saturday marked the 7th year since Amsterdam’s Tourism, Marketing and Recreation Department, under former Mayor Michael Villa’s administration, revived the decades-old tradition of Italian festivals held on Amsterdam’s Southside by creating ItaliaFest — the city’s largest annual tourism event, and the centerpiece of its #FestCityUSA marking strategy.

Amsterdam’s Tourism, Marketing and Recreation Department Director Rob Spagnola said Saturday’s ItaliaFest was technically the 6th edition, since it was canceled one year due to the pandemic.

“Pick a number,” Spagnola said in terms of what the official name should be.

Michele Pawlik, the citys’ assistant director of Tourism, Marketing and Recreation, said it should be lucky number 7 for ItaliaFest.

“I think this is our best year ever,” Pawlik said, looking around at the crowds of people enjoying the sunshine, food and games on the city’s Southside on Saturday.

“From 11 a.m. on, it’s been non stop people coming in and out,” Pawlik said.

“We don’t have any ‘advanced metrics,’ but there’s a lot of people,” Spagnola quipped.

One of the keys to the 7th annual ItaliaFest were food contests.

Amsterdam Youth Baseball conducted a best-pizza-in-the-city contest fundraiser, with the pizzas donated from Lorenzo’s Southside, Goodfellas Pizza and Bosco’s, which came in 1st place. Amsterdam Youth Baseball raised approximately $1,000 from the sale of the slices.

Southside Slice, which opened in January, also conducted a pizza-eating contest, with a man named Morales Vlez successfully eating a pizza that included 24 ounces of dough, one pound of sauce and one pound of cheese in five minutes, winning him $100.

Brent Yager, owner of Southside Slice, said he has a standing contest that he runs once a week where people attempt to eat the same-sized pizza portion in under three minutes for a prize of $300. He said nobody has been able to do it yet, and he was impressed Vlez pulled it off in five minutes.

“I’ve never seen anybody do it that fast,” Yager said.

Pawlik said Saturday’s edition of Amsterdam ItaliaFest included an evening fireworks display thanks to the sponsorship of the River Ridge Living Center.

More: All NewsEverything Schenectady

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