It was the fall of 2004 during a casual sit-down conversation I enjoyed with then president of the Sons of Italy, Tom DelSanto.
We had been reminiscing about the popular Italian Festivals held behind St. Thomas Church on Bristol Street. Those former festivals in the 1960s had Italian music, numerous vendors selling Torrone, Italian nuts on strings and Italian ice. There was pizza fritta, ice cream and of course, cannolis.
Other booths sold cheese, meats and religious items. There were hundreds of people wandering in the huge parking lot. The festival ended with fireworks shot from the former high school athletic field, off Eden Avenue.
“Those were nice times,” DelSanto would say. We both agreed that when the St. Thomas events ended, it was like people thought that those Italian festivals were gone forever.
We looked at one another and instantly realized that the organizations we represented could provide enough people and ideas to bring these festivals back to life.
We contacted a member of the Southington Unico Club, Joe LaPorte, and as a trio met to begin optimistic planning. It was the beginning of what will be the 14th festival this weekend at the same location on Lower Center Street.
After all, at one table we had the Sons of Italy, Unico and the Chamber of Commerce, during my second year as president. Combined we had a potential army of volunteers and more than a handful of potential sponsors.
Thus, as 2005 came, we had put together a committee from the three organizations. These were members who were excited about our venture. However, we began with the obvious questions. Where would we host this event? How much would it cost? Did we need police or entertainment?
Eventually, we received permission from the owners of the Sons of Italy adjacent parking lot to use that as the main area.
We got permission from the town to use the mobile stage and LaPorte and others agreed to search for entertainment venues. Accountant Mike Fasulo would serve as treasurer. Bill Della Vecchia would seek sponsorships from close friends he knew from his banking career.
I offered the Chamber’s support with potential member-sponsors and DelSanto would call upon Italian families throughout the membership rolls to volunteer.
The trio found a carnival company that would agree to offer limited rides and games because of the lack of space.
The town gave us Center Street so we could mirror the Italian festivals in New York’s Little Italy. Together, we had an assembled committee of 13 people.
The first festival was a big challenge. We needed restaurants to become weekend vendors, we had to find musicians to play for three nights at limited compensation, we needed to rent two huge tents and hundreds of chairs and we needed to hire an electrician to string rented red, white and green lights above the street.
In the end, after months of cooperative planning, the trio had assembled a game plan that would again honor Italian heritage for all citizens to enjoy. Sponsors suddenly came forth and a large soda company, thanks to Mike DeFeo, agreed to supply bottles of soda at a reduced price. Gerry Limmer would assist us with DJ music and the cleanup crew would be staffed with the children of Sons of Italy members.
The Chamber, Sons of Italy and Unico would share in any profit. After four years, the new leadership of the groups agreed to donate any profits.
The committee agreed to end the weekend festival in July with an open, outdoor Mass celebrated in Italian. St. Thomas Church agreed to partake and sponsors came forth to help offset expenses, like Baker Religious on West St. Dan Quinlan offered his company to sweep the lot at closing. The Fragola, Votino, Denorfia, Mancini, Calvanese, Mongillo, Serafino, Angelillo, Carbone, Milo, Della Vecchia, Verderame, Volpe and Nanfito and other prominent families gave the committee financial strength with sponsorship and smaller supporters chipped in to help with police expenses which already had been reduced by our gracious police department.
Everybody congratulated each other for a tremendous team effort. Those who served on the original committee were Tom DelSanto, Joe LaPorte, Mike Fasulo, Jim Macchio, Carmine Votino, Geno Torone, Bill Della Vecchia, Mike DelSanto, Lou Martocchio, Mark Sciota, Dave Zoni and yours truly.
The festival became so popular that our original estimates of 5,000 attendees proved to be extremely low. The festivals for the first five years averaged more than 12,000 people for the July weekend. Because of the continued sponsorship of Unico, Sons of Italy and the addition of the Sorelle d’ Italia women, the first festival had 10 food and other vendors.
In 2006 there were 22 vendors. The festival now attracts upwards of 14,000 people. LaPorte had secured the talent of a talented, handsome Italian singer from New York. Only the July weather hindered a three-day success.
It seemed it would rain on one of the three days. But the outdoor Mass was always sunny. The statue adoration procession around the block brought tears to those from Italy.
This weekend’s gala starts at 5 p.m. Dawn Miceli of Unico has announced that a fireworks display will officially close day two of the festival on Saturday night.
A singer-songwriter will perform on stage as the highlight of Friday and Saturday entertainment. “There’s going to be lots to do for people from face painting for kids, the wine contest and of course, new and former vendors with outstanding Italian delights,” Miceli said.
The festival ends Sunday at 6 p.m.
LaPorte, DelSanto and I will be applauding from a corner table.