Italian music and the smell of fried dough floated on the breeze at the Columbus Festival in Cook Park over the weekend.
The second annual celebration of Italian heritage, which took place Saturday and Sunday, drew a large, diverse crowd eager to shop, sample authentic Italian cuisine and learn a bit about the Italian culture.
Two thousand people turned out on Saturday, and the lines were long at the food booths and attractions on Sunday afternoon.
The festival filled a gap left when the city of Albany canceled its Columbus Day-related events. Columbus Day is today.
“This year is the first year in 20 years that they did nothing at all — no parade or festival,” said Biagio Isgro Jr., event coordinator for the festival in Cook Park.
Isgro is intent on continuing to celebrate Columbus Day on a grand scale, not only to honor the famed explorer, but to promote a positive image for Italian-Americans and to ensure that Italian traditions live on.
“We’re fostering and continuing our traditions for the new generations to come,” he explained. “We want to keep that alive so that the upcoming generations will know where they came from.”
Festival-goers on Sunday had ample opportunity to learn about Italian heritage through educational exhibits and entertainment that included a live Italian opera performance and traditional Italian dancing.
Barbara Sanchez and Steven Maher of Halfmoon brought their grandchildren, Lauren Dundon, 6, and Billy Dundon, 8, to the event for the rides and the food, but also to expose them to Italian culture. As they waited in line for Tots the Clown to make them balloon animals, Billy shared what he learned about Columbus in school this year: “He took three boats,” he proudly reported, “The Nina …” he began, then looked to his parents for prompts on the names of the other two boats.
Ed Konow, a member of the Columbia County Sons & Daughters of Italy Lodge 659 in Hudson, volunteered to dress up as Christopher Columbus for the event. Although of Germanic descent, Konow made a convincing Columbus, in his feathered cap, black knickers, yellow stockings and buckle shoes.
For a $1 donation to the Alzheimer’s Association, festival-goers could pose for a photo with the explorer lookalike, and receive two faux-gold coins and a brief history of Columbus’ first voyage.
Not far from the photo area, volunteers offered Italian instruction on colors, numbers and simple phrases.
The educational aspect of the event is part of what drew Laura Fasano, of Rochester, to the festival. She brought her daughter, Marina, 7, in hopes that she would learn something about Italian culture. “We try to pass the traditions down to the kids as much as possible. It’s hard for them to understand, but we try to do stuff to celebrate our heritage,” Laura said.
Priscilla and Dan Touhey of Northampton, Mass., brought their children, Abigail, 7, and Connor, 10, to the festival just for the fun of it. “We wanted to get away for a bit and this looked like a fun thing to do, and we like Italian food,” said Priscilla, as she and Dan enjoyed some steaming pasta fagioli and sausage and peppers.
When asked what he knew about Christopher Columbus, Connor, his lips blue from a recently eaten sno-cone, proudly announced, “He discovered America!”
The festival offered plenty of choices for Italian food lovers, including penne, marinara and meatballs; zeppole — a deep-fried Italian pastry — and pizza, all prepared by volunteers.
Not-so-Italian specialties, including cotton candy and kettle corn, were also on hand.
John Heffern, from Green Island, came out for “the weather, the music and the food.”
He also did a little shopping while he was there. He bought himself a T-shirt with “Italian Drinking Team” emblazoned on the front.
“It’s a fun event,” he said. “The pasta fagioli was really good, and the sausage and peppers.”
The Columbus Festival was sponsored by a group called CIAO, which is short for The Council of Italian-American Organizations.
The group, which was founded by Isgro, comprises the Albany Italian-American Community Center, the Albany Sons of Italy Roma Intangible Lodge 215, the Troy Italian Community Center and the Columbia County Sons & Daughters of Italy Lodge 659.
“We came together as an advocacy group to promote a positive image for Italian-Americans because there really is not one voice,” said Isgro.