Food, floats and fancy rides

Parade: Spectators gather to celebrate Columbus Day at the city's annual event.

October 13, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

A little bit of Italy rolled through downtown Baltimore yesterday as the city celebrated its 114th consecutive Columbus Day parade with the steady beat of marching bands, floating restaurants, fancy cars and perfect weather.

Savoring brilliant sunshine and summerlike temperatures, spectators by the hundreds cheered and clapped as nearly 90 groups walked, marched or drove in the procession from the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon to Central Avenue in Little Italy.

"This is the best day we've had in years," said Thomas J. Iacoboni, organizer of the parade culminating several Columbus-themed events that began weeks ago. "The idea is to get people to Little Italy."

At the end of the parade route, spectators sipped wine and ate meatball sandwiches at a small festival in the heart of Little Italy, while a recording of Ol' Blue Eyes - Frank Sinatra - singing "Fly Me to the Moon" played in the background.

"Baltimore needs more excuses for us all to celebrate together," said Vince Piscopo, another event organizer. The parade began in 1890, he said, because Baltimore had a large Italian community and "as immigrants to America, they needed something to rally around and demonstrate their pride in their heritage."

Sealing the connection is the fact that one of Baltimore's sister cities is Genoa, birthplace of Christopher Columbus, said Little Italy native Stephen A. Geppi, a comic book distributor and publisher of Baltimore magazine who was the parade's grand marshal.

"Christopher Columbus came over and all the other immigrants followed," Iacoboni said.

One of those more-recent immigrants stood on President Street decked out in the colors of her native land - red shoes, green T-shirt and red, white and green cap and ribbon. Franca DiMatteo said she was 21 when she arrived in Maryland in 1962 from Pescara, a small town near Rome, and enjoys coming to the parade and Little Italy every year.

"When I go to Little Italy, it's like being back there. I miss it," said DiMatteo, a member of the Howard County chapter of Sons of Italy, which participated in the parade.

Iacoboni and Piscopo are president and vice president, respectively, of Columbus Celebrations Inc., a group formed this year to carry on the legacy of Italian-American groups in the Baltimore area. Members of the organizing committee include the Sons of Italy, Knights of Columbus, Italian American Civic Club and several other cultural heritage organizations.

Iacoboni is part of a new generation, he said, that is accepting the torch from Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, former mayor of Baltimore and honorary grand marshal of yesterday's parade.

D'Alesandro, who joked that he was on the same boat as Columbus, said the younger generation has strengthened the parade by making it more inclusive of other cultures. This year, Irish bands mixed with feather-bedecked Philadelphia mummers.

Another attraction was Don Novello, dressed as his better-known comic alter-ego Father Guido Sarducci, made famous years ago on the television show Saturday Night Live. Novello said he felt a special kinship to Baltimore because immigrants from his grandfather's village in Sicily, Cefalu, settled here.

He waved to fans from an unpriestly, sleek silver-colored Dodge Viper convertible.

"I'm a real parade person," said Norman Glick from Pikesville, who jumped up and waved to the comedian. "I'm the kid that never grew up."

Glick said he turned 70 Saturday and was still celebrating. He said he and wife, Mitzi, wanted to see the parade, and Novello in particular.

He laughed as a 4 x 4 truck hauling a gondola passed, and then chuckled as two duck boats followed, reminding him of a past job as a tour guide when the duck boats were known as pirate ships.

Mint-condition Corvettes and Ferraris and roaring Harley-Davidson motorcycles were eye candy for many spectators, while real candy - mostly lollipops and Tootsie Rolls - was tossed along with duck-callers and red and green bead necklaces, which sent children clamoring from the sidelines.

Meals on wheels took on a new meaning with a float depicting a scene from an Italian courtyard restaurant. Under a lattice roof strewn with plastic vines, diners with menus waved from several tables covered in red-and-white-checkered cloth, while Italian ballads played.

The only thing missing was the spaghetti.

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