Columbus Day festivities revive Italian traditions

Parade: The city's 114th procession is accompanied by events including grape-stomping, a spaghetti dinner and a bocce tournament.

October 11, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Despite being a grape-stomping novice, Marco Reabe displayed so much enthusiasm -- and sent so much juice flying -- that he took first place in a contest at yesterday's Columbus Day festival in Little Italy.

His strategy: "To stomp my feet as fast as possible," said Reabe, a customer account manager for MBNA and North Baltimore resident.

"Everyone else was a little nervous," he said. "They were afraid to get into it."

Yesterday, there was lots to get into in celebration of Christopher Columbus' 1492 landing in the new world. The day also marked the second year that Columbus Celebration Inc., a coalition of local Italian heritage groups and civic organizations, held the festival along with organizing the city's annual parade.

The tradition of holding a Columbus Day parade here dates back 114 years, but over time it had become "nearly a dinosaur, ready to go away," said Vince Piscopo, the coalition's vice president. A new generation is working to bring it back and find ways to make the holiday weekend a larger, family-oriented event.

The parade stepped off from Mount Vernon at 1 p.m. with marching bands, floats, a Columbus impersonator, close to a dozen beauty-contest winners (Mrs. Easton, Miss Baltimore County and Miss Little Italy among them), and a procession of customized Corvettes that were a far cry from the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

Columbus might have appreciated the handful of riders on horseback, but been baffled at the truck ahead of them blasting zydeco music.

Comedian and singer Joe Piscopo -- a cousin of Vince Piscopo -- was honorary grand marshal of the parade, and performed at a dinner and concert last night.

"It's all beautiful," Chiara Legaluppi, 12, of Towson said of the parade. "It's colorful and fun."

"And loud and exciting," added Isori Kunkel, 15, also of Towson.

The two girls and several of their friends were dressed in bright, colorful Venetian carnival outfits to represent the Italian Cultural Center in Baltimore.

The Order of Sons of Italy's Grand Lodge in Baltimore also offered a taste of Venice with its float entry, a restored Venetian gondola on a flatbed truck.

Roy Joyner, a lodge member from Perry Hall, said the gondola had been given to the city more than 30 years ago, when then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Frank J. Battaglia visited a friend in Venice. After several years of use on the waterfront for weddings and other ceremonies, the Sons of Italy became the gondola's caretakers, bringing it out for festive events.

The parade "goes against the deterioration of heritage of Italians," Joyner said. While stereotypes of Italians as mobsters and gangsters have spread, he said, most Italians have nothing to do with that lifestyle.

"I just think it's wonderful," said Joanna Petti of Ellicott City as she watched the parade roll down President Street to its finish. "It's a happy day. It brings people together."

Petti grew up in Philadelphia and was excited to see a mummer band in lavish costumes go by. She jumped up and did "the mummer strut" with the group. "In Philadelphia, everyone does it," she said.

At the parade's end, several food vendors, games, wine-tasting booths and a band were set up in a parking lot along President Street. Nearby, a bocce tournament ran all day and the Sons of Italy lodge served spaghetti dinners.

Kerry and Cindy Plackmeyer are not Italian, but the Fells Point residents are fans of Little Italy.

"So many people have lived here for so long," said Cindy Plackmeyer, a marketing manager for Ryland Homes. "It's like escaping to a different country."

The couple sipped wine and beer as they watched the festivities. "I think [the event] is growing," said Kerry Plackmeyer, operations manager for WBAL-AM radio. "They're becoming more visible."

For participants, the grape-stomping contest was more than visible. "It was cold," said Marcella DiPasquale, 12, trying her feet at the wine-making skill. "It was squishy."

She expected the grapes to be soft and easy to crush, but said, "It was actually pretty hard. You had to stomp on them."

Marcella's family, which owns DiPasquale's restaurant in Little Italy, rode on one of the parade floats and had a booth at the festival.

Marcella said she thought the grape contest -- in which her brother and sister also participated -- was a nice demonstration of Italian culture.

"It gets us involved," she said. "It's what they used to do."

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