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Calgary Italian festival filling void in lineup of summer cultural events

Visitors to Bridgeland on Sunday would have found it impossible to miss the sounds, then the sights and smells of Italy.

The inaugural Taste of Italy Calgary Festival took place on Sept. 11, with food vendors, artists, cultural performers, and of course traditional games of bocce.

“You know what, for many years I always thought Calgary needs an Italian food festival, and they don’t have any,” said Lonny Balbi, founder of the festival.

“We have you the Greek festival, there’s the Caribbean festival, and there’s all this other stuff, but nothing for Italians.”

He said the genesis of the festival was really just getting members of Calgary’s Italian food community together to share that aspect of Italian culture.

“What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Italy? You think of the food, and so people were just loving it, and I just said let’s do this,” he said.

Among the food vendors for the inaugural year included Roma Catering, Sauce Italian Kitchen and Market, Italiano Please, Gustoso Italian Street Food, and Phatty Crust.

So popular was the demand for some of the meals on offer that the lasagna sold out within the first hour of opening, and large lines draped around the central square for pizza.

Entertainment was provided by DJ Nico, The Calgary Crescendo Choir, Gli Azzurri, Amy Hef, and Greg Rumpel.

Lonny Balbi, founder of the innagural Taste of Italy Festival, sits on a vintage ’62 Vespa at the festival’s photo booth at the Bridgeland Community Centre in Calgary on Sunday, September 11, 2022. The festival is a first of its kind in Calgary, joining other cultural festivals like the Greek festival and the Caribbean festival in the culture days mix. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Vintage 1962 Vespa bit hit with visitors

Miles Matulionis brought his vintage 1962 Vespa to act as a photo booth for visitors at the festival.

He said it felt really great to share that with Calgarians.

“Already so far so many people have been sitting on getting photos and they just love it,” Matulionis said.

“Even when I drive it around town I get so much attention, and so so it’s just a real pleasure to be here.”

He said it was an easy decision to get involved in the festival.

“To be honest, I’m amazed Calgary’s never had an Italian festival before,” Matulionis said.

“We have such a strong Italian community here, and there’s been no festival. So you put this together, I think its awesome, and I’m really looking forward to trying all the food here.”

Matulionis and Balbi both said that they were happy that the inaugural festival took place in Bridgeland.

“You know, really the Italian community really started out here, so we wanted to come back to Bridgeland and this was a homage to coming back to the roots,” said Balbi.

The Calgary Crescendo Choir performs at the innagural Taste of Italy Festival at the Bridgeland Community Centre in Calgary on Sunday, September 11, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Plans for 2023 festival already

Balbi said that with hundreds in attendance and enjoying the festival, it was already a success.

“It’s been it’s wonderful, It really is, and this is our first year and it’s going to be a learning experience,” he said.

“Depending on how it turns out, well, we can add more vendors, we can change the venue, we can do all sorts of things.”

As for Vespas, Matulionis said that next year he would consider bringing more of his vintage collection for people to see—including his 1959 model.

As for the festival, he thinks it will continue to be a hit in future years.

“I think it’ll just grow bigger and bigger,” he said.

Balbi laughed about how big he thinks the festival will become.

“Oh, yeah, we’re gonna do it again. It’ll be so big that every restaurant in Calgary will close down because how can they compete against us,” he said facetiously.

For more details on the Taste of Italy Calgary Festival, see tasteofitalycalgary.com.