SCRANTON — As crowds gathered in front of the UNICO stand at the 41st annual La Festa Italiana Sunday afternoon, Pat Yanni stepped away from the large tray of porketta he was serving up to talk about the popular festival’s past.
Yanni — a longtime UNICO Scranton Chapter member and one of the festival’s original organizers — recalled the first year of the event, when his group wondered if it was even going to sell the food they brought.
“(The UNICO stand) started out 41 years ago with 30 pounds of porketta. We were wondering if we could even sell it all,” he said. “Now, we sell over 4,800 pounds.”
The festival began Friday, ran through 8 p.m. Monday. Admission into the event was free, and proceeds go to a variety of charities, including St. Jude’s Hospital and various college scholarship funds.
Rows of local and out-of-state vendors line the outskirts of Courthouse Square in Scranton ready to serve up some of the most popular — and authentic — Italian dishes. While food is certainly the biggest aspect of the event, the weekend also includes live music and entertainment, art, trinkets and cultural pieces.
Originally, the festival took place over Columbus Day weekend in October. However, the cooler fall air didn’t make for a good crowd, so the event was moved to Labor Day weekend.
“Since Columbus was an Italian explorer, we made it an Italian event,” Yanni said. “But now, it’s for everybody.”
The event was expected to draw 100,000 to 150,000 attendees.
Donna DaVanzo came to the event with Cathy Mackes and Colleen and Josette Curtolo. The group travels to the festival from Roseto yearly.
“We started coming because my son and grandson have a Rita’s stand here,” DaVanzo said.
“After we started coming for him, we started coming for the food,” Mackes said with a chuckle.
While many vendors have a variety of foods ranging from main dishes to desserts, others focus solely on one thing.
Ralph Pepe owns Joey’s Best Brooklyn Bakeries out of Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s been preparing, transporting and selling some of his finest and most popular Italian desserts at La Festa for over a decade.
In between bagging customer’s orders and answering questions about the sweets, Pepe said he enjoys seeing the crowd grow every year.
“Especially now with this nice weekend weather, the people love to come out, walk around and eat,” he said.
His best seller? Sorry, eclairs and raspberry tarts. The cannoli takes the prize.
While cannolis were popular sellers all-around, Madeline Santaniello came to the festival for a different treat — sfogliatella.
A flaky, light-layered dough wrapped around Ricotta cheese, sfogliatella is a true Italian pastry delight and one that can be difficult to find locally, Santaniello said.
“That’s basically why we come here,” she said. “You can get other Italian pastries anywhere, but the sfogliatella …”
Sitting at a picnic table finishing their meals, Santaniello, Frances Vitale, of Scranton, and Fran Fawzon, formerly of Scranton, agreed that the festival represents authentic Italian-American cuisine and culture.
“It’s different than Italy’s, but Italian-American — absolutely,” Vitale said.
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