By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Donny Ambrose insists that Brier Hill is in the blood.
That’s why, for four days each August, thousands of former residents of the old Italian neighborhood feel compelled to return, to reconnect and to reminisce, during the Brier Hill Italian Fest, now in its 22nd year.
“All our friends come back. They bring back the old neighborhood,” said Ambrose, who has lived his whole life in Brier Hill. “You can take the boy out of Brier Hill, but you can’t take Brier Hill out of the boy.”
Dominic Modarelli, festival chairman, agreed, explaining that the festival is almost like a family reunion, albeit one that’s held in the streets of a residential neighborhood. People come from as far away as California to attend, even planning their trips back home around the festival.
Modarelli added that his father, Dominic “Dee Dee” Modarelli, wanted to start the festival as a way to “give something back” to the neighborhood he grew up in, as well as to those he grew up with.
So, in just three weeks during the summer of 1991, the elder Modarelli, along with family and friends, put together the first festival, filling it with food, games and live Italian music to bring back the spirit of the neighborhood.
Not much has changed since, even though the elder Modarelli died in 2009 at 76. His son said he’s glad his father’s legacy endures.
“He lived all of his life in Brier Hill,” he said. “The festival was his dream, and it still lives on today.”
Neil Buzzacco, who has been involved with the Brier Hill Italian Fest since its start, said the festival is a big, happy homecoming. Sometimes, especially on Sunday nights, the festival is so crowded with “old neighbors and people you grew up with” that it’s impossible to move, he said.
“Everybody’s hugging and kissing and remembering old times,” Buzzacco said.
“This was a great place to grow up. Everybody was so friendly, and you never had to lock your doors. It’s home.”
Joey Naples, a festival co-founder who grew up on Victoria Street, said he remains awed by the spirit and magic that lives on in the once-bustling, but resilient, neighborhood.
Many of Brier Hill’s residents came to the area together from the same region in Italy, Naples said, adding that once settled, they shared everything, including language, culture, recipes and religion. Now, their descendents return each year to “think of the good old days,” he said.
The Brier Hill Italian Fest is one of the last Italian festivals of the season, as well as one of the city’s longest-running ones, said Claire Maluso, another co-founder. She added that throughout the past two decades, the festival committee has tried to remain true to the elder Modarelli’s original vision.
“It’s wonderful,” Maluso said. “Everybody that ever was born here returns.”