Food, music, culture draw throngs to 33rd Greater Y'town Italian Fest

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Red, white and green was the dominant color scheme in downtown Youngstown on Friday during the first night of the 33rd annual Greater Youngstown Italian Fest.

The festival will continue through the weekend, wrapping up Sunday, and features music on two stages each night, raffles, food and retail vendors and a variety of contests.

As usual, the smell of Italian sausage, pizza and garlic hung over downtown’s Central Square while thousands of attendees wandered through the lanes of tents and trailers.

Arlene DeChellis, president of the Italian Heritage Foundation – the organization behind the festival, said her pride in her Italian heritage is what keeps bringing her back to work on the festival year after year.

“It’s for the love of my heritage,” she said. “And all of our profits go back to the community — we support charitable organizations and scholarships with the money.”

While the Greater Youngstown Italian Fest is certainly a celebration of the Italian immigrants who came to the area to work in the mines and later, the steel mills in the region, the festival has grown to include food from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including barbecue, Chinese stir fry and Cajun fare.

DeChellis said over the years the festival has grown and that each year they try to correct the problems of the year before and bring in new performers and vendors.

One of those new vendors is Taylor Washington, who was not only new to the festival, but is relatively new to the city in general.

Washington – proprietor of Taylor Made Cakes – moved to the Youngstown area in March with her husband and child from Sandusky, and is originally from Southern California.

The cakes Washington sells are gourmet cupcakes, with flavors like mint Oreo and lemon delight, as well as some alcohol-infused variants, like her Salted Caramel Bailey’s cupcakes. Friday was her first time at the festival.

“This is a great festival, there’s lots of people and generally, with ethnic festivals, people come ready to eat,” Washington said Friday. “We haven’t been doing bad at all tonight.”

Washington – who has a degree in broadcast journalism — began her cupcake company after choosing to leave her job to raise her child. During her time at home she started baking her cupcakes as a hobby, and it eventually blossomed into a business.

“I couldn’t sit still, so I started making cupcakes,” she said. “The business really blew up when we moved here, so coming to Youngstown was like a godsend.”

While Washington was slinging cupcakes, on the other side of the festival Frank Corso was getting ready to sling numbers.

Corso is president of the Youngstown Morra League, and spent his Friday evening preparing for the annual morra tournament at the festival.

Morra is a game dating back to the Roman era that involves two players displaying a number of their fingers while shouting a guess at the total number of fingers that will be on display. In the Youngstown Morra League, the guesses are shouted in Italian.

Corso’s league has been playing morra at the festival for more than a decade, and he’s been slowly attracting a younger generation to the game, thanks to its visibility.

“We’re getting a lot of younger people interested,” Corso said. “The only people who played for a while were the old guys, but with the festivals and the league we’ve been able to show this game to these younger people who want to reconnect with their heritage. They get to play a game that maybe their fathers or their grandfathers used to play.”

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