SAFETY HARBOR — A man propped on a stool, wearing shorts, a red hat, white gloves and bearing an unusually long nose, piped up each time a person walked by last Sunday.
“Hi girls, I’m Pinocchio,” the man said as a group of women walked into the Safety Harbor Marina for the 11th LIADO’s San Gennaro Festa. “Welcome to Italy. Wipe your feet before you enter. Don’t bring in any dirt.”
Pinocchio and many other Italian traditions — from the Fiat car to the music — was celebrated during the festival, geared toward raising money for several local causes.
In a little more than a decade, the festival has raised about $98,000 in scholarship money, according to organizer Barbara Abela.
Sunday’s early afternoon crowd was estimated at close to 8,000.
“It’s gratifying,” Abela said. “You know you’re doing the right thing. When we started (the festival), we started on Main Street in Safety Harbor and we were lucky if we had 2,000 people. I don’t think we even had that many.”
LIADO, or The Italian-American Women of Today, was founded in 1993 for women of Italian descent. The group started with 29 women and has since grown to 150 women.
It was the first San Gennaro Festa for both Nicole Robichaux and Miriam Mitchell.
“I think it’s great,” Robichaux said. “Obviously the marina is beautiful and I love opera. It was interesting. I’m from New Orleans and we have Jazz Fest and that was quite different.”
And then they got to the heart of the matter — the food.
“The cannoli was awesome,” Mitchell said, who had her 3-year-old son Jake. “It was the best I’ve ever had.”
Peter Schimmeyer and his wife Karen, sat along the boat slip next to the marina each eating cannolis, while listening to Don Meritt and Annette Moreau serenade the audience from a nearby stage.
“We live in town, so we always come here,” Peter Schimmeyer said, wiping the powdered sugar from his hands.
“It’s so nice,” Karen added just before biting into the Italian pastry. “I enjoy the food, (especially) spaghetti and meatballs. It’s so nice today and the weather is perfect.”
The event was named after Saint Gennaro, the Patron Saint of Naples, Italy.
“We celebrate it here in February because of Florida’s weather, but normally in New York, they celebrate it in September,” Gini Sauter, a member of LIADO, said. “And each year in Naples, they have a significant feast for him.”
The tradition in Italy began in 1926. The Feast of San Gennaro in New York City’s Little Italy, will celebrate its 88th year later this year.
Sunday’s festival will raise money for several organizations, including the Children’s Cancer Center in Tampa, Autism Speaks, the Florida Gulf Coast chapter of Alzheimer’s Association, and the LIADO Scholarship Fund, among several other groups.
Rasario Ciscio, Vincenzo Disanti and Antonio Vecchia gathered Sunday near the entrance of the festival pointing to a map of Italy.
Conversing in Italian, each pointed to different spots on the map. They all immigrated to the United States from Italy in the 1960s.
“Most of the Italians immigrated in the early part of the past century up to the second World War,” said Disanti, a former Italian Army officer who came to the U.S. in December 1968. “They were mostly from the southern part of Italy and just some from the northern part.”
To look out in the crowd and see the thousands of people milling about, partaking in Italian culture, Ciscio was pleased.
“It means people appreciate (the Italian culture),” said Ciscio, who immigrated in 1967 and also served in the Italian Army.