A touch of Tuscany will transform downtown

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Old Country will be as close as downtown this weekend.

The red, green and white flags of Italy are already hanging along North Main Street.

Within days, Roman columns, ballooned arches, even a Tuscan villa, will grace Constant’s Wharf.

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On Thursday and Friday, more than 90 Italians from Oderzo, Italy – hometown of Planters Peanut founder Amedeo Obici – will arrive in town for a five-day visit.

Thousands of people from across Hampton Roads and beyond are expected to descend upon Suffolk this weekend for the city’s first Festa Italiana. Sponsored by the Suffolk Sister City Commission, the event, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday at Constant’s Wharf, will be a celebration of Oderzo’s rich heritage.

Two opera singers, traditional alpine musicians, a chef and internationally renowned fruit sculptor are among the 90 guests coming in from Oderzo, which is Suffolk’s sister city.

The all-day festival will give locals a true taste of Italian culture, said Mary Jane Naismith, chair of the Sister City Commission.

&uot;This is authentic Italian,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s already drawing a lot of interest from the local Italian community.

&uot;We started out planning to have just a small festival on the waterfront,&uot; she said. &uot;But it just kept growing and growing. It mushroomed into this festival.&uot;

Highlights of the event will include:

nAn authentic Italian dinner, which is being held at the Suffolk Conference Center from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, is sold out. Chef Carlo will be taking over the hotel’s kitchen to prepare the dinner.

&uot;The chef decided on the menu for Saturday,&uot; said Naismith. &uot;He doesn’t speak English but he has sent over a grocery list.&uot;

nWine enthusiasts will have the opportunity to savor a taste of Italy by sampling Italian wines from 3 to 6 p.m. Advance tickets are available for $15; tickets are $20 on the day of the event. Tickets can be purchased at the Suffolk Visitor Center, 321 N. Main St.

There will also be performances throughout the day by Cora Ana, a group of Alpine musicians, and two Italian opera singers, Naismith said.

Italian cooking will also take the stage several times throughout the day.

Maria Forner, a pastry chef, will demonstrate how to make the dessert, Tiramisu, and Beppo Tono will give a fruit-sculpting exhibit.

Car enthusiasts can check out an Italian car exhibit while art lovers can look at paintings and ceramics from Tuscany. There will also be a display of shoes by GEOX, an Italian shoe company.

Several Italian food vendors will be on hand with their specialties, Naismith said. Ivan Gherardini, a Virginia Beach businessman who is a native of Italy, will making a special Italian treat in honor of the Suffolk event: peanut gelato.

There will be all sorts of children’s events: games, pasta art, face painting, Venetian masks, Italian hats, and story telling.

To cap off the evening, the musical group, &uot;Butter,&uot; will perform a Las Vegas-style revue. The day will end with a fireworks display.

Festa Italiana is drawing a lot of attention-and not just from Suffolk.

In planning the event, Naismith contacted several local lodges of the Order Sons of Italy in America, a fraternal organization those of Italian heritage. As members of local lodges shared news of the festival within the organization, the phones began to ring in city hall.

&uot;It’s generating a lot of interest from the Italian American community,&uot; Naismith said.

&uot;The city has gotten calls from people as far away as Texas and Pennsylvania who are planning to come.&uot;

Naismith has also gotten calls from Italian Americans eager to participate in the festival. For example, an 80-year-old marching band musician – who spent 30 years performing in Italy – has called and asked to participate in the band’s opening march.

Naismith is hoping to make the festival an annual event.

&uot;It is going to be wonderful.&uot;