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Italia Unita hosts Carnevale celebration in East Boston

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  March 8, 2011 03:37 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for

On March 4, Pascal Gangi showed off the large papier-mâché float he had built featuring Peppe Nappa, the King of Carnivals for his hometown of Sciacca, Sicily.

A local group is bringing the Italian tradition of Carnevale to East Boston this Thursday, complete with masks, dancers, a hearty Italian dinner, and a papier-mâché float made by a young Sicilian immigrant.

Carnevale is a very old tradition in Italy, but this year — the 150th anniversary of Italian unification — marks the first Carnevale celebration for East Boston-based Italia Unita, which hopes to make it an annual event. “Carnevale” means “farewell to meat,” and the celebration springs from the same source as Mardi Gras: it’s a time to enjoy rich foods before the ritual fasting of Lent.

For 16 years, Italia Unita has kept Italian traditions alive in East Boston and shared them with the diverse local community. But this celebration wouldn’t have happened without the energy and dedication of a homesick young immigrant, 20-year-old Pascal Gangi, who moved to the US with his parents and brother around seven years ago.

The Gangis came from Sciacca, a Sicilian town that each year hosts a grand Carnevale, and Pascal Gangi wanted to bring some of that tradition to his new home.

“He approached us, and we kind of took him under our wing and said, ‘Sure.’ Because we have the resources, he has the talent, he just didn’t know how to use it,” said Lisa Capogreco, president of Italia Unita.

While the organization made the arrangements for a space and food, Gangi set about his work: building a seven-foot papier-mâché figure of Peppe Nappa, Sciacca’s King of Carnivals. Gangi said the figure would be even larger if his parents’ home in Revere had a larger basement — that’s the space where he has made his workshop.

The figure is not only huge but motorized, with a head that moves from side to side and arms and legs that almost appear to be running. Gangi is an engineering student, and he figured out how to make Peppe Nappa move by re-purposing the motors that turn the necks of reindeer lawn ornaments he saw in his neighborhood at Christmas time.

Gangi has been interested in parade floats since his childhood in Sciacca, where he saw floats as large as four stories tall.

“They’re pretty big, and with more motion than mine, of course,” Gangi said. “And we dress up, we have plays, music. It’s a pretty nice tradition. And I love it. I wish I could participate, but unfortunately I can’t.”

Gangi began modeling figures in papier-mâché about five years ago, with help from American friends who knew nothing about Carnevale but were supportive because they saw his passion for the work.

“If it wasn’t for them, I would never have gotten the push to start,” Gangi said. “Because it just started off as a joke. I’m like, ‘What if we actually do this here?’ and they’re like, ‘Sure, why not? Let’s do it.’ And then we actually started.”

His ambition has grown as his skills have improved. Last year, he worked with Italia Unita and a group of his friends to build a float with an Italian-American theme for the Wakefield Independence Day Parade. It featured the Leaning Tower of Pisa alongside a Venetian gondola carrying Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, and it took second prize in the large float division.

The Peppe Nappa float is his current favorite, though.

“I think this is the best float we’ve ever done, even though it’s small,” Gangi said.

Besides the float, the celebration on March 10 will include a short play about Peppe Nappa performed by Gangi and his friends, a traditional Italian dance performed by a local troupe and a buffet with a pork roast, pasta, salads and other traditional foods.

Capogreco said the event had a two-fold significance for Italia Unita, as both an observance of Carnevale and a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. “Our name, Italia Unita, means ‘Italy unified’ … so it’s symbolic that we’re holding an event like this,” she said.

The event is one of many planned to celebrate the anniversary, and while it’s not an official observance, it does have the support of the Italian consul general for Boston, Giuseppe Pastorelli, who will be in attendance.

It’s not just an event for Italians and those of Italian descent, though. “I probably get more non-Italians that come to our events, because they love [the culture] so much and want to learn about it,” said Capogreco. She said ticket pre-sales also showed a lot of former East Boston residents who are now scattered around Greater Boston plan to return to the neighborhood for the celebration.

East Boston’s Carnevale will take place on Thursday, March 10, from 6 to 10 p.m. at Spinelli’s Function Facility on Bennington Street. For more information, visit

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Pascal Gangi.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Pascal Gangi posed in his parents’ basement with Peppe Nappa.

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