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?
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The contents of this article are copyrighted material. Copyright 2015, Jerry Finzi - All rights reserved
You can think of modern bowling as a distant cousin of bocce. In England, they have "bowls", a lawn version of the game using a flattened ball which is rolled like a wheel (bocce balls are always spherical). The Latin word bottia (ball) is the root of the Italian word boccia or Bocce. Latin also used the word boulles (balls), hence the name bowls for the British form of the game, and in France the game of Boules. The name pétanque is also used in Provence in the South of France. The word pétanque is derived from a Southern dialect of French meaning "two feet planted", describing the position of feet before tossing the ball. Italian balls are solid and made of wood or a composite and sometimes metal. French boules are made of hollow metal.
During a game a ball is either rolled or tossed underhanded down a long lane with the aim of coming to rest near a smaller target ball called a pallin0 or boccino (in France it's called the cochonnet or "piglet"). Some form of bocce is played in more countries than any other ball game, with the exception of soccer. Still, Romans are the ones who spread the popularity of the game throughout the Roman Empire, which during this period encompassed vast areas of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Many people, such as Galileo and DaVinci played bocce during the Renaissance--seeing its benefits to mind and body--and others such as Emperors, Admirals, Generals, poets, sculptors, and scientists all played the game. Bocce was also exported to many countries around the world by Italian migrants and still is popular their descendants with bocce courts and clubs throughout the world.
Bocce in its current form was played in 264 BC during Rome's Punic Wars against Carthage. Teams of 2, 4, 6 or 8 men were formed. Soldiers threw a small stone "leader" and threw it first. Then larger stones would be thrown at the "leader" and the stone coming closest to it would score. The game relaxed troops and gambling was a pressure release, taking their mind off the stress of war. Men played in teams, honing their military strategic thinking as they played.
No one really knows how old Bocce is. There were stone balls found in Turkey that date to 9000 BC. Some say Bocce came from Egypt about 5200 B.C., but others say that Greece was its birthplace around 600 BC. When you really think about the simplest game a child can play--tossing a stone--you might think of Bocce as the very first game man ever played. Even the child's game of Marbles is based on Bocce.
When I was a boy, we'd visit my Aunt Antoinette and Uncle Sal in their Hoboken rowhouse in the summer. To keep cool, they always gathered down in the subway-tiled basement level where it was cool and big pots of Sunday Gravy and pasta awaited the mouths of hungry cousins and grown-ups alike. But what I liked best was going out in their back yard past the tomato plants towering over me and through an arbor to where the court was--the bocce court. I'd watch my Dad and Uncle Sal and other neighborhood gents play and argue all afternoon. They'd drink wine in little jelly glasses and pop out small measuring tapes or yardsticks when it was too hard to tell which ball was closest and who was the winner.. At times they'd give us kids a try...
RULES AND PLAY:
Bocce is traditionally played on natural soil and asphalt courts 27.5 metres (90 ft) in length and 2.5 to 4 metres (8.2 to 13.1 ft) wide. Traditionally, the top surface of a gravel court has a very smooth and level layer of compacted limestone dust or crushed oyster shells. Backyard courts can be smaller... typically 60' x 12', but smaller court sizes of 30' x 6' are fine if spaces is limited.
Bocce balls can be made of metal or various kinds of plastic. A game can consist of two players, or two teams of two, three, or four. A match is started by a randomly chosen side being given the opportunity to throw a smaller ball, the jack ( or boccino or pallino), from one end of the court into a zone 5 metres (16 ft) in length, ending 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) from the far end of the court. If the first team misses twice, the other team is awarded the opportunity to place the jack anywhere they choose within the prescribed zone.
The side that first attempted to place the jack is given the opportunity to bowl first. Once the first bowl has taken place, the other side has the opportunity to bowl. From then on, the side which does not have the ball closest to the jack has a chance to bowl, up until one side or the other has used their four balls. At that point, the other side bowls its remaining balls. The team with the closest ball to the jack is the only team that can score points in any frame. The scoring team receives one point for each of their balls that is closer to the jack than the closest ball of the other team. The length of a game varies by region but is typically from 7 to 13 points.
Players are permitted to throw the ball in the air using an underarm "lobbing" action. This is generally used to knock either the jack or another ball away to attain a more favorable position. Tactics can get quite complex when players have sufficient control over the ball to throw or roll it accurately. You'd be amazed at some who can lob a ball high in the air and drop it knocking the pallino right out of play--while their ball lands without rolling.
