Last year, we went to the Hoboken Italian Festival and enjoyed the waterfront views, the food and the nostalgia. I thought I would post this story again because the 2016 Festa is coming up again...
Festival Dates for 2016: September 8th – 11th
The 800 pound statue of the Madonna dei Martiri procession runs through the streets of Hoboken on Saturday, September 10th. As you read my article, you'll discover that there's more than the Festival itself to make the trip worth it...
My Mom and Dad both grew up in Hoboken, with many other Italian immigrants, many families (like my Dad's) were from Molfetta. In Molfetta in early September they have a feast to honor the Madonna dei Martiri (Madonna of the Martyrs). When I was a boy I went to the "feast" (as we called it) many times with my Parents, Uncles, Aunts and Grandmother... there was a grand procession, where young and old men would carry the hefty statue of the Madonna through the streets. There was usually a raised stage set up on a corner with Italian singers, dancers, and even dramatic short plays from the old country. Then there was the food. You name it and it was there. All manner of Italian delicacies... spaghetti dinners on long tables set up at curbside, meatball or sausage and pepper sandwiches, deep fried calamari, zeppole, pastries and much more.
Most of the old Italians have passed on and their children have moved away from Hoboken during its years of gentrification and revitalization. When I was a kid, Hoboken had some very iffy neighborhoods and some decent ones. It's a small town-only one mile square--but has a lot going for it, especially nowadays--if you can afford to live there, that is. You see, Hoboken has become essentially an upscale neighborhood linked so tightly to Manhattan that you almost don't notice the mile and a half wide Hudson river flowing between them.
Of course, in the old days the town's fame came from it's most popular and well known product--Frank Sinatra. My Mom went to grade school with him (and said that all the girls didn't "go" for him because he was so skinny). There is a wonderful waterfront park and promenade named after old Blue Eyes--Sinatra Park, which is where the Italian Festival is held.
Nowdays, he has been replaced with the newcomer, Buddy Valastro, of Carlo's Bakery and TV's Cake Boss fame. But Hoboken has a lot more going for it than its Italian heritage, Sinatra or Buddy's overpriced fondant covered cakes. We rediscovered it's charm and beauty while going to the Italian Festival last weekend. But, there is both good news and bad what we discovered there...
First of all, we tried to park. Most free parking spaces are taken up by residents with parking permits on their windshields. There are also lots of those new style computer parking kiosks--if you can find an empty parking space at all. Hoboken always had a problem with parking--when I was young, dodging double parked cars on its narrow city streets was something you just had to put up with. Not much has changed today. In fact, we couldn't find a spot so decided to park in a newer indoor garage in one of the many newer apartment buildings that line the east side of town... for $30! That's Manhattan prices, alright.
Then there was the festival itself. We went down to Sinatra Park to where the food concessions were. There were the prerequisite offerings of sausage and pepper sandwiches, zeppoles, pizza, and a Cake Boss tent with a nearly sold out batch of cannoli, but there was also Greek souvlaki, Mexican food, the "MozzaRepas" corn cakes, Argentinian meats and zeppoles made by a nice, but very un-Italian, Ecuadoran lady. There was a Spanish guy that had a wood fired oven on a trailer rig so we got one, but it was very bland--nice crust, but no spices in the sauce. The sausage and pepper sandwich was just not authentic. The Italian pastries in another tent looked like they were purchased at a supermarket. And even though the procession carrying the statue was supposed to be down near this area while we were there, we never saw it. Perhaps it got tied up in the awful Hoboken traffic. The only music was some old guy singing lame versions of Sinatra songs to pre-recorded MIDI Karioke tracks. Lordy... where's the mozzarella to stuff my ears?!
Ok, so the old style Italian Festival is virtually dead and gone. It's a lot different from the Festa of the Madonna dei Martiri when I was a kid. After all, when you look at the faces in this town all you rarely see one under 30 years old. I wonder how they can afford to live in Hoboken.
