It’s almost impossible to imagine Little Italy’s annual San Gennaro festival without the spicy links of Lucy’s Sausage.
Maybe that’s because the pig trader is celebrating its 95th anniversary this month, making it one of the most well-known Italian-American companies in New York – you don’t end up in a “Godfather” movie for nothing – just a year younger than that feast itself.
Lucy Spata, 71, a diminutive Brooklyn native who exudes big, no-nonsense energy, has run the business for a little over half a century, an accomplishment that hasn’t escaped the Feast’s present-day founders.
And so things will be a little different for the sausage-slinging seventy-year-old at this year’s street fair, which runs until September 25 on Mulberry Street between Grand and Hester. This time, Spata was crowned the official “Queen” of the festival.
“It all started with my grandmother,” says Spata, referring to the original Lucy, an immigrant from Avellino, near Naples, Italy, who first started a business two years before the Great Depression. “(In the beginning) San Gennaro was just one block. It had a stand with two metal garbage cans filled with hot coals and covered with a steel plate. The sandwiches were only 25 cents.”
Lucy’s grandmother died in 1969, followed by her parents Fay and Frank Pagano, paving the way for her to take over the grill.
In modern times, Spata and her staff oversee six trucks for sausages (along with favorites like braciole and broccoli rabe) and four frying crispy zeppole. Over the decades, their food has become a staple not only of the San Gennaro Festival but Italian festivals throughout the Big Apple, delighting generations of hungry revelers. During a typical feast, a whopping 300 pounds of homemade ground pork is sizzled daily.
“You’re in New York City, so there are definitely some characters here,” she laughed. “You’re going to get people standing in front of the stands and start singing, start screaming. You can’t imagine that.”
Some of these characters included Italian cuisine TikTok influencer Danny “Cugine” Mondello, “Foodgod” Jonathan Cheban, and Chrissy Teigen. Politicians love stopping by Spata. Mayor Bloomberg stopped by along with former President Donald Trump during his long reign (he crowned his hero with Tabasco sauce, a special request). (“He wanted a regular sandwich without wasting time,” Spata said.)
The sausages are also movie stars. In 1989, Francis Ford Coppola described the feast of San Gennaro in The Godfather III,‘ with Spata and her team participating in the two-week shoot.
“Joe Mantegna shot a scene at my booth and in the movie he said, ‘This saus-eetch is gorgeous!'” Spata explained. Lucy’s also appeared in 1997’s Cop Land, starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro.
Lucy’s is also an odd piece of gay history, with queer photographer Gary Lee Boas topping his cult classic New York Sex with a ’70s photo of a blonde rent-boy posing in front of the stand. (Interview editor Mel Ottenberg recently called it “one of the greatest photos of New York City ever, period.”)
Being a cultural touchstone doesn’t mean life has always been easy – business has plummeted in 2020 and festivals have been suspended due to the pandemic. (“I had a summer to myself for the first time and didn’t like it,” Spata said dryly.)
The previous summer, her husband Angelo, with whom she had run the business for years, died suddenly in the middle of the Giglio Fest in Brooklyn.
“He got sick and died during the festival, but I went back to the booth after we buried him,” she recalled.
These days, Spata worries about the future of Little Italy, where the fate of longtime businesses like Alleva Dairy and E. Rossi and Company is now hanging in the balance.
“I thought about opening a store years ago, but then I’d have to cut myself in two directions,” Spata mused. “Rents are getting higher – it’s very difficult for these people to make a living.”
When it comes to the stand’s longevity, however, Spata has an ace up her sleeve: her granddaughter, aka Lucy, who she hopes will one day take over the running of the business. Not that she plans to retire any time soon.
“As for me, I will fight to the end. My trailer will be here as long as I live,” said Spata, who is also known for her annual Dyker Heights Christmas lights. “I grew up Italian, I will die Italian. If we don’t stick together, we won’t have anything.”
As for her official duties as this year’s Queen of San Gennaro, the ubiquitous New Yorker is undeterred.
“You’re a queen from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. and then it’s back to work,” she said.
https://nypost.com/2022/09/16/meet-the-sausage-queen-of-nycs-san-gennaro-feast-2022/ Meet the Sausage Queen of the 2022 San Gennaro Feast in NYC