Here is a link to a site that walks you through the planning and construction of a great bocce court. I've always dreamed of having a bocce court, but at least we have a couple of sets of balls and play on our lawn. Lucas is surprisingly good at the game. So, pick up a set of bocce balls and try it out with your family and friends. It's not just a great game... it's a great tradition. The oldest game in the world...
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Copyright, Jerry Finzi, Grand Voyage Italy 2015-2016 - All rights reserved
In this video, baroque concert guitarist, Rolf Lislevand is playing a the priceless Sabionari Guitar, built in 1679 by Antonio Stradivari.
The Sabionari is the only Stradivarius guitar in the world that can still be touched or played. Having become famous for the construction of the best violins in the world--today sold for millions of dollars--Stradivari also built guitars, the one of which Rolf Lislevand plays in this video the only playable Stradivarius guitar from the five left in the entire world.
The instrument belongs to a private collection and is exhibited in the Museo del Violino di Cremona, as part of the "friends of Stradivari" project, an international network of collectors and enthusiasts collaborating with the Museum for the preservation and enhancement of the artistic heritage of Stradivari instruments.
The Val D'Orcia will always have a fond place in our hearts. It was the very first place we stayed and explored in Italy, in fact we stayed just outside of Pienza in the magical clay hills of the Orcia river valley. Sheep and sheep cheese (Pecorino), natural hot spring spas that have been used for thousands of years, and rows of tall thin cedars bordering twisty Tuscan roads are things we will never forget. The people are much more slow paced and relaxed when compared to northern Tuscany.
Click the photo below to enjoy the beauty of Southern Tuscany...
by Jerry Finzi, February 7, 2016
(Read the UPDATE at the end of this article about Dion signing my son Lucas' guitar!)
When I was a kid, there was no better tune on the radio for a young, hip kid trying to get girls to notice him than The Wanderer. The man singing that song was Dion DiMucci, better known as Dion... of Dion and the Belmonts, do-wop fame. His voice was edgy with its phrasing... of the streets... rougher than the silky smooth, clean shaven voices at that time--even though his own look was clean shaven. Somehow, I saw through all that hit-factory polish. He sang of real life experience. He wasn't so much singing a song as much as teaching me a life lesson.
When he sang about Runaround Sue, you knew two things... you wanted to find a girl like that to have a sweet taste of what passion is really about, but at the same time you just knew you didn't want that kind of girl for your forever gal. You also knew that you needed to find that place he talks about in Lovers Who Wander... you just had to get there somehow. Perhaps he was giving us the address in his early bluesy version of Kansas City... at "12th Street and Vine".
"I have a full life off The Road. I was never in it for the money or career. That's why I'm comfortable with myself. I know who I am out of the spotlight."
When I finally fell for that first girl--and fell hard--I lamented with Dion, Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love? He taught me that real men can--and do--cry, but only for the truly important things. Then when I finally had a chance to be alone with "my girl", walking along the Palisades Cliffs overlooking the Hudson River where I grew up, with that magnificent, nighttime twinkling view of the Manhattan skyline... testing out each others' romantic limits on one of the wooden benches... I'd find myself asking her to Stay Just a Little Bit Longer.
And when Donna the Prima Donna broke his heart, he gave solid advice to me about how to handle that type of inconsiderate, Italian princess. I've had my share of those... and learned how they aren't worth the effort. Dion taught me that when life kicks me down, I have to get up and keep on keeping on.
A smooth, clean a capella, impromptu rendition of The Wanderer
Not many people know that Dion nearly lost his life during the infamous Winter Dance Party rock and roll tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and other performers. On a frigid February 3 in 1959, after a concert stop in Iowa, Holly and others chartered a flight to the next venue rather than travel on the cold tour bus. Dion was invited to go with them, but said he didn't want to spend $36 for the flight--the same monthly rent his parents paid their Bronx apartment--he couldn't justify the indulgence. The plane crashed, killing all on board. It was dubbed "the end of Rock and Roll" by many at the time. It profoundly gave him a new outlook on life, but proved not to be the end of rock.
