Spaghetti eating contests, bocce matches with local celebrities and Italian-language opera singers can only point to one thing: The Italian Festival is back.

As many as 20,000 people will descend upon the strip of Pine Avenue known as Little Italy this weekend for one of Niagara Falls’ largest and longest-standing events.

But unlike other Italian festivals, organizers haven’t let this one become a huge, impersonal carnival. The focus has been and will always be on family and Italian heritage, said Mary Jo Zacher, executive director of the Pine Avenue Business Association, which sponsors the festival.

“It’s like a big, giant neighborhood block party,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody and everybody’s talking and eating. That’s the atmosphere — it’s not carnival and rides.”

“If you don’t see someone all year, you’ll see them at the Italian Fest,” she added. “That’s one of the jokes: ‘I’ll see you at the Italian Festival.’ ”

And that couldn’t be more true for some Italian-American families that have spread out across the country. Though the Italian Festival is a huge draw for Italian and non-Italian locals, the event is also emerging as a destination for Italians who are somehow connected to the Falls.

Zacher said she continues to get calls from people across the country inquiring about the annual festival, which has been celebrated in Little Italy for more than 20 years.

Jerry Genova, president of the Pine Avenue Business Association, has helped organize the event, but he knows its family appeal personally.

“Right now, I have more than 60 of my family members coming in from out of town, as far as California,” he said. “We strategically time the family reunion with the Italian Festival. It started a couple years ago when people in the family wanted to see where my mother and father come from.”

And though the festival has grown in recent years to a two-day event because there was too much to pack in a single day, much of it remains just as it was when it began. Staples like The Como Restaurant, which has operated on Pine Avenue since 1927, will be one of dozens of vendors selling Italian favorites this weekend.

Again, this year, “cittiani speciali,” or special citizens, will be honored, including:

• Raffael Tarantino was born July 22, 1920, in Italy and is the owner of Raffael’s Barber Shop in the Falls.

• Frank Brusino was born Jan. 31, 1921, and raised on 19th Street and worked as an administrator for the Falls school district.

• Angelo D’Aloise was born July 2, 1931, and is a longtime member of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and volunteer at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

• Celia Granto, born Jan. 4, 1921, and raised off Pine Avenue, co-owned the City Market.

• John Niedda, born 1928, has lived within a block of Pine Avenue his whole life, speaks Italian and enjoys making wine.

• Vincent Lanzetta, born Feb. 27 1932, in Italy, is the owner of Gigio’s Cafe, which still operates on Pine Avenue.

• Mario Beccari, born Aug. 29, 1926, in Italy, is a longtime member of the Cristoforo Columbo Society and St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church.

• Daniel Giancola has lived on Pine Avenue all his life and won the St. Joseph’s Worker Award in 2005.

Though the weekend-long event celebrates Pine Avenue’s unwavering and proud Italian heritage that has held strong for so many years, everyone is invited to the festivities, Genova said.

“You don’t have to be Italian,” he said. “You can be Italian for the day.”

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: The annual Little Italy Italian Festival

• WHERE: Little Italy along Pine Avenue, between Portage Road and Hyde Park Boulevard

• WHEN: Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

• MORE INFO: Call the Pine Avenue Business Association at 285-0377.

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