Red Sauce America - Food, Culture, and Italian American Experience

The Many Foods of the Feast of San Gennaro

By on Friday, September 22nd, 2023 at 6:59 pm | 685 views

Sausage and peppers on a roll are the classic san gennaro food

The Feast of San Gennaro festival in New York City started in 1926 when a group of men from the same village in Naples decided to roast a few chickens to celebrate their beloved saint.The neighborhood block party quickly evolved into a street fair organized by Italian Americans in Manhattan.

Sausage and peppers have long been a mainstay of the festival. The food was so popular, you could even track inflation through the years by looking at the price of the sandwiches, reported with some regularity in the area newspapers from the post-war period onward. I do like a good sausage and pepper sandwich, but find its a great way to end up eating nothing else.

Italian American cuisine has been a big part of the festival since it was founded, including pizza, calzone, and Italian desserts. Pizza was even popular at the festival before it was widespread in America.

But any naysayers maligning the feast for the non-Italian foods served at the stalls should know this has been a criticism of the festival since at least the 1950s. Yes, seventy years ago, the festival included a variety of ethnic foods found in New York City.

Ironically, if the city’s other street fairs have a similar vibe, its probably because the same vendors who ran the Feast of San Gennaro for most of the twentieth century had set up businesses to run similar events around New York. Today, there is a huge variety of food available, some traditionally Italian American and some representing the multiculturalism of the city itself.

Here’s a look at some of the foods found at the 2023 San Gennaro Festival.

John Fasullo's sausages have been around almost as long as the festival

John Fasullo’s sausage stand has been selling sausage and peppers since the second or third feast, nearly a hundred years ago. They also sell braciole, a piece of meat stuffed with cheese and other tasties, depending the recipe.

Arancini at san gennaro food

There were a few varieties of Arancini, the Sicilian fried rice balls stuffed with tasty things. These were some of the larger ones I saw, but there were smaller ones sold as pairs or three at a time.

Zeppole and funnel cake at San gennaro

Fried dough balls are a mainstay of any Italian American festival and San Gennaro is no different. These are usually topped with powdered sugar in a brown bag.

Funnel cakes are frequently sold alongside zeppole, and have been synonymous with the feast since being introduced by the Pennsylvania Dutch, Germans who settled in the Keystone state.

My preferred spot to go is Danny’s on the Corner, who in previous years have sponsored a zeppole eating contest. His stand also sells deep-fried tricolor cookies.

Other stands will fry up foods like Oreos and Twinkies. When I was a kid, the idea of deep frying an Oreo had the appeal of forbidden fruit– my parents weren’t about to get those. Then once in college I ordered them and found them sickeningly sweet.

St. Joseph Day zeppole

These “zeppole” are usually served at St. Joseph’s Day. The fried (or baked) treats are stuffed with custard or cannoli cream and topped with a cherry. While the festival is known for Zeppole, this variation is less popular than the fried dough balls. Apparently though in parts of Rhode Island, these fanciful pastries are more commonly known as zeppole all year long.

Fresh mozzarella awaits a sandwich

Anthony Agostino and Giacomo Cunsolo were making fresh mozzarella and stuffing them into sandwiches with chicken cutlet and roasted red pepper.

I had one of the sandwiches the later in the week and it was pretty good, topped with balsamic vinegar. The stand also offered a sandwich made with prosciutto or with tomatoes, and the duo can be hired ffor events like weddings.

I’m always curious how people are able to eat artichokes at street fairs. It seems like a complicated endeavor when there isn’t much space to sit.

Italian cookies are popular items. And to be honest, probably a great way to celebrate the festival. Unlike zeppole which quickly degrade in quality after leaving the fry oil, biscotti like these transport well and make a good treat when you’ve returned home from the festival and suddenly realize you’re hungry again.

Clams and oysters at the festival

Clams and oysters on the half-shell are often popular at the feast.

