John and Jenna Balconi with an array of delicious Italian favorites.
La Familigia: Eating, Drinking, Singing & Dancing at the 2012 Italian Festival
As I planned my weekend of feasting at the Italian Festival in North Buffalo, I decided to get in the mood by going to the Amherst Dipson Theater to see “To Rome With Love,” the Woody Allen movie set in the Eternal City. Since we Italians celebrate food, music, and family, I thought it would be a fitting prelude to my adventure on Hertel Ave. While I thought the four separate movie plotlines were little more than fluff, I absolutely loved the scenes of Rome and the way Allen captured the Italian culture.
Now on to the actual festival…
When John Balconi, a native of Sicily, decided to be a part of the 2012 Italian Heritage Festival, he and his family began preparing their authentic Arancini (rice balls) made the “real way” with risotto, ground beef and fresh peas, accented by homemade sauce, at least three weeks before the mid-July festival. Balconi’s family owns the venerable Italian Village, originally a fixture on the west side and on Wehrle Dr. since 1996.
Arancini from the Italian Village
“My hands are still sore from forming the Arancini, but it’s worth it because people get to enjoy them the way they’re supposed to be,” he said of his top-selling item. Along with the rice balls, the Italian Village was serving up plenty of meatball bombers and hot stuffed peppers on Costanzo rolls, and Tripe with peppers and onions.
Business was brisk at most of the booths when I visited last Saturday evening. Just like the Balconi family, many of the restaurant booths featured husbands, wives, children and extended relatives working together.
Grape stomping at the festival
How fitting then that this year’s theme was “La Famiglia,” “the family” translated from Italian. Amid the cultural exhibits, according to Peter LoJacono, a board member who focuses on different themes related to the culture, was a tent where one could trace their family tree. Each booth was decorated with Italian flags and colors and a gondola was on display smack dab on Hertel Ave. LoJacono also arranged for a Sicilian marionette show, grape-stomping contests, bocce tournaments and tarantella dancers.
Ravioli from Salvatore's
But let’s put the cards—or food—on the table. Most people come for the eating experience. While I would prefer to see only Italian food there, the variety was good this year. In addition to the fabulous food from then Italian Village, we enjoyed Salvatore’s stuffed meatballs, excellent spinach and sausage breads and the Portobello ravioli. They also offered alight Caesar Salad, a perfect alternative in this hot weather.
“We prep starting 10 days out,” Joe Salvatore said. He and his wife, Paula, and several other family members and in-laws were all working the booth. “It’s our third year here; we like to bring fine dining to the streets,” Joe added.
Fontana's Stuffed Hot Peppers
Tom Fontana with his famous peppers
Speaking of La Famiglia, Fontana’s Restaurant was back for their third year. Tom Fontana and his clan run the restaurant at the corner of William and Ogden, site of the former Billy Ogden’s. Tom has put is spin on the famous stuffed peppers. He also served Sicialian Mac & Cheese and meatball bombers, all flavorful and tasty.
Dave with his mobile wood fire pizza oven
Pizza Amore was new this year. The Perri family from Grand Island serves up a unique dining experience: a mobile wood-fired brick oven that bakes fresh pizza in three minutes. “Our number one seller is cheese and pepperoni and cheese and prosciutto. We have our own dough recipe, make our own sauce and meat balls and use local products,” explained David Perri, adding that they just opened a Pizza Amore restaurant on Grand Island.
What a fun experience to talk to and support our WNY restaurant owners, and soak in the Italian culture.
La Famiglia would be proud!
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