But now the good. If you want to visit Manhattan, don't go there, go to Hoboken. This town has evolved into the liveliness of the way Greenwich Village was in the Sixties. There are bars, clubs, restaurants of every cuisine you can imagine, chic shops, cool gritty shops, specialty food shops, coffee, cheese, even hand made cigars. This place is cool--if you're under 40, that is.
And that's not the only thing. When I was a boy, my Dad would take me down to the Hoboken waterfront to tell me about his history. He and his brother Peewee had a "three legged horse" (merely lame) they used to sell fruit and veggies to the sailors coming from the many large ships that docked along the waterfront piers. There were many bars in Hoboken (every other storefront, as he tells it) and houses of ill repute. This was a rough, tough and seedy seaport town. The famous Clam Broth House served raw bars in just as raw an atmosphere with clam shells tossed onto the tiled floor into the sawdust. (Now it's moved around the corner and is a fine dining establishment). Whenever my Dad took me in there I couldn't stand the smell of beer and iffy clams.
Sinatra's mother, Dolly (as my Mom told it) performed abortions in the back room of the family's bar. Dolly became politically active because of her inside "connections" to all the local political bosses. This was--and still is--a very "connected" and perhaps corrupt town, but the fruits of these politicians and developers have left something positive: The new waterfront.
This is the gold that Hoboken offers to visitors. The revived waterfront is every bit as good as the promenade down in Battery Park City--but with obviously better views looking back on the Manhattan skyline. From a single viewpoint, you can see the towers clustered in midtown and the newer towers clustered around the Freedom Tower down at the tip of the island. You can see all the way north to the George Washington Bridge. The river is alive again with lots of boat traffic and ferries going into many stops around Manhattan. And the best thing is the way they developed the waterfront itself. Paved paths, green spaces, trees and even a curved walkway that leads you from the shore onto a man made island park complete with a playground for the little ones.
The best part of our little sojourn was sitting on a bench, cooling off with some Mr. Softee ice cream cones, listening to a really good street singer right at the water's edge, and soaking in that amazing view of our old home--Manhattan Island. Lisa grew up in lower Manhattan and I lived and worked in my studio there for 38 years. Having done a lot of boating around these waterways, I loved seeing New York from river level once again.
We also had a chance to walk over to Carlo's Bakery (our second time there) thinking we'd pick up some pastries and see how their new renovation looked. Though over a block long like the first time we went there a year or more ago, the line inside was still long. We took a ticket. We were #77 and they were "Now Serving 44". Yikes. A quick calculation of 33 people at 4 minutes average apiece meant we'd be waiting over an hour and a half to be served. They only had 3 people behind the counter! So at best, 30 minutes to wait? To be honest, the last time we got cake from Carlo's we didn't think it was all that great... you see I grew up in Hudson County and have had Italian pastry and cakes from many great bakers in the area. Carlo's ranks 2.5 on a scale of 5 to me. So we left. Sorry, Buddy.
One more little detour was to take Lisa and Lucas down a few blocks to the old Erie Lackawanna Railroad Station--and old world gem, sort of a smaller version of Grand Central Station in Manhattan. It was beautiful, and is still a functioning train station. You can see its beauty in various films, like the train station scene in Julie & Julia (2009). Lucas noticed the fancy staircase right away and said it reminded him of that scene in the Untouchables when Elliot Ness has a shootout while trying to catch the baby carriage rolling down the stairs. It was like stepping back in time to the 1920s or 30s.
So, while the "Feast" was a bust for us, the day was a joy. We had fun, enjoyed the river views, saw a few funny dogs being walked, and filled our bellies with a sack of Guatemalan zeppoli on the ride home... Not bad, but why the holes in the middle?
If you enjoyed this post, please tell your friends about Grand Voyage Italy... and keep coming back. Ciao!
The contents of this article are copyrighted material. Copyright 2015, Jerry Finzi - All rights reserved