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Italian Market Festival set for this weekend

Old traditions return with new flairs.

Michele Gambino, business manager of the South 9th Street Italian Market and producer of its annual spring festival, inspects 30-foot high flagpole located by the visitor’s center. The pole will be used in the festival’s grease pole climbing competition. Although the competition was implemented two years ago, the activity echoes the old Italian tradition of Albero Della Cuccagna.

Close to a century ago, hundreds of Bella Vista neighbors, mostly first- and second-generations of Italian immigrants, started strolling South Philly streets every spring for the Procession of Saints.

Holding adorned holy statues high, the parade of parishioners drew folks of all ages to a cross section of work, play and religion.

“It was this weekend of activity that really showcased the community — the fact that people lived and worked here,” said Michele Gambino, business manager of the South 9th Street Italian Market and producer of its annual spring festival. “Everybody lived here. It was their home where they raised their kids and it was also their places of their business where they worked. It’s very romantic.”

Flashforward several decades, nearly 50,000 people — many still South Philadelphians, some from across the city and beyond — continue to convene in the heart of the Italian Market every May, embracing entertainment, culture, and, of course, cuisine.

For the 17th consecutive year, the South 9th Street Italian Market Festival will take place on May 19 and 20 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

From greased poles and porchetta to dance music and yoga mats, this year’s festival features a fusion of old customs with new ways.

The annual May event experienced a few phases over the years, evolving in some regard, yet retaining core traditions.

The original festival, described as “The Walk,” dates back to the 1950s and lasted through the 1980s. After a hiatus in the mid-to late 1990s, Gambino, while working on the city-wide the Book and the Cook 20 years ago, connected with a Sorrento cheese merchant, sparking the annual festival’s current rendition.

“A lot of it was a throwback or left over from what they were used to,” she said. “The festival that you see today has been completely switched around, revised, changed to accommodate the needs of today.”

While logistics like security measures had to be considered into the revamped event, Gambino says, in the genesis, one concept was for certain.

“We knew that it really revolved around food,” she said. “We knew it was the star of the festival, and it still is. And, so we knew that food was key. And we also knew that people wanted to come for entertainment.”

Since the launch 17 years ago, the event has grown nearly tenfold, as now more than 60 vendors and four performance stages occupy a city within the city. The festival occupies six blocks north to south — from Wharton to Fitzwater — and two blocks west to east from 8th to 10th.

Scattered throughout the 10-block bubble are various events, including the Spread the Wiz Zone full of family-oriented fun at Pat Steak’s, and the Get Fit Zone at Christian and Delhi streets, which will provide yoga classes and push-up bar challenges.

The weekend also will see a new antique Italian car show, an assortment of artist vendors, beer and wine gardens, the John Marzano Half Ball Tournament and the Grease Pole Climbing Competition, which echoes the old Italian tradition of Albero Della Cuccagna.

The lineup of artists will feature festival staples like pop singer Felicia Punzo and DJ Johnny Looch to newbies like Don’t Call Me Francis Band and dance music group Go Go Gadjet.

While there will be cannolis galore, and the festival welcomes the food of new merchants that have recently popped up on 9th Street, including Latin eateries that shared empanadas and more at recent festivals.

“We’ve always been a street of immigrants, so they’ve embraced that immigrant history and tradition,” Gambino said. “That’s opened up a whole new aspect of food.”

On that Sunday, at 11 a.m. the festival’s focal point — the Procession of Saints — commences, starting at Saint Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi Church. The walk pauses for the Blessing of the Market at 9th and Washington. Then it concludes at St. Paul Catholic Church.

Pinning the saints with ribbons, money and prayers, Gambino says it’s the one event in the festival that draws effort from the entire community — the very idea that keeps alluring thousands of folks back to the weekend-long spectacle each year.

“I think (the festival is) really a sense of community, and I think that’s the one thing South Philly has held onto … I think food provides that sense of warmth for everybody,” Gambino said.

The South 9th Street Italian Market Festival will take place on May 19 and 20 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.italianmarketfestival.com.

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