Tastes like old times


Growing up on the cusp of the Ninth Street Market, there were two mornings a year that Emilio Mignucci anticipated more than any of the other 363.

First was Christmas morning.

A close second was the morning marking the start of the Italian Market Festival.

On that day, Mignucci — who now owns DiBruno Bros. cheese shop at 930 S. Ninth St. — would attend Mass with his family, all the while praying for the priest to deliver a speedy homily.

"Come on, Father, please hurry up," he remembers pleading to himself, anxious for church to let out and the fun of the festival to begin.

Next weekend, the merchants of the Italian Market and a new corporate sponsor, Sorrento Cheese, hope to revive that feeling of excitement for Mignucci and thousands of people across Philadelphia and the suburbs. The market will be hosting the annual event — now known as the Sorrento Cheese 9th Street Italian Market Festival — for the first time in five years.

During its heyday, more than 150,000 revelers would clog the country’s oldest Italian market on festival day to scarf down ethnic delicacies, dance to traditional music and play Old World games.

The first Ninth Street Festival took place in October 1971. It quickly became a fall fixture, featuring traditional Italian activities and entertainment. The merchants rescheduled the festival for May in 1990 to better take advantage of the season’s crop of fresh fruits and vegetables. The celebration continued until 1997, when various rehabilitation projects to the market forced organizers to suspend the event, and it never regained momentum.

Sorrento has been negotiating with the merchants for nearly two years about reviving the festival, said Fred Herman, marketing director for the cheese manufacturer.

The company is already a sponsor of several similar festivals around the country, including ones in Boston, San Francisco and Buffalo, N.Y., where its corporate offices are located. Herman explained it is part of Sorrento’s mission to promote and preserve Italian culture.

"Although we do events in other cities," Herman said, "this one is particularly important because I can’t think of a better place than the Ninth Street Market area."

He also praised the devotion of the merchants and surrounding community.

"The passion behind the festival and the support of the festival is unmatched," Herman said.

Louise Cianfero Simpson grew up in Girard Estate and used to attend that festival every year with her family. Today she owns a business called Absolutely Philadelphia, which offers historical tours of the Italian Market.

She will be guiding groups along Ninth Street next weekend, telling the histories of the strip’s oldest family businesses.

Asked what visitors should expect this year, she said, "Food, food, food, music, dancing."

Simpson and some of the other merchants say the market is ripe for such a revival. The market is making a comeback, and it’s not just little old ladies from the neighborhood buying tomatoes and veal cutlets anymore, Simpson said.

"Now on Saturday, it’s full of yuppies," she noted.

Mignucci said he has noticed the market’s increasing popularity, as did Sonny D’Angelo, owner of D’Angelo Bros. Meat Market. He counts customers not just from Philadelphia and South Jersey, but from as far away as Maryland, New York, Delaware and Connecticut.

"[The Italian Market] is a lot larger than just the neighborhood market," D’Angelo said, "and I would really love to see it attain its potential."

Among the events scheduled during the two-day festival is a free concert by South Philly native Bobby Rydell on June 1 at noon at Ninth and Christian streets. Immediately after the show, there will be a "Il Palo della Cuccagna," or traditional greased pole climb, where teams of participants will scale a slippery stanchion set up at Ninth and Montrose in hope of snatching prizes.

On May 31 at noon, a contest will pit some of the city’s politicians and prominent personalities against one another for the title of "Philly’s Big Cheese." A few hours later, children participating in the "Rocky Race" will have the opportunity to reenact the scene from Rocky II when the famous fictitious southpaw ran through the market.

Feast on the fun

Food, music and greased poles — the revived market festival has all the trappings of the traditional celebration. Here’s the schedule of events taking place during the two-day event, May 31 and June 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Saturday, May 31

* 9 a.m.: Opening ceremony

* Noon: "Philly’s Big Cheese Contest." City’s politicians and personalities compete for laughs on stage at Ninth and Christian.

* 2:30 p.m.: "Rocky Race." Children recreate Rocky Balboa’s famous jaunt through the Italian Market area, Christian Street between Ninth and 10th.

Sunday, June 1

* Noon: Bobby Rydell in concert at Ninth and Christian joined by other entertainers and singers, including string bands and opera singers.

* 1 p.m.: "Il Palo della Cuccagna." Teams climb a greased pole at Ninth and Montrose in hopes of snagging prizes.

Events throughout the festival

* Food, food, food! Vendors will line the streets selling traditional Italian delicacies.

* Artisan market

* Free guided tours of the Mario Lanza Museum, 712 Montrose St.

* Bocce instruction and exhibition at Bardascino Park, 10th and Kimball.