Italian Day celebrates Commercial Drive family

It’s noon Saturday, and in 24 hours the ploddingly-slow car traffic outside the window where Michael Cuccione is sitting in Federico’s Supper Club will transform into a street party of wall-to-wall people that will stretch 13 blocks.

Cuccione is a well-known name, recognizable by his work with the Michael Cuccione Foundation, named for his nephew, his years as president of Il Centro, Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre, and years earlier, the help he gave to introduce Canadian life to new Italian families after he arrived here in 1958 with his parents and younger siblings.

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On June 2, Cuccione was awarded the Cavalierato-Italian knighthood by the Italian consul general.

On Saturday, Cuccione talked about the importance of celebration for Italian families, and how Italian Day on Commercial Drive is a larger extension of that same concept.

“To me, when you have a birthday, it’s about celebrating having that cake and coffee but it’s also an opportunity to keep that family united,” he said. “Italian Day is a larger example of getting together as a family. Italians are warm and if you’re fortunate enough to be a neighbour of Italians you’ll know they like to celebrate around the kitchen table — that’s the favourite spot — with a glass of wine and reminisce and talk about the good things.”

It was talk that revived Italian Day on Commercial Drive, which marked its sixth comeback year on Sunday. The original version had begun sometime in the 1960s when many Italian families put down roots after emigrating here after the Second World War. The festival stopped in 1982 mostly because of an unfortunate combination of unruly behaviour and the high cost of policing that came along with it, possibly fuelled by Italy winning the FIFA World Cup that year.

Cuccione is part of the founding group that brought back Italian Day, and added it would not be possible without a passionate Italian Day Festival Society committee headed by Brunella Guadio and sponsorship that pitched in to pay more than $100,000 in associated festival costs.

“To me, it’s about sharing and not forgetting the history of the Drive,” Cuccione said. “The Drive, for a lot of people during the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, knew they would find good restaurants and knew it was an area a lot of Italians were. You were new to a new country where you didn’t know anyone, well, it made you feel like you were a part of home.”

To honour the area’s history for the Italian community, NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova wants to officially name a part of Commercial Drive “Little Italy” (the motion goes before council June 23). Some love the idea while others say the area is too culturally diverse to be named for one group. Still others say the area has changed over the years and the Italian flavour has faded somewhat — perhaps not realizing that Italian landlords own roughly 80 per cent of the area’s buildings.

“Look now,” said Cuccione, pointing out the window. “There’s (La Grotta Del) Formaggio, the Italian bakery Fratelli, Café Calabria and that’s just from looking out the window at Federico’s right here. The Drive is still there and there’s a lot of connection with the next generation.”

Italian Day organizers said Sunday’s festival was the largest one yet with an estimated 300,000 attendees taking in the umpteen food stands, temporary restaurant patios, and stages featuring song and dance. June is Italian Heritage Month, so Il Centro will be hosting an array of celebrations in addition to its regular programs, which can be found at italianculturalcentre.ca.

In true Italian fashion, all are welcome.

rvblissett@gmail.com

@rebeccablissett

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