Italian sagra: what is it and how does it work?

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Italian sagra [SAH-grah] is something I love of my country. Although there are many sagre [SAH-greh] throughout the whole year, they are more widespread during the warm season. I dare say that in this particular field we Veneti are second to none in Italy! There’s no weekend without a sagra near home.

What’s an Italian sagra?

The poster (here called manifesto)
The poster (here called manifesto)

A sagra is a local festival, usually located in a field or a piazza. It can be dedicated to a Saint Patron or… a food. It may sound a bit profane mentioning the two things together but there’s actually no mocking intent. We take sagre very seriously, whether they are religious or not.

The origin of the word comes from the Latin word sacrare, ie consecrate, cause in ancient times it was mainly a religious event or a feast to celebrate the harvest.

While wandering in Italy you may notice some colorful posters promoting a sagra. Another way to find out when a sagra is going to take place is to ask at the local tourist office.

All the photos of this post were taken at the Monterosso sagra, near Abano Terme in the Colli Euganei, a sagra where we return every year because the food is very good (in August).

Sagra’s features:

  • A big marquee tent where to eat, sitting at communal tables, and a space where the organizers prepare the food. Normally you can only have dinner. In rare cases Sunday lunch. More often you’ll dine with plastic dishes and cutlery over a paper place mat (all scattered with ads of the sponsors). In some cases they provide you with proper ceramics dishes, glass glasses 😉 and a normal coperto.
    People eating at the Monterosso sagra
    People eating at the Monterosso sagra
  • A balroom dances floor (frequently the basket/volleyball court is used for the purpose). This is the funniest part of the sagra. You will see many couples of nonni dancing. Some very passionatly. Others like figurines, with a blank face. Then there would be some couples who attended ballroom dances courses and will surprise you with exceptional manoeuvres. Some kids would enter the dance floor to imitate the adults. Lovely. Finally every time, at every sagra, there is him. He’s usually a man. You will recognize him immediately: debatable look, often very colourful, sometimes with a bizarre hairdo. He dances with self-confidence and dedication and fancies himself as a new Tony Manero. But he’s not. But thank you, quirky man, for being the life of the party and draw us a smile!
  • A stage for music performers: tribute bands, local bands, ballroom dances bands usually alternate. Sagre with a higher budget can sometimes hire a old-time star, that we define “vecchia gloria” (old glory). If we’re polite.
  • A funfair that we call “luna park” or simply “le giostre”. Giostra is tricky, cause, when I looked in the vocabulary it is only translated with carousel or merry-go-round. But we actually call giostre all of them: carousel, roller coaster, haunted house, ferris wheel, etc.
  • Another common feature is a flea market or handmade market. Often there is a second-hand books stand.
  • Panini and french fries stand close to the funfair for the youngsters
  • Sometimes it can feature a exhibition of local artist, artisans or ancient tools and crafts.
  • A stand that we call “pesca di beneficenza” (literally charity fishing) or simply “pesca”. It is a sort of “charity lucky dip”. It works this way: you buy a little rolled ticket (each ticket costs a fixed price, nowadays 1€). You unroll it and you can find a number or a town name. If you find a town name, you must find other town names (other 2 as a rule) to win something, but this something is most often a poxy object (go to the last line of this paragraph). If you find a number you’ve won something. The more the number is tiny the better will be the prize. First prize could be a bicycle or a TV. On the contrary, big numbers are surely a disappointment: plastic bowls, dish cloths, plastic strainers. But the most classic of all is the fly swatters. I can’t count how many fly swatters I “won”! And I was never able to swat a single fly in my entire life!
    Lady picking a ticket at the pesca
    Lady picking a ticket at the pesca

Small sagre have only a small marquee tent where to eat and nothing much. Maybe just one carousel for children and a quite lame pesca. And the prizes won’t be that good, if you manage to win something, eh! The first prize would probably be an air mattress or… a giant fly swatter!

The volunteers:

At a sagra the members of the local community cook and serve the dishes. Habitually the distribution of tasks is as follows:

  • women prepare fresh pasta and cook, chatting and sometimes speaking ill of men
  • men grill the meat drinking wine and speaking of politics maybe
  • kids are “exploited” to serve at the tables
  • if the sagra is a “sagra dei bigoli al torchio” some men and boys will be enlisted to use the torchio, the press machine to form the pasta.

Food ordering system at an Italian sagra:

Case 1: Desperately seeking a table (the most frequent in my region)

The sagra menu
The sagra menu

First of all, get in line at the booth. You will find somewhere a paper with all the dishes listed. Fill the paper with your choices, give it to the cashier and pay. You will be given 2 receipt. Then you enter the tent and look for a free table (or some sufficient free spaces), keep in mind the number of the table and deliver a copy of your payment receipt to one of the waiter-kids. Now you simply have to wait for them to serve you. Beverages can be collected immediately showing the receipt (in some case separated) at the specific stand.

Case 2: Numbered receipt (less stressing but less common)

You do everything as in the first case: queue, filling paper, payment. But they give you a numbered receipt. You still have to find a table. But you don’t have to deliver you receipt, until they call your number. When they do, go and collect your food tray. You have to help yourselves. As for the beverages, it works exactly like in case number one. Warning: do not sit near the speakers! Usually the loudest lady or gentleman of the entire parish/village is chosen as the numbers reader so, if you sit next to one of the speakers, you’ll end up with an headache!

Case 3: Self-service mode (rare)

You get in line and chose the food as in a self-service. Pay at the end of the line and go find a free table.

Case 4: The Umbrian case

When in Umbria some years ago, me and Matteo spotted a sagra poster and decided to go for dinner. We were sure that it would work exactly as in Veneto. But no.

First of all, there was no marquee tent, but tables scattered through the narrow streets of the town. Very picturesque! We searched for a cashier, for a queue. None. We were puzzled and we didn’t know what to do, honestly. We then found out that there were several different food stand here and there were to buy food. You had to choose “random” where you preferred to order. Then you had to sit. But many tables were already reserved for locals. So in the end we had the food but there was no place for us to sit, apparently.

We were quite doleful, when a lovely couple noticed us and offered a place at their table. Luckily, because the food was starting to cool off. And it would have been a pity not to taste it properly, cause it was delicious. In the end, they confessed that the table wasn’t “theirs” but they were two outisiders too!

Warnings about Italian sagra

  • Some sagre are very popular and therefore you could find a long queue (see the 2 pictures below: the first taken at 7pm, the second at 8 pm). It is better to arrive early.
  • The menu is in Italian, and sometimes with dialectal terms. So you better ask for help (or you could end up eating fried frogs or something).
  • Food is usually served in plastic plates, so do not expect a regular coperto!
  • Under the tent it can get very hot in summer and it can also be very loud. So it is not the place for a romantic dinner!
  • While a sagra is obviously less expensive than a restaurant, sometimes the dishes are not that cheap (but the festivals are also fund raising events to restore the church campanile or to buy instruments for the local school or to help someone).

In conclusion, if you know what to expect, attending to a sagra can be a pleasant way to get to know better our lifestyle: the local food, the people, the authentic and more rural atmosphere of the place.

Have you ever joined an Italian sagra? If not, be prepared, mingle in the fray and enjoy yourselves!

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