By Rem O'Donnelley
It was the big party of the year in North Beach. Rows of tables were set up on the streets in front of restaurants and people stood on curbs waiting for the parade that started at Fisherman's Wharf and winded its way to North Beach before finishing at Washington Square Park.
Originally called the Columbus Day Parade before becoming the Italian Heritage Parade in 1994, it is the oldest parade of its kind in the nation. The parade's website states the name of the parade was changed in an “effort to celebrate the accomplishments and culture of all Italians and Italian-Americans.”
Food was everywhere both at restaurants, along the streets and at the park with salamis, cheeses, wine and beer. In the park there was a display of Ferraris from over the years. One Ferrari owner had the hood of the engine lifted and a board with tablecloth laying over part of the engine as a makeshift picnic table. All over people were seen celebrating with friends and making new friends, talking and sharing food and drink with them.
Outside the North Beach Restaurant on Stockton Street, owner Lorenzo Petroni was hard to miss as he sat outside in a toga and olive wreath. “It's a great event, we've been doing this since 1976 and it keeps getting better,” Petroni said.
Sitting with him soaking up the sun and atmosphere were his son Peter who is the manager of the restaurant and their friend Carlo Galazzo, the founder of The Tides Wharf restaurant in Bodega Bay.
The parade had floats, bands and some wacky characters entertaining the public.
The Balloon Platoon delighted crowds with their humorous performance. Wearing sailor's uniforms they were carrying mops and dancing in unison. Inside each sailor's outfit at their waists was some kind of hoop, possibly made of balloons to give them each a tubby appearance. This gave them a comical look and made their drill team like dancing whimsical.
The highlight of the parade was the float with the 2013 Queen Isabella and her court. Queen Isabella represents the ideals of the Italian-American community and pride in her Italian heritage and as such, is a coveted title. This year's queen is Angela (Riccio) Silva with Tarren Petrocchi crowned the princess. They were on the float along with eight other women in Queen Isabella's Court.
Also in the parade was tenor Pasquale Esposito who got spectators clapping as he passed by. At one point when a portion of one of his performances was played loudly, he he threw up his arms and received loud cheers.
Back on Stockton street and sitting at a restaurant table was Matthew. He has lived in the Mission District for three years, before that he lived in Sydney, Australia. “I've been to all three parades.”
“Friends of mine told me that it is a great festival. So I thought I'd give it a go and I've been back every year since. Theres nothing to complain about good Italian food and wine,” Matthew said.
Sitting with him and wearing a sailor's cap with Peroni written on it, was his friend Summer Huff. She explained she was wearing the naval cap as she is the brand ambassador for Peroni Beer in San Francisco. Originally from San Rafael in the North San Francisco Bay, she has lived in the city for the last seven years. She has seen each parade since moving there. She explained how much she loves North Beach. “The sense of community here is unbelievable. North beach really brings it hard as far as loyalty and richness and class,” Huff said.
There were more colorful characters in the parade. One quirky man was wearing a grey suit and carrying a sign that read, Your friendly Godfather of old fashioned education, Don Halfona. To accessorize his persona, he carried a violin case, to echo the movies where a mobster would keep a machine gun. He also had a tie with fake US bills stapled to it.
Don Halfona's real name is Howard Halfon. If his mobster name wasn't enough he wore a badge that had his other aliases on it including Happy Howard and the humorous name of Robert Ravioli.
Sitting by the judges' stand at Washington Square Park were four generations of one family. Liana Pella, age 84, has been to each year's Italian parade in San Francisco since birth. She still remembers marching in the parade as a child.
Like her mother, daughter Joy Pella-Motl, age 57, hasn't missed out. “I'm proud to say that I've never missed a Columbus Day parade.”
Sitting under a San Francisco 49ers canopy they brought, she shared some of her feelings about the event. “The mood is always very special, we're proud of our Italian heritage so we are celebrating that,” Pella-Motl said.
Joy had a daughter in the parade, who was the queen in the 2000 Italian Heritage Parade. Joy's granddaughters were also present. “They're here in their Italian tutus and they of course have never missed a family tradition. We know one day that they are the future Queen Isabells,” Pella-Motl said proudly.