This video is amazing... Dion paints a portrait of what it was like growing up in the Fifties--with some heavy hitters along for the ride: Lou Reed; Paul Simon; Joan Jett; guitarist Dave Edmunds; Dire Strait's drummer, Terry Williams; Phil Chen on bass; and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
As the sixties turned from do-wop to pop to mod to psychedelic and the madness in the world turned sweet, often ethnic, Kumbaya folk songs into full blown protest songs, Dion taught me another lesson of peace. With his haunting Abraham, Martin and John he compelled me into feeling the pain of the assassinations of the best of us--Lincoln, King and Kennedy--and perhaps even to make my own personal statements and stance against the madness.
He continued to play music all through the rest of his life, but of course never with the pop star status as when he wore the shark skin suits and sang "dum-da-didy-do-wa-diddy" skat lyrics of do-wop. But he grew as a man and a musician and is now considered one of the best blues singers/guitarists in the world. This is what I love him for, musically speaking... he took the a Capella echoes of the candy store entrances and alleyways and the grittiness of the street, along with the heart of his Italian upbringing and merged it into his blues playing.
Rightfully recognized for the talent he gave to the music scene, Dion was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Bun nowadays, and at this stage of my life, I identify more with the blues songs he sings, like the blues classic Built for Comfort (I'm Not Built for Speed). About an aging man, somewhat overweight, but still passionate inside his heart and mind. That's the blues, Man.
Yes... Italians can play the blues, too. We've had our own share of discrimination and loss and suffering in our heritage. Dion expresses that, but he also still expresses the blues we all feel in the course of finding love--and losing it.
And this brings us to the present day... Dion is still valid, poignant and effective as ever, as evidenced by his recent New York is My Home featuring Paul Simon. His voice is clear and sweet as ever.
Take the time to sit back and enjoy a great Do-Wopper, Rock 'n Roller, Bluesman, singer-songwriter and Italian-American... please watch and listen to the videos I've included in this article.
You'll thank me for it.
Dion Signs Lucas' Guitar at Morristown, NJ Concert
--July 29, 2016
After writing this article about how Dion's music influenced my life, Dion's publicist contacted me and complimented me on the sentiments and asked if he could re-post it. As an exchange, I told him about Lucas' guitar with a growing collection of famous musicians' signatures on it (James Taylor, Steve Martin, Loudon Wainwright III, Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna fame, Doc Watson and more...). I told him how Lucas was a big fan of Dion's early music and how he would be thrilled to get his signature. He then emailed and said "Dion would be glad to sign your son's guitar". All we had to do was get it to him at one of his appearances.
It took a while, but finally Dion was going to perform at a venue that we visit for concerts: the Mayo Performing Arts Theater (MPAC) in Morristown, NJ. I booked the tickets a while back and last night we attended. With a copy of the emails in hand and Lucas carrying his guitar and putting on his best 12 year old puppy eyes, we kept our fingers crossed. We've been through this before... overly protective security in such events or absolute "NO" from a performer's manager. Things didn't look good as his publicist informed me the day before that Dion's manager was "very, very, very" protective of Dion.
Ok... so we started in tracking down the theater's stage manager and he promised to get the email copy (along with a copy of this article to refresh Dion's memory) backstage--but no promises. After the concert we should wait by the stage-left door.
The concert was fantastic and Dion didn't disappoint. He played a myriad of songs--old and new. He played his new hit New York is my Home, Runaround Sue, the Wanderer and a solo acoustic blues favorite of mine, "Built for Comfort" about a rotund man built for comfort, not for speed but never disappoints with the ladies.
Lucas had a ball. He loved all the songs and rocked out.
Then the end came... and we waited at the stage-left door with a bunch of Brooklyn 75 year old "goombas"--old buddies of Dion (we supposed), and a clean cut VIP couple with their three pre-school kids that had all the earmarks of a congressional family. After the theater cleared out and the roadies had nearly emptied the stage, the stage manager came out and ushered up backstage. The first two groups we having quick chats and photo ops with Dion while we waited in the backstage hallway... but then it was out turn...
Lucas was so excited when he saw HIM. Dion was very nice about it all when I introduced Lucas to him... taking his guitar in his hands and then playing an impromptu blues song with Lucas' name in it! Lucas was star-struck, for sure. Then he asked where Lucas wanted him to sign, and signed it just above the sound hole. I asked to take a photo with my smart phone and the stage manager shoved me into the shot. What a memory!
Lucas left the theater in the light rain wide awake (it was 11:30 pm.... way past his normal bedtime) stunned, "I can't believe that a Rock n Roll Hall of Famer just hugged me!" He wants to save the Sharpie that Dion used to sign his guitar. He wants to never wash the T-shirt he was wearing. What a kid.