Clams and oysters at the festival of san gennaro

These look perfectly fresh, but I’m personally always skeptical of raw seafood on a warm summer day. Umberto’s Clambroth House had several stands selling hot stuffed clams. And I did see a seafood salad. Good luck to everyone.

pasta in a cheese wheel

Several different stands were offering variations on this dish: pasta, prepared in a wheel of parmigiana. This stand combined fettuccine with some kind of liquid, whether it was cream sauce or simply a starchy liquid, I wasn’t sure. The cook then added heat from a blowtorch while stirring.

One stand offering this technique was explicitly selling cacio e pepe — pasta with cheese and pepper — but I’ve also seen this referred to as Alfredo sauce. To be clear, neither dish is traditionally prepared in a wheel of cheese. It seems like a waste of a good cheese, personally.

cannoli and Sfogliatelle at San Gennaro from Ferrara Bakery & Cafe

Pastries like Cannoli and Sfogliatelle are popular. Ferrara Bakery & Cafe usually has several stands throughout the feast.

Churros and tacos at San Gennaro

Churros have grown in popularity at the festival in recent years. This stand was also selling tacos, including one billed as a “sausage and peppers” taco.

Spiedini or meat on a stick?

No street fair would be complete without meat-on-a-stick. In Italy, roasted meat sticks are known as Spiedini. In upstate New York, they are turned into a sandwich known as a spiedie. Strangely know, almost all of the stands in at the feast referred to them as kebobs.

empanadas at san Gennaro

I only saw one empanadas stand at the feast. I prefer a calzone stuffed with cheese and ham, but both make a good street food. All the insides are neatly wrapped up in dough.

Pastéis de Nata at San Gennaro

The Pastéis de Nata is a Portuguese custard tart. I’ve had them in places like Provincetown and Newark where there are large Portuguese populations, as well as in Belém outside of Lisbon, but this was the first time I’ve seen them at San Gennaro or any street fair in New York City. They actually are a great fair food. They are small and compact, meaning a single one won’t fill you up.

legs of meat roasting at San Gennaro

There isn’t anything Italian per se about a giant leg of meat, but roasted turkey legs are not a new phenomenon at San Gennaro. I was surprised to find only one stand selling these big chunks of meat. There is something fundamentally Italian American to celebrate oversized legs of roasted meat — part of the abbondanza, the abundance, our ancestors found in the new world.

Turkey legs aren’t really my thing, but my Italian-born grandfather loved nothing more than chowing down on the giant leg at Thanksgiving.

Greek Style spinach pie

Greek-style spinach pie, Spanakopita, was available at a stand that also had gyros. There was a full menu of Greek-style food available served in pita with roasted meat.

I’ve seen it suggested that the Italian “hero” took its name from the Greek gyro about a century ago in New York City.

nutcrackers for sale

It’s not clear if this was an official stand and the drinks themselves were probably not legal either. The nutcracker is a favorite frozen, sugar-water and grain alcohol drink peddled on the city’s beaches and in parks.

Usually they are sold in plastic milk-bottles rather than squirt bottles. A sure sign that inflation is creeping up, the price of nutcrackers has jumped from $5 to $12 to $15.

The guys selling the drinks saw me snapping photos and were eager to have me photograph their inventory.

Arepas grilling at San Gennaro

Arepas originated in Central and South America made from ground maize flour and grilled with a filling, in this case cheese. They are fairly common at street fairs at least since at least the 2000s.

I remember buying one back in the early aughts just to see what it was like. First, it was expensive for two corn pancakes filled with cheese. Second, I distinctly remember being disappointed by the bland flavor and wondering who would buy these. I still wonder, honestly. There were numerous stands selling these, and yet I don’t think I saw anyone eating them.

Corn on the cob grilled at San Gennaro

Elote, Mexican-style corn on the cob, is pervasive at New York City’s street fairs. Here the corn is being roasted on a grill. There were a few stands selling the corn, but I didn’t see many people eating igt.

lemonade cups at San Gennaro

Lemonade has often been a popular drink for children at festivals like San Gennaro. These were being sold next to a bar offering cocktails.

sausage and peppers

Like the Feast of San Gennaro itself, this article begins and ends with sausage and peppers. These were from a stand at the north end of the festival near Houston Street.