WILMINGTON – The familiar sights, sounds and smells filled the streets surrounding St. Anthony of Padua Church and School as the Italian Festival rolled in Tuesday night. Families listened to music in three locations while young people hopped on the rides or played games in the midway. And whether it was pizza, sausage and peppers, or funnel cake, it was impossible not to get a whiff of the festival fare.
Not too much has changed at the festival from past years, but there was an unmistakable void for those who have been attending for decades. This is the first festival since the death last August of St. Anthony’s longtime pastor, Oblate Father Roberto Balducelli.
But while he might not physically be around, he is still there, according to some festival veterans.
Fran Sarro used to live in the neighborhood and helped start the Italian Festival. He said friends of his told him it was going to rain on Tuesday, but Sarro said that was nonsense.
“They said it’s going to rain tonight, and I said, ‘No, it isn’t. Father Roberto’s not going to let it rain. He’s up there,’” he said.
Ray Banker, one of the organizers, said “it’s a little bit empty” without the priest walking the grounds, but Father Roberto’s presence can be felt.
“It is a little bit different. He typically came and walked through, said hello to people and hello to the guests that were here. So it’s a little bit sad to not see him coming through.”
Banker said crowds were very strong on Sunday and steady the next two days. He was working inside the school hall, where many patrons settled in for a meal in the air conditioning before heading outside. Reaction to the meals inside St. Anthony’s School has been outstanding, he said.
Folks enjoying their food “al fresco” had nothing but nice things to say about their meals and the atmosphere on the festival grounds.
Holy Rosary parishioner Florie Henry said it had been several years since she attended, but she and her two daughters decided to drive to Little Italy on Tuesday.
“We came out for dinner for some good Italian food,” Henry said. Their dinners included panzarotti, shrimp scampi and an eggplant sandwich.
Jay Bastianelli, a member of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Hockessin, was there with his wife, Kristen, and daughter Kaia, who was dancing to the band playing in the courtyard of the Antonian.
“The food is the best around. That’s why we come,” he said.
He had the brasciola, while his wife picked the risotto with mushrooms. Kaia went with the meatballs. But it was more than food that enticed them to come. “I’ve probably been coming every year for the past 10 years. It’s a great week in the city. It’s a great group of people getting together for one week, and it’s great to see your friends out.”
Henry agreed about the atmosphere.
“It feels safe,” she said. “It’s a good time with the family. It makes you feel comfortable being here.”
Several Padua Academy students spent a few hours serving up funnel cakes, always a popular stop, particularly after the dinner hours.
Rising junior Jordan Sobolesky and three classmates decided Tuesday would be a good night to get some service hours for the next school year. This was her second year volunteering.
“I thought it was fun. I’m back this year,” she said. “We’re a pretty awesome crew.”
They could have volunteered at any of the booths, but “funnel cake is pretty good,” Sobolesky said.
Sarro was joined by his daughter, Annette Mulry, who grew up in the parish but now lives outside Annapolis, Md. She tries to come back to Wilmington every June for the Italian Festival to see her family and friends. There is a lot to love about it, she said.
“Seeing the people that we know, and then the music. And the food,” she said. ”What’s not to love about it? It’s wonderful.”