Italian Club to Host Annual Festival of Food, Fun

Article excerpt

Byline: SANDY STRICKLAND

In a deep freeze at the Italian American Club are 1,000 hand-molded meatballs. It took 200 pounds of hamburger meat to shape the savory balls that will be a prime attraction at the club's 21st annual Festa Italiana.

There'll be much more than meatballs at the three-day event, which runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24, at the clubhouse, 2838 Westberry Road in Mandarin.

Along with former president John Koch's secret meatball recipe, there will be pasta dinners, chicken Parmesan, eggplant roltini and zeppole or Italian-style hush puppies. One wall will be filled with such homemade desserts as cannoli and tiramisu.

On another wall will be Italian souvenirs, such as T-shirts, key chains, aprons and license plate frames.

For the children, there will be bounce houses and an obstacle course. For adults, there will be dancing, karaoke and Italian trivia.

Outside, the grill will fire up homemade pizzas and meatball, sausage or pizza subs. Festival-goers can eat in or get take out. One woman regularly buys 50 meatballs to store in her refrigerator.

"There are so many people in Jacksonville that don't even know we have a club," said president, Carlo Clemente. "There are so many Italians that don't even know. A lot of them come out and wind up joining. We have a really great time."

Club officials estimate there are more than 25,000 Italians in Jacksonville. The club has about 210 members, but a lot are elderly and only about 100 are active, he said.

Like many organizations, Clemente said, a big problem is getting younger people involved.

The club started in Jacksonville just before World War II but disbanded during the war and was re-formed in 1951, said member Vinny Russo. Since there weren't many Italian-Americans in Jacksonville at the time, he said, they met in each other's houses or at downtown hotel ballrooms. Then they had picnics at a covered patio on Southside Boulevard before buying their present property in what was then rural Mandarin. …