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Sacred eating

Italian local feasts, sagre, are ostensibly about religion, but food is the real meal ticket.

You can't possibly hate snakes if you want to fully enjoy Cocullo's Festa dei Serpari.
By Eleonora Baldwin
Published: 2015-07-10

Italy believes strongly in preserving tradition. Monuments and works of art are the most obvious and notable examples. Often overlooked is a more specific and occasionally eccentric manifestation of cultural heritage, the sagre di paese, in essence a town festival that celebrates a specific local food. The Italian word sagra derives from the Latin sacrum, for sacred.

In ancient times, communities gathered to celebrate the year's pivotal moments, whether the changing of the seasons or the wheat and grape harvests. Locals thanked the gods, prayed for prosperous crops, and bid for mild weather to come in exchange of food offerings.

These ancient religious pageants, with their country fair spirit, sporting events and historical re-enactments — with jousting, horse races in costume and armor (like Siena's Palio, or Florence's calcio storico) — exalt cultural expression through the enjoyment of what's most sacred to Italians: food.

Trying to determine just how many such festivals Italy holds every year is virtually impossible. The biodiversity of gastronomic specialties across the Italian peninsula is sweeping. Directly proportionate is the variety of local festivals celebrating them. According to season, Italy honors its local foods and products in music-and-art festival-like gatherings, with whole towns taking part. Tables are often set up in the streets for communal banqueting. Piazzas become kitchens and food stalls are lined up on cobbled alleys in abundant tasting sprees. Typically, food and wine sagre are organized by the whole of the town. On a small scale, local parishes help with the organizing. The larger, more sprawling sagre usually get help from local or regional governments. Planning is complex, assigned duties specific, and tasks taken on with pride.

For example, many are the sagre that celebrate the arrival of autumn chestnuts. Roasting them outdoors becomes an entire town's endeavor. Others acknowledge the hard work put into the wine harvest. In the town of Marino, near Rome, fountains spill wine, as tradition dictates. Spring Festa delle ciliegie — cherry festivals — showcase the reddening berries. In summer, coastal locations celebrate their own bounty, with gargantuan seaside fish extravaganzas, including grilling, frying on the beach, and late night parties.

Every Italian town and village boasts its share of occasions for enjoying lavish amounts of food and drink in a communal frenzy, including some lesser known and more bizarre festivals whose comical themes and names are enough to spark curiosity.

Consider November's Scacco al re di cioccolato sagra, held in the Veneto town of Stra. A chess tournament is held in the main square, the pieces themselves made from dark and white chocolate. The game ends when the winner ingests the opponent's king. Yum.

Borbona, near Rieti, holds a Panettone party in which brave participants race to consume the largest quantity of the famed Christmas cake. Sounds perfect, if only this particular sagra weren't held on Ferragosto, smack in the middle of August, an inconceivable time to bake and gobble up a wintry cake.

Zibello, home of the prized culatello (cured meat), hosts a November Pork Rally — the odd-sounding Festa del culatello. Hordes of salami-loving campers and bikers besiege the small town north of Parma. In Buseto Palizzolo near the Sicilian city of Trapani, August gourmands flock to the Festa de la pasta cu l'agghia e sasizza arrustuta — the pasta in question is garlicky Trapani-style pesto and roasted sausage. Between meals, festivalgoers can participate in sack races, arm-wrestling tournaments and water fights. In the Valle D'Aosta alpine village of Gignod along the border with France, brave eaters can participate in the Festa del teteun and feast on a local specialty: boiled bovine teats served with salsa verde. At the Sagra delle radici held near Cremona, young boys and girls dressed in traditional farmer's attire cook roots in large cauldrons in the town streets, serving free samples along with roasted sausages and goblets of new wine.

Even if it's a saint that's being celebrated, food rules the day. Take the Festa dei Serpari, held annually in May in Abruzzi town of Cocullo. A statue of patron St. Dominick covered with slithering live snakes is paraded through the town's narrow alleys to honor the saint's protection against toothaches, rabies and (what else) reptile bites. Young women dressed in traditional costume walk alongside the reptile-laden statue balancing large baskets on their heads. What's in the baskets? You guessed it: five blessed loaves of homemade bread for communal sharing.

Antica Pesa  

No longer for peasants...

Originally a 17th century "cafeteria" for Papal State customs officials who worked down the street. Since contadini had to come to deliver grain to church HQ, the Vatican, they too had munching time on their hands. Later, it became a Trastevere inn based around a bocce alley. The owners now explain that the food of the period was based on subsistence eating (taking and re-inventing upper class left-overs). Fair enough, but times change. Colin Ferrell, Sean Penn, and La Loren, while no doubt famished, are not contadini. Be that as it may, the Rome food gang’s all here: mezze maniche all’amatriciana, cacio e pepe, carbonara, gricia plus stinco, salsiccia, rombo and baccala. The cantina is vast enough to have spawned an enoteca (called DILA, from Di Là) on the side. The scene is elegant (lovely fireplace in winter), so please leave the Red Sox t-shirt at the hotel. Usually closed for two weeks in early January and late April. Near Piazza Trilussa. Book ahead. — Cristina Polli

Major Credit Cards  
Via Garibaldi, 18, Rome, IT-RM Map
Tel. 06.580.9236
Closed Sundays


Rich cacciofina.

Locals gather at this spot located near the 1,000-year-old Franciscan convent and across from Spoleto’s Archeological Museum. The chef puts a creative spin on traditional dishes (strangozzi alla spoletina con pomodoro, prezzemolo, peperoncino e cialde di pecorino, thick, spaghetti-style noodles with tomatoes, parsley, peppers and pecorino, and polenta with gorgonzola). Americans tend to go for the cacciofina, a cylinder with melted cheese and fresh truffles. That may be too rich a start if you plan on enjoying the meat and game dishes (pigeon and lamb) which Apollinare offers up as secondi. — Judy Edelhoff

Major Credit Cards  
Via Sant’Agata, 14, Spoleto, IT-PG Map
Tel. 0743.223256
Closed Tuesdays

Cacio & Pepè a Trastevere  

Pasta all’Amatriciana.

A neighborhood-specific restaurant-grill that offers a "menu di degustazione cucina tipica Romana" for €20. The place is also Wi-Fi equipped, but that's not a menu item — yet. Nice buffet with fried foods, including fiori di zucca and a variety of frittatine. Pasta cacio e pepe goes without saying. Also, bucatini all’Amatriciana and homemade sweets. Nothing new, startling or exciting here, but no rude surprises, which is good thing to know in Trastevere. — Cristina Polli

Major Credit Cards  
Vicolo del Cinque, 15, Rome, IT-RM Map
Tel. 06.5833.4289
Closed Mondays

Day and Boarding International High School in the Heart of Rome

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