You expect pizza and pasta at an Italian festival, but residents of Vandergrift step up the menu by offering a Piemontese specialty called bagna calda.
The dish made of olive oil, garlic, butter and chopped anchovies is served hot and used as a dipping sauce for raw vegetables and crusty Italian bread. Family recipes are considered treasures and are handed down. The dish, which when translated means "warm bath," will be featured at Vandergrift's annual Festa Italiana, scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. Sunday in the town's Kennedy Park.
The dish is one of the most popular for those attending Vandergrift's annual celebration of all things Italian.
Eight years ago, Andretta Kobik of Tarentum saw an appeal for volunteers for the festival in a local paper and thought it might be a good way for her and her daughter, Kathi Kobik, to not only tap into their Italian heritage but also have some fun.
Because Mrs. Kobik's father, Bob Gonella, was a native of Torino, where bagna calda is a diet staple, the mother and daughter team is a natural to man the bagna calda booth. During the festival, they pass out Styrofoam cups of the tasty warm broth prepared by Tommy's Catering of Vandergrift.
As accompaniments, the two women buy cases of cabbage, celery, and green pepper, which they wash, cut into bite size pieces and package in baggies in preparation for the festival. They also package slices of Italian bread in separate baggies to complete the inventory of foods to be dipped, which they sell for $5 each, dipping sauce included.
"Some people who say they don't like anchovies end up liking the sauce anyway," Mrs. Kobik noted.
They sell about 350 orders at every festival.
Taking the dipping sauce one step further, festival organizers also stage a bagna calda contest in which participants vie against one another for a gift card, a Festa Italiana apron -- and bragging rights.
"Two of our three judges are priests from Saint Vincent Archabbey and have an Italian ancestry," Mrs. Kobik said. "We already have 10 people signed on for the contest, and each of their bagna caldas are different."
There is no fee to enter, but participants have to bring along at least a quart of sauce for the judges to sample.
According to Mrs. Kobik, Dan Petrarca of Colorado, who once lived in Vandergrift, is returning for the festa and wants to enter the contest along with two other members of his family.
"Families like to compete against one another to see who makes the best," Mrs. Kobik said.
Festivities begin at 10:30 a.m. in the town's Kennedy Park with an outdoor Mass celebrated by Monsignor James T. Gaston and the Rev. James Loew, pastor of the St. Gertrude Roman Catholic Church of Vandergrift. A procession, which includes carrying the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will follow.
A hefty bill of entertainers follows the procession.
"Vandergrift goes all out and pays good money for festival entertainment," said Mary Angiulli, festival secretary. "In the past, we've had Ricky Martin, Dean's son, perform, as well as Al Martino, Julius LaRosa and Louis Prima. This year, we're having Louis' daughter, Lena Prima, perform on our stage starting at 6:45 p.m."
The other entertainers include ALFIO at 12:30 p.m., the Murphy's Music Center Tribute Band at 2 p.m., the Russo Brothers at 3:15 p.m., Paul Salos Presents Sinatra at 5 p.m., and Lights Out -- a Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons tribute band -- at 8:30 p.m.
According to U.S. Census surveys, about one-quarter of Vandergrift's population of 5,205 has an Italian heritage. Early in the 20th century, the town -- located about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh -- had the largest sheet steel mill in the world. Pittsburgh steel maker George McMurtry hired the landscape architectural firm of Frederick Law Olmsted in 1895 to design Vandergrift as a model industrial town.
"For the past ten years, we've staged the Festa Italiana to help us remember our heritage," Ms. Angiulli said.
Parking and admission is free. For a complete menu and details, visit www.festaitaliana.us.
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: email@example.com