I got Brooklyn pride. I got Bensonhurst pride. When I was born, Bensonhurst was known as a heavily Italian neighborhood. Now, 20 years later, Bensonhurst Italians are spreading outward to Staten Island or New Jersey, whereas minority immigrant groups are moving in. The “heart” of Bensonhurst is 18th Avenue and the 60s-70s Streets. Mind you, I actually live on Benson Avenue, not just within the vague boundaries of Bensonhurst you see on Google Maps, so I am a little miffed that people don’t consider my street to be the center of Bensonhurst….
Every summer, Bensonhurst is the host of the Feast of Santa Rosalia – better known as The Feast by locals – in honor of the patron saint of Palermo, Sicily. The Feast is similar to the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy in the fall, and both have their pros and cons. San Gennaro is far more popular and located in a historic, chic neighborhood, particularly with the Lower East Side and SoHo nearby. There are more vendors and restaurants at San Gennaro, and as of last year, there were many small artisans selling wares. However, San Gennaro is getting a little too popular: Mulberry Street is just way too narrow to host the thousands of people that flow through. Visiting San Gennaro is almost like standing in a feedlot.
On the other hand, Santa Rosalia has more of a small-town county fair feel. 18th Avenue is a lot wider so visitors have room to roam, stop to peer at booths, and even stand in the middle of the street to eat. There are lots of carny folks, trying to hook you with ball toss games or watergun shooting contests to win enormous and enormously useless stuffed animals. My favorite thing about Santa Rosalia, though, is that it’s about a 15 minute walk from my house: they practically bring the party to me!
This visit to The Feast brought me a taste of the ubiquitous and quintessential Italian sausage and pepper sandwich. A crusty, crunchy roll holds a thick, juicy, meaty, sweet sausage topped with roasted peppers and onions. The guys in the open trailer cook up the coiled meat on grills. They also offer things like Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and shish kebabs (the shish kebab that my friend had was also delicious, very salty, and very juicy), but let’s be honest, the Italian sausage and pepper is the symbol of any fair like this one.
We also sampled authentic Sicilian foods from a smaller booth. I would call them a “hole-in-the-wall” kind of establishment, except that all the vendors are in tents. The friendly Italians (actual Italian-speaking Italians) offered meat arancini (ground meat stuffed in a round rice ball, breaded and deep fried), fresh cannoli, pastries, and something called the Sicilian donut. We had the arancini and I really loved it. You get a rice ball the size of your fist, fried but not too greasy, and perfectly hearty and hit-the-spot good, all in a compact package. We’ve had Sicilian arancini before, but then it was extremely bland, soggy, and soaking in very tart tomato sauce. These guys’ arancini I will certainly be seeking out again.
We were so drawn to this booth that we came back later to try their donuts…stuffed with Nutella. Need I say more?! The donut was almost the same size and shape as the arancini, a little bigger and flatter than a fist. Granular sugar speckled the top, and hard to miss was a giant dollop of chocolatey Nutella right in the center. My first bite was heavenly, like angels singing. I’m not even kidding. The dough was light and fluffy, giving way under a crunchy sugary crust. I only got a tiny swoop of Nutella in my bite, but it was beyond sufficient. Honestly, Nutella makes anything taste good, but this donut was incredible. Sadly, it made me think that places like the Doughtnut Plant in the city, while good, could do much easier by just topped fried dough with Nutella. No need for complex flavors and recipes. Just Nutella.