The preparations started days before. A truckload of sand was mounded in the piazza. Then, for an entire day great logs were conveyed through the streets on a squeaking, suffering tractor. They were painstakingly stacked on the dirt so that, in the end, the teepee of tree trunks reached up one story high. Old men stood beholding the scene and discussing how the bonfire would be bettered if they’d have loaded the logs in a different manner; how years ago the blaze was bigger; how there were bonfires in every contrada of the village. How they used to each put potatoes and meats to roast in the coals the morning after, the whole contrada gathered and ate together. Nowadays…mah. Things have changed, they moaned.
The festa di Sant’Antonio Abate is a big-deal shindig in these parts, a mid-winter party to liven things up and have a little fun. The party is to honor the saint who is important here in rural Italy, the protector of animals. I assumed that the many Antonios and Antoniettas we know here would have special cause to celebrate, as the onomastico, or saint’s day, is often more celebrated than one’s birthday. However, they told me that they are all named for Sant’Antonio di Padova, “the Italian Antonio, naturalmente”. Ah. Sant’Antonio Abate, it turns out, is from Egypt. Who knew?
This festa is a much-anticipated party regardless of which Antonio it celebrates. The little town garnered three bands to provide music. Stands were set up to provide typical local dishes. On the eve of the party I went to watch the pasta brigade as they hand-crafted 35 kilos of cavatelli. Brave donne, all of them. I learned their secrets, and while they wouldn’t let me actually make the pasta, they did let me lay hands on it and line the little cavatelli up neatly on the trays while they rhythmically dragged out the shape and flicked them my way. At the festa, it was served with a mouth-watering sugo di cinghiale (sauce with wild boar). Naturally, that was the first thing we ate.
Then it was on the porchetta – just a taste, mind you, we split a panino between the two of us – because Bryan was committed to the salsiccia that was being grilled up by a friend, the rising aroma of which drifted up and down the corso. But not content, he also had to try the cuturiedd, a lamb and potato dish found in these parts. That’s when things got going, as Bryan was found by his cronies and made to sit. And drink. Guys bond while doing testosterone-ish stuff together, and in this case it was the pig slaughter. They spotted him and slapped him on the back and rolled out the home- made wine. “Sure, they said, you could buy some vino cheap at the booth, but Raffaele’s is much better. Taste it. Dai…now tell me, is that not good?” They didn’t want the glass to become empty; Bryan had forgotten the Basilicata Rule of “Drink Slowly”. We finally convinced them to release us so we could wander the corso between the two piazzas and see what was happening.
We joyously found friends who came from another town, and Michela and I danced (badly, but who cares) some of the country dances while Bryan stood off to the side taking video. Other friends wandered in and out; we laughed and stood by the bonfire to warm ourselves, and shuffled between venues to take it all in. I danced with another friend (again badly, but we neither of us claim any twinkle toes), though it may have gone better if Sandro had relinquished his panino during the ballo. No matter, we laughed and twirled and had fun, which is, of course, the whole point of a party.
When I was still a little dizzy from the dips and swirls, an acquaintance approached, smiled and said, “You know, we are so happy you have chosen to live here. Seeing you smile and laugh and be a part of our village…it is so nice.”
It was a notte bianca (white night), meaning the festa lasted til dawn. We capped off the night with a final glass and toast with Sandro and company and toted ourselves off to bed at 2:00 a.m., which seemed to be the magic hour when nearly all of our acquaintance also wandered away from the flickering warmth of the bonfire to the warmth of their houses.
Despite the old men’s griping about the modern rendition, we thought it was a pretty punchy party, a bigger deal than most street festivals we've attended in metropolitan areas in the US. Our village of 600 rolled out a rollicking night, a welcome break in the bleak of winter with food, fun, friendship and festivities. My kind of party, indeed.
Bryan also posted about the festa with some photos on his blog.