At a time when some ethnic festivals in Connecticut struggle to keep going, Rocky Hill‘s Italian-American community is working against that trend: Next month it’s launching the town’s inaugural La Festa ItaliaAmerica.
About a half-dozen local Italian-American organizations from Rocky Hill and Wethersfield are sponsoring the festival Sept. 30, and they plan to offer an ambitious lineup of activities and displays heralding Italian-American history.
“There’s such a high concentration of Italian-Americans in the towns around here: Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, Berlin, Newington, Cromwell, they all have a lot of Italian-Americans. There are too many people here to not be doing this,” said Morris Borea, a longtime member of the local UNICO chapter and a trustee of the service organization’s national foundation.
Borea, Paul Pirrotta and a few friends approached Mayor Lisa Marotta with the idea in 2021, and have been holding regular breakfast meetings for the past year to make plans. Their get-togethers have grown to more than a dozen co-organizers, including representatives from numerous Italian-American service and social organizations in the region.
Borea credits the concept to the hugely successful Italian festival held every Labor Day weekend in Scranton, Penn., where crowds measure 100,000 to 150,000.
“They close down the middle of Scranton. When I went, I saw a lot of young people in their late teens and 20s — they weren’t only involved, they were working at it. It got me thinking that we need something like that in our area,” Borea said. “We need something to show our young people about their heritage.”
Marotta, whose ancestry traces to Sicily, said Thursday that she’s heard a lot of excitement from Italian-Americans in her town. Many miss the huge Italian festivals that were held along Hartford’s Franklin Avenue in the heyday of that city’s Little Italy section, she said.
“About 30 years ago, quite a few second-generation Italians came in from Hartford and the South End of Hartford. They moved to Rocky Hill or Wethersfield for the schools for their children, maybe have a little bigger parcel of land to raise a family,” she said. “Rocky Hill and Wethersfield are in such proximity to Hartford that you didn’t feel you were leaving family. Then in time as their parents got older, you saw them migrate into the suburbs.
“After that, we started to see a lot of the family-owned and operated businesses coming in, particularly from the South End of Hartford,” she said. “I’ve dubbed Cromwell Avenue the new Little Italy.”
The popular Mozzicato DePasquale bakery of Hartford opened there four years ago, and the Tuscan-themed Salute started a Rocky Hill location two years ago.
“If you look at Cromwell Avenue compared to what it was even 10 years ago, you can definitely see that Italian influence. The festival is really about appreciating what we have and highlighting what we have,” she said.
Marotta and others are eager to emphasize the history and culture of Italian-Americans, and organizers are scheduling live Italian music performances and an art exhibition examining each of the 20 regions of Italy.
“One of the best features we’ll have is the heritage tent: It will have lifeboat 1 from the Andrea Doria, the bell that was rung on the ship, a video that explores what happened, and some artifacts that have never been displayed before,” said Morris, who traveled to New York City to meet with survivors of the Italian ocean liner disaster in 1956. “Explorers will bring dive equipment, they’ll answer people’s questions.”
Morris has arranged for presentations by John Moyer, a veteran deep sea diver who holds salvage rights to the wreck, and Mark C. Koch, a maritime historian and collector.
The festival will also have an extensive visual presentation on the Italian-American experience in Connecticut, along with food and entertainment. Admission will be free, and any profits from food and drink sales will be split between Connecticut Food Share, the Connecticut Children’s Hospital and the scholarship programs of the Italian-American service groups putting on the festival.
The festival will run from noon to 6 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Amphitheater at Elm Ridge Park, and the rain date will be Oct. 1.