Festival brings crowd home again

Music, memory stir Little Italy gathering


On a side road away from the crowd that clogged the streets of the Italian Festival in Little Italy yesterday, Jerry Lioi sat alone on a stoop in front of a stranger's house and went back in time.

Lioi, 68, grew up at the corner of Pratt and Exeter streets in the heart of the neighborhood, he says. Times like this - when his heritage is celebrated with two days of music and dancing mixed with ever-present Italian colors and topped off with calzones and cannolis - Lioi finds a moment to relive the sights and sounds he remembers on these same streets decades ago.

"Me and my friends, we played games like hide-the-strap," said Lioi, who has since moved to Harford County. "You get five, six guys, stand in a block, then one guy would hide the strap. Whoever found the strap, you could hit the other guys with it until they got back in the safety box. It was a mean game.

"This brings back so many memories, growing up. And I see a lot of people down here that I knew from the neighborhood."

In its 78th year, the festival, which honors Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother, the patron saint of Italy's Abruzzi province, saw hundreds flood the center of Little Italy by midafternoon as a steady breeze and slightly overcast sky kept conditions pleasant. St. Leo Roman Catholic Church helps put on the festival, opening its door to artwork and food in the basement, along with prayer in the sanctuary.

Booths selling goods ranging from religious artifacts to dart games, as well as traditional Italian fare, lined the streets.

On a makeshift dance floor and in front of a band playing rock music from the 1970s a block north of the church, Drapey Santoro, 84, and his wife June, 82, gave onlookers a virtuoso performance. June, in 2-inch black heels, kicked her legs almost as though she were a Rockette, while her husband, sporting white shoes, white pants and sunglasses, spun her from corner to corner.

It might as well have been 1942, when the couple married after growing up a couple of blocks away in the neighborhood. The two now live in Parkville, but make it back for Mass at St. Leo's when they can.

"He lived on High Street, and I lived on Eden," June Santoro said. "We met dancing. He thought I was good, and I thought he was good."

One street over, Joanna Petti sat in a lawn chair and waited to resume playing in the bocce tournament. Petti's four-person team had advanced to the winner's bracket of the double-elimination tournament, and her competitive juices were starting to flow.

The pinless bowling game, in its present form, developed in Italy.

"I'm very competitive," Petti said. "It wouldn't make me sick [losing], but when I play, I want to win. You play to win."

Joe Wisniewski sat next to Petti and wished her luck as she headed back toward the bocce court. Wisniewski, 67, said he used to live five blocks from where he was sitting before moving to Dundalk at the age of 26.

He had just finished telling Petti the story of how, wandering around the festival, he had reconnected with someone from the old neighborhood he hadn't seen in 48 years.

"I recognized him, but I went to another guy and said, `Is that Sal?' He said, `Yeah,'" Wisniewski said. "So I went up to him, and now we're going to get together at his son's place."

Shortly after Petti and her team began to play, Lioi joined the crowd to watch the action.

Lioi, who attended Mass at St Leo's earlier in the day, said he left the neighborhood in 1953. He looks around and gives an oral history, pointing to an area where he watched amateur fights in an old gymnasium.

A retired District Court security aide, Lioi held a mini-tape recorder in his hand and played back some of the sounds from earlier in the day. One of the recordings was of a band that had played during the processional after Mass.

"They played the same type of music that they did when I was 9, 10 years old," Lioi said. "I brought down my recorder, and I walked around with the band to make sure I can get it recorded real good. Now I can listen to it whenever I want to."


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