The impact the Italian community has had on Vancouver can be felt year round, but it can be experienced like no other this weekend.
Beginning with Italian Heritage Month running the length of June, and culminating in the estimated 350,000-person street party that is Italian Day, if you share a passion for la dolce vita, you’ll want to find yourself on the Drive on June 14 as the busy transit corridor becomes a piazza for a day.
Building on the theme of art, this year’s Italian Day kicked off a week earlier with the launch of an Italian film fest at the Rio Theatre. It is also preceded by Of Heaven and Earth – an exhibition of 500 years of Italian painting at the Vancouver Art Gallery – which opens June 12. Both were new partnerships for the festival.
“There’s so many different components to the arts: painting, film, sculpture, theatre, opera, music, right?” says Italian Day executive director Brunella Gaudio. “Yes, we are celebrating all that is Italian, but we also want to extend it as far as our local community. The theme has provided many branches.”
Indeed, with lots to work with, Italian Day itself will celebrate the arts with three stages along Commercial Drive hosting musical performances by Vancouver Opera, City Opera, and jazz with the Cory Weeds Quartet (in partnership with the Italian Cultural Centre), local singers Gianni Fuoco, Carmelina Cupo, and Federico’s owner Federico Fuoco (who was instrumental in resurrecting Italian Day in 2010, after the festival’s long hiatus), improv by the students of Theatre Temp, and a fashion show with looks from local label JAC by Jacqueline Conoir, Kalena’s Shoes, as well as Milanese label Alcoolique.
Day-of events also include the lesser arts of bocce, grape-stomping, and competitive pasta-eating, with a kids zone for well-rounded family fun.
And that doesn’t even cover the food. In addition to the more than 40 participating restaurants and pubs along the Drive, there are 26 visiting food vendors and food trucks.
Attendees can also pick up a copy of Il Giornale, the Italian Day event magazine, and explore the Drive on their own time with the Flavours of Little Italy passport, which offers discounts at the 12 participating businesses the month of June.
In fact, Commercial Drive has been known as an enclave of ethnic Italians and Italian businesses since the 1940s, and while it might appear today that the Italian presence in “Little Italy” has diminished, more than 80 per cent of the properties along Commercial Drive are still owned by people of Italian descent.
“There’s a lot of second-generation businesses,” says Carmen D’Onofrio, executive director of the Commercial Drive BIA. “For example, [Gelateria] Dolce Amore or La Grotta Del Formaggio or Fratelli. And it’s great… Businesses are tough; family businesses are even tougher,” he laughs.
For those second generation business owners (like D’Onofrio, whose family has owned Kalena’s Shoes for almost 50 years) and the people who have seen the Drive survive a few unruly World Cups, Italian Day is a nostalgic revival of what the street space represents.
“The Italian culture has always celebrated life,” says D’Onofrio, “whether its food and wine or family or singing and dancing. It’s what people love about living. And the street is vibrant, it’s alive. In North America, not all streets are like that everyday, whereas in Europe it’s part of the fabric of their society.”
Further afield, the Italian Cultural Centre, a hub of Italian language and culture on Slocan, is celebrating Italian Heritage Month with four weeks of events, highlights of which include Il Mercato Italian market June 19, Jazz Festival concerts (starting June 19), Italian Film Festival screenings (June 16 and 30) and an ongoing exhibition of sculpture by Lorenzo De Francesco.
“[Italian Heritage Month] provides us with a formal opportunity for us to showcase our culture,” explains ICC executive director Mauro Vescera. “There’s a great interest in Italian culture, and so we’re really trying to knit all the activities together and open them up to people to explore.”
For the full list of Italian Day and Heritage Month activities, head to ItalianDay.ca and ItalianCulturalCentre.ca.
Read more about Italian Day!
• Nosh: Eating like an Italian
• Follow me Foodie: Italian food myths
• By the Bottle: Guide to Italian Wine
• Style File: JAC by Jacqueline Conoir
• A Good Chick to Know: Made in Italy
• Vancouver Art Gallery: 500 Years of Italian Painting
• Italian Day Highlights: What to see (and eat!) at Italian Day