Frank Colasurdo remembers being a part of La Festa Italiana when he was a small boy.
“I must have been 5 or 6 and this tall,” he said, holding his hand about three feet off the street.
The festival started in 1902 as an Italian celebration. But over the years it has evolved to reflect the changing population in the area.
The festival lasts for five days, starting on Aug. 12 and ending on Aug. 16, between Brunswick and Monmouth streets. Colasurdo is one of a number of family members who maintain a booth near the middle of the two-block long feast.
Amid the food vendors and other attractions, his booth stands out because it is filled with historic photographs, many of which depict the history of the feast itself.
“Some go back to Italy before that,” Colasurdo said.
In many ways, the pictures also illustrate a history of the Colasurdo family. Many of its members are still involved with the feast, occupying not only this booth, but a number other booths to either side.
The largest and most noticeable photograph is a wide-angle shot taken at the first feast in 1902, showing the hundreds of participants posed in the street in front of Holy Rosary church and its rectory.
Colasurdo’s grandfather Modesto came to America, bringing many pictures from his village to Jersey City. Holy Rosary has the distinction of being the oldest Italian-American church in the state of New Jersey. The church was established in 1885. The original families came from Morrone Del Sannio in Italy.
The booth was popular, as people browsed and often asked questions about the images.
“I worked with my grandfather when I was young,” he said. “I’ve pretty much always been here, except for a short time when I was a young man. But I came back and here I am.”
Celebrating two saints
La Festa Italiana kicked off as a street festival in honor of Our Lady of the Assumption (Aug. 15) and St. Rocco (Aug. 16). Parishioners at Holy Rosary Church in Historic Downtown Jersey City are celebrating 130 years as the first Italian parish in New Jersey.
“I worked with my grandfather when I was young.” – Frank Colasurdo
Opening night was packed with people from throughout Hudson County and featured a number of first time vendors such as Al Richard’s Chocolates from Bayonne, Maple Magic Confectionary of Jersey City, and Paint Me Sheri, a face and portrait painter based in Hoboken.
The street festival that accompanies the honoring of saints featured everything in the way of traditional Italian cuisine. But because of the changing nature of the neighborhood (and the Polish church around the corner) the feast offered many other kinds of food.
Many of the traditional vendors continued to take part, coming from Newark or nearby Bergen County, but some of the offerings are very much a local tradition.
Louisa DeBella has been making zeppoles at the festival for 40 years and wears a button calling her the Zeppole Queen.
“I’ve been here since 1985,” she said proudly.
Zeppoles are fried dough covered with powdered sugar, and usually a big hit at the event. Even on the first night when other booths were still only partially attended, hers had a significant line. She and others stood before large vats of hot oil to cook fresh zeppoles.
The event is not just about food. There were rides and other features and plenty of live music.
While adults ate everything from pizza and sausage to Polish dishes and beer, older kids climbed a rock wall or jumped on a trampoline, while younger kids climbed inflatable slides or jumped around inside other inflatable rides.
Sheri Almonda, from Paint Me Sheri, had a line of kids, some of whom wanted to become little Spidermen and other exotic characters.
“This takes time,” she said as she did the finishing touches on one girl’s face.
Lisa Danchak, of Maple Magic Confectionery, said she had high hopes for the event.
“This is our first time here,” she said. Cotton candy appeared to be the most popular item at that booth.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.