By Dan the Traveling Man
Every summer, the Italian-American community of Gloucester, Massachusetts hosts Saint Peter’s Fiesta. It pays homage to Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen and it celebrates the town’s historic fishing industry. This five-day event includes parades, a Carnival, sporting events, blessings, masses, and food. I am of Italian ancestry on my mother’s side of the family, and I always wanted to go to an Italian fiesta. I thought it would be a great way to connect with my heritage.
The festival was held appropriately enough Saint Peter’s Square in downtown Gloucester. I arrived at the event pretty early before the crowds showed up. It gave me enough time to have lunch. There were vendors that sold typical carnival foods like fried dough and caramel apples, but I wanted Italian food. Thankfully, there was a vendor called Crispelli USA! It served Sicilian street food. I had an arancini, a fried rice ball stuffed with ground beef, mozzarella cheese, and peas and smothered in a tomato sauce that was sweet with a hint of spice. The arancini was so exquisite that I ordered another one! For dessert, I ate spignione alla nutella, a crispy doughnut made out of rice dough. It was filled with warm, gooey nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread that goes well with any dessert!
Before the sporting events, I walked around the center of town. The town definitely prepared itself for the festival. I felt as if I were in the North End: Boston’s Little Italy. There were colorful swags hanging from the telephone poles, Italian flags flying in the air, and many images of Saint Peter. On Main Street, there was a boutique selling t-shirts saying, “Viva San Pietro” (“Long Live Saint Peter”) and a bookstore selling the book, Nonna, What is St. Peter’s Fiesta? by Laura M. Alberghini Ventimiglia.
I also stopped by Virgilio’s, a cute Italian grocery store and bakery. It is a place I love going to whenever I am in Gloucester. Virgilio’s has been in business since 1934, and it is a great place to buy traditional Italian ingredients. They sell a variety of breads, pastas, sauces, sandwiches, and deli meats. I always enjoy getting their sfogliatelle, layered Neapolitan pastries stuffed with ricotta cheese that is flavored with candied orange peels and cinnamon.
Toward the late afternoon, it was time for the 91st Annual Saint Peter’s Sporting Events. Large crowds gathered at the beach to watch the Seine Boat Races and the Greasy Pole Contest, which is perhaps the most well-known and infamous of the two. Contestants try to walk across a pole suspended over the Gloucester Harbor that is covered with oils and fats to catch the flag at the end of it. They get three chances. It was an outrageous game because many contestants would slip off the pole and fall into the harbor. Some would even fall onto their bodies, back sides, and kneecaps onto the pole and then to the water. Luckily, there were no terrible injuries. It took a while for someone to win and by then, everyone, including myself, were jumping for joy.
After the games, I watched the parade and the opening ceremony. It was then that I started to feel more in touch with my Italian roots. Several men were marching with a statue of Saint Peter and chanting, “Viva San Pietro.” They allowed the parade watchers to march with them, too. I joined in and it felt nice to march and chant with them. I was speaking the language of my ancestors. My ancestors probably worshipped Saint Peter too. I liked hearing Gloucester’s Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken’s speech because she spoke in both English and Italian, which kind of surprised me. I never heard Italian spoken at a public event before. She spoke it very well too. Italian is not a foreign language I hear much in the U.S. because most Italian-Americans speak English these days. Maybe I should learn the language to connect more with my heritage.
Going to Saint Peter’s Fiesta was an unforgettable experience. It was fun eating the different foods, watching the sporting events, and taking part in the parade. It also inspired me to visit other Italian festival, such as the Feast of Saint Anthony in the North End. I cannot wait to go there next month! For more information on Gloucester’s annual Saint Peter’s Fiesta, click here.