Annual Italian Festival in Houston Offers Wine, Pasta, Cookies & an Overall Good Time
Festa Italiana, Houston’s annual Italian festival hosted by the Italian Cultural and Community Center, turns 40 this year. The four-day event celebrates the food, music and culture of Italy and runs from October 11 through 14 on the grounds of the University of St. Thomas at 3800 Montrose. Admission is free from 5 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, October 11 and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, October 12. Otherwise, ticket prices start at $6 for general admission and there is also a $25 advance purchase deal that includes $30 worth of food tickets and entrance to the festival.
“What I love about this festival is that it brings the city of Houston together to celebrate our Italian heritage and lets everyone try this great food from a bunch of different restaurants,” said Piatto Ristorante’s John Carrabba, who’s served on Festa Italiana’s executive committee for a dozen years. “There’s bocce ball and a classic car show, too. It’s great!”
He also provided a sneak preview of the food Piatto and other Houston Italian restaurants are serving at the festival “We’re serving chicken marsala over orzo ($8) and sfinghi ($6), kind of an Italian doughnut hole. We’re making them on site and dusting them with cinnamon or powdered sugar — or both, if you really want to go crazy,” Carrabba said. “Maggiano’s is serving lasagna ($8) and they’re also doing a combo with lasagna and Caesar salad ($12). Fellini’s has gelato ($6) and cappuccino ($5).”
As if all that weren’t enough, volunteers from the Daughters of Italian Heritage are making 15,000 meatballs to be served with spaghetti ($7) and in meatball sandwiches ($7); artichoke hearts with bread crumbs, pecorino and Romano cheese ($6) and green beans tossed in olive oil and bread crumbs ($5). For dessert, there will be thousands of cannoli ($6), a waffle pastry filled with ricotta cheese. Also, Michael’s Cookie Jar has created a box of assorted Italian cookies ($15), and Gelazzi Pizza is selling several kinds of slices from $5 to $7 each. This is the first year that Michael’s and Gelazzi have participated in the festival and Carrabba says that everyone involved in planning the festival is excited to have them. “When Michael’s approached us about being part of this, we just said, ‘Do you thing. We know it will be great.'”
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Italian celebration without wine, which is available at the festival by the glass and by the bottle. There are several offerings, including Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio, a quaffable zinger of a wine; Querceto Chianti, medium-bodied and laced with bright red fruit notes; Villa Pozzi Nero D’Avola, a rustic offering from Sicily with a giant bang of blackberry shrouded in hints of vanilla and fig. Wines by the glass sell for $7 and bottle princes are $28.
Anyone wanting to dive deeper into Italian wines should check out the wine seminars, offered on Thursday, October 11 at 6:15 p.m., Friday, October 12 at 3, 5:45 and 8:15 p.m., Saturday, October 13 at 1, 5 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 14 at 2:30 p.m. Seminar tickets are $15 and can be purchased online in advance or at the festival. There’s also an Italian beer tasting on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., which also runs $15 per person.
The festival also offers lots of other hands-on activities, including a pasta-eating contest, cooking classes for kids, Italian language classes, grape stomping and dance lessons. Live music happens daily, as do lectures and movie screenings about multiple regions in Italy. There’s even a Catholic Mass on Sunday morning at 9:30 in the university’s Chapel of St. Basil.
“You know, the University of St. Thomas is a terrific venue for us for this,” said Carrabba, who is also an alum of the school. “People can park in the garage and walk over the quad. It’s perfect. It makes the festival really accessible.”
He also has another theory about why he thinks Houstonians will enjoy Festa Italiana. “I think everyone wants to be Italian,” he laughed. “This is your chance!”
About the author: Holly Beretto writes about food, wine, the arts and interesting people for a variety of local publications, including Downtown magazine and Houstonia. Her work has appeared in Arts + Culture Texas, Santa Clara magazine, Maui No Ka Oi, PRIME Living and the Arizona State University and St. Paul’s School alumni magazines. She is the editor of Pierce, the magazine of Franklin Pierce University and the author of Christ as the Cornerstone: Fifty Years of Worship at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, published by Bright Sky Press. Originally from Rhode Island, she lives in Houston with her husband Mark Love.