I'd do anything for him... like jump through a lot of hoops to get a rock star's signature on his guitar.
Thanks, Dion. Lucas is glowing this morning....
Here is a slideshow of images of Italy from the 1890s that used the very first color printing process called Photochrom, a technique which produced up to 6 limestone lithographic printing plates from original black and white photographic negative plates. Although at the time, an actual photographic color process (direct from cameras) was being developed, this was a much more affordable process to produce affordable postcards for wide distribution.
Enjoy the look back in time...
Picnics are thought of as an All-American invention, but in truth, the word began life in France. A 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage is the first time the word Piquenique was ever seen in print. In French, the word piquer means to bite, pick or dip. Nowadays, in both France and Italy the word picnic is commonly used, although in Italy you may go on a scampagnata--an outing.
The published use of the word outside the French language was in 1748, but picnic was rarely used in English prior to 1800. Even still, "picnic" was not used in America, either as a word or a concept. Around the same time in England, the word "picnic" was used to describe a social event for the upper classes similar to a pot-luck gathering, but was not held outdoors.
As time passed, the outdoor element became more and more a part of what a picnic is today... not necessarily a gathering of people sharing food they all contributed, but a casual meal held outdoors in a peaceful, natural location. For most, the location of the picnic is as important--if not more so--than the food they are going to eat.
Curiously, in France (in my opinion) the piquenique has de-volved into merely a necessity when traveling. I can't tell you how many times when traveling 3000 miles throughout the French countryside I saw cars pulled over alongside of the ugliest, dirtiest, un-scenic stretch of highway--with cars buzzing past--with lunches set up on folding tables (with chairs) pulled from their trunks. Entire traveling families chomping down their quick meal--all without the slightest regard for the aesthetics of the location. Weird.
Now, contrast that with Italians... They choose a place with a view. It might be as simple as church steps having their bread and cheese and watching people walk by, or spreading a blanket at the side of a vineyard and having a simple feast while just gazing down at the wonders of nature and man, or sitting at the edge of an old castle wall atop one of the countless hilltowns across Bella Italia. Workers will spread their handkerchiefs out to hold their bread, cheese, perhaps a Tupperware lunch from home that the wife made and afterwards lie down under a shady tree for a nap. Remember, lunchtimes are hours long in Italy. Once I saw some workers sitting on top of their scaffolding having their boxed lunches picnic style, while enjoying the view of the valley below from their bird's nest perch.
To me at least, it seems that the picnic really started in Italy... long ago with the Romans. They knew how to enjoy simple foods barely a step away from nature itself--and they knew how to keep cool. After all, that's what alfresco means in Italian: cool... fresh. When Romans ate outdoors under the shade of a thousand year old olive tree, it was more than likely done in the heat of the day--to keep cool as they feasted. All over Italy during harvest times of the year (different times for different crops), rural farming families and neighbors still throw a sheet or blanket on the ground in the shade, gather together bread, wine, olives, cheese and sausages from whoever brought this or that... and they have their picnic. Except they don't think of it as a picnic. It's just a way of life. A way of refueling the body and soul with good food, good neighbors and family... and wonderful views of nature, which thankfully in Italy are just about everywhere you look.
So, the next time you think of having a picnic, think of the Romans... think of the Italians... and bring together not the most complex foods, but the simplest. A great piece of cheese. Some ripe fruit. Crusty bread and wine---and olives. Some of your favorite sausage... and a knife, and some simple glasses or plastic cups. No fine crystal here. Just look for a place with a view of the sky, some water, some beautiful inspiring architecture... drop a bandanna on your lap or a sheet on the ground or just sit on a bench. Then add a friend or two, your children, your lover... and eat. Slowly. Taste each bite and then use your eyes as you would some wine in your mouth to mix the flavors and heighten your senses.
I've taught Lucas to put a morsel of your food in your mouth, chew a bit to release flavors and then (and only then) sip a bit of wine to mix with the flavors... and a new, complex flavor is born. It's like that with picnics. Mix what you see and feel in your surroundings with your food... and find some new flavors in your entire spirit.
If you enjoyed this little picnic with use, please tell all your friends to stop by Grand Voyage Italy. Grazie!
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Copyright 2016 - Jerry Finzi - All Rights Reserved