AMSTERDAM -- As Mayor Michael Villa walked through the 4th Annual ItaliaFest on Amsterdam's Southside with Frank Sinatra's "My Way" playing over the speaker system, a wave of pride washed over the incumbent official.
"The reception that I get as I walk through the crowd — it's just everybody reminiscing, and really happy this event is occurring. It makes me happy, you know. It took a lot of work from a lot of people," Villa said.
While Amsterdam's Southside had long hosted Italian-themed festivals in past decades, the practice ended before Villa took office. He spearheaded the event's return, making it city-sponsored and part of the reorganization of the city's recreation department into the Tourism, Marketing and Recreation Department, under the leadership of director Robert Spagnola and his assistants Michele Pawlik and Michelle Jackson.
Amsterdam has increased the number of city-sponsored tourism events from 9 to 27 under Villa's administration, with the largest event being ItaliaFest. The city promotes the event as part of its #FestCityUSA and #SoMuchToDoinAmsterdamNY social media campaigns.
Spagnola, Pawlik and Jackson organized the event, which featured 120 vendors, 20 food providers, amusement park rides, live music from performers including Doug Ferony, fireworks over the site of the former Chalmers Knitting Mill, and a spaghetti-eating contest sponsored by "Lorenzo's Southside" restaurant, owned by the Lanzi family.
Although dark rain clouds loomed, a robust crowd turned out in the early afternoon. The air was cool, but the smells of fresh Italian food, including pizza, pasta of all kinds, meatballs and pastries, filled the air with a warm and inviting fragrance. At the Russo's Grill table, 1st Ward Alderman Patrick Russo worked the cash register for his family's business, selling items such as eggplant rollatini.
Spagnola said the total cost of the event was about $10,000, with most of it donated by sponsors. He said he was grateful that the event came together without any hitches.
"All of the vendors showed up and got in without any problems," he said.
The Knights of Columbus operated a "free throw dice" table, allowing people to bet up to three dollars on a potential dice throw. Grand Knight Jeff Stark said he caps the bets at only three dollars "so nobody will get killed."
"It's a fundraiser for the Knights of Columbus. We were asked to provide it, we're one of two organizations in the city that actually have a New York state gaming license, which is important because you can't run it without that. Whatever we make, a percentage goes to the city," Stark said.
Custom sticker manufacturer Sticker Mule, located in Amsterdam, helped sponsor ItaliaFest and operated a table during the event, giving away t-shirts, buttons, stickers, coasters and other items with the company logo and slogans along with images referencing the city of Amsterdam. The company also had its mule mascot, a person in a mule costume, holding up a sign that said the company is hiring new workers.
Sticker Mule warehouse manager Ralph Tambasco said ItaliaFest is an important event for the company, which is trying to fill 30 to 40 new positions.
"This is very helpful. We've got applications here and we do on-the-spot interviews. We're a growing company," he said.
Tracy Tucker, who owns "The Walk-in Closet" consignment store and a business inside of it called "Hempworks," said Saturday's ItaliaFest offered a perfect opportunity for her to introduce her hemp-based CBD oil products to new customers.
"We've been talking to a lot of people, educating a lot of people. People don't know what CBD oil is for; a lot ask if it's marijuana," she said.
Before ItaliaFest kicked off, approximately 100 runners participated in the "Cops and Joggers 5K" race at 10 a.m., among them Rob and Brittany Briceno. While Rob is from Gloversville and Brittany is from Fonda, both said they have strong connections to Amsterdam. They said a portion of the $20 registration fee for the run was donated to the memorial fund for the 20 victims of the Oct. 6 Schoharie limo crash.
"We live out of the area now, but this is like home for us," Brittany said.