Tiny town in Gippsland serves up a bella Italian festa

The cost of travel has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, but crowds in a small South Gippsland town enjoyed a trip to Italy on Sunday without the jetlag or airfares.

Mirboo North’s Italian Festa was a dazzling display of la dolce vita for thousands of visitors to streets rich with the aroma of garlic, the sight of margherita pizzas being eaten and the sound of 1960s Euro-pop.

Traditional Italian live performances were among the attractions in Mirboo North on Sunday.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Everyone from toddlers to 90-year-olds had a bella giornata (beautiful day) at the free event on a fine day in the town’s Baromi Park, 150 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. It was an Italophile’s dream come true.

You could take selfies with Roman soldier role-players, watch grape-stomping and a spaghetti-eating competition, and admire vintage Alfa Romeo cars.

It was the first festa held since 2020.

Gazing over the festivities were Rosie Romano and Gina Carpinteri, who recruited others to help them create the festa in 2016 and are among 10 women on the volunteer committee.

Festa founders Rosie Romano (left) and Gina Carpinteri.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The festa grew out of the St Paul’s Festival; after World War II, migrants from the town of Solarino in Sicily settled in Mirboo North and worked on potato and dairy farms.

They were devout Catholics, and in 1966 they began an annual procession carrying a statue, made in Italy, of St Paul, the apostle said to have visited Solarino.

The St Paul’s Festival in Mirboo North would be followed by a feast and music, but was largely confined to the Italian community.

Community members carry the statue of St Paul through Baromi Park in Mirboo North.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Eight years ago, the festival was waning as older residents died or people moved away.

So Romano and Carpinteri, both of Italian descent and married to sons of migrants from Solarino, created the Italian Festa, with its own Facebook page, seeking to engage the wider community, especially young people.

A Roman soldier chats to visitors.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

It’s now one of Gippsland’s biggest events. This year, there was live music, cooking demonstrations and flag-throwing by a troupe visiting from Faenza, Italy. There were 150 food stalls, some of which were selling local blueberries, honey and vegetables, and Italian arancini, gelati and biscotti.

One home-made pasta stall sold out before noon.

Patrons enjoy their pizza at the Italian Festa.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

“It is a huge success and we’re really proud of it,” Romano said.

A big hit on Sunday was the children from Mirboo North Primary School performing the chicken dance, or il ballo del qua qua, and the tarantella, or spider dance.

Teacher Paula Calafiore, who grew up on a potato farm in Mirboo North, is the daughter of migrants who came from Solarino in the 1960s.

She teaches Italian at the primary school.

Local primary school students perform.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Calafiore, who is on the festa committee and who as a child marched through Mirboo North behind the St Paul statue, said it “meant everything” to the immigrants to keep cultural connections to their homeland.

To kick off Sunday’s festa, Catholic priest Father Peter Bickley led a procession of the same statue through the park.

Calafiore said: “I’m very proud that we can continue on the traditions of where our parents grew up.

“It’s close to my heart. It’s very, very important and something that we hold near and dear.”

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