Meet the sausage 'queen' of NYC's San Gennaro Feast 2022
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Meet the sausage 'queen' of NYC's San Gennaro Feast 2022

Dec 12, 2023

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Imagining Little Italy's annual Feast of San Gennaro without the spicy links from Lucy's Sausage is all but impossible.

Maybe that's because the pork peddler celebrates its 95th year in business this month, making it one of New York's most iconic Italian-American businesses — you don't end up in a "Godfather" movie for nothing — just one year younger than the feast itself.

Lucy Spata, 71, a diminutive Brooklynite broadcasting big no-nonsense energy, has been running the business for just over half a century now, an achievement not lost on the present-day founders of the Feast.

And so, things will be a little different for the sausage-slinging septuagenarian at this year's street party, which runs on Mulberry Street between Grand and Hester until Sept. 25th. This time around, Spata has been crowned the official "Queen" of the festival.

"It all started with my grandmother," Spata says, referring to the original Lucy, an immigrant from Avellino near Naples, Italy, who first set up shop two years before the Great Depression. "(At the start), San Gennaro was only one block. She had a stand with two metal garbage pails filled with hot coals and topped with a steel plate. The sandwiches were only 25 cents."

Lucy's grandmother passed away in 1969, followed by her parents Fay and Frank Pagano, paving the way for her to take over the grill.

In the modern era, Spata and her staff oversee six trucks for sausages (along with popular specialties like braciole and broccoli rabe), and four that fry up crispy zeppole. Over the decades, her food has become a staple of not only the San Gennaro festival, but Italian festivals across the Big Apple, endearing generations of hungry revelers. During a typical feast, a whopping 300 pounds of homemade ground pork are sizzled daily.

"You’re in New York City, so there are definitely some characters here," she laughed. "You’ll get people who will be in front of the stand and start singing, start screaming. You can't imagine."

Some of those characters have included TikTok Italian-food influencer Danny "Cugine" Mondello, "Foodgod" Jonathan Cheban and Chrissy Teigen. Politicians love to stop at Spata's. Mayor Bloomberg stopped by during his lengthy reign (he topped his hero with Tabasco sauce, a special request), along with former President Donald Trump. ("He wanted a normal sandwich, no taking his time," Spata said.)

The sausages are also movie stars. In 1989, Francis Ford Coppola depicted the San Gennaro feast in "The Godfather: Part III," with Spata and her team taking part in the two-week shoot.

Lucy's sausage and peppers secomd to none cuzzo believe me #sangennaro #littleitaly

"Joe Mantegna shot a scene at my stand and says in the movie, ‘This saus-eetch is wonderful!’" explained Spata. Lucy's also appeared in 1997's "Cop Land," starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro.

Lucy's is also a curious part of gay history, with the queer photographer Gary Lee Boas covering his cult classic book "New York Sex" with a ’70s-era picture of a blond hustler posed outside 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 dried up in 2020, with festivals on hold due to the pandemic. ("I had a summer to myself for the first time and didn't like it," Spata deadpanned.)

The summer before, her husband Angelo, who she’d been running the business with for years, passed away suddenly in the middle of Brooklyn's Giglio Feast.

"He got sick and died during the feast, but I went back to the stand 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 & Company currently hangs in the balance.

"I thought about opening a store years ago, but then I’d have to cut myself two ways," Spata mused. "The rents are getting higher and higher — it's very hard for these people to make a living."

As far as the stand's longevity is concerned, however, Spata has an ace up her sleeve: her granddaughter, also named Lucy, whom she hopes will one day take over the business. Not that she is planning on retiring anytime soon.

"As far as I’m concerned, I’ll fight to the end. As long as I’m alive, my trailer's gonna be here," said Spata, who is also known for her annual display of Christmas lights in Dyker Heights. "I was brought up Italian, I’m gonna die Italian. If we don't stick together, we’re not going to have nothing."

Concerning her official duties as this year's San Gennaro Queen, the seen-it-all New Yorker is unfazed.

"You’re a Queen from 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock and then it's back to work," she said.

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