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Families and friends reunite, reminisce at Vandergrift's Festa Italiana

| Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, 1:12 p.m.
Nick Mitrakos | For the Valley News Dispatch
Sara Ritter and Kody Hemke serve lemonade to attendees at the 10th Annual Vandergrift Italian Festival on Sunday, August 18, 2013.
Nick Mitrakos | For the Valley News Dispatch
Nikki Saxion and her mother Louann Matarrese Make coffee and other products on Sunday at the 10th Annual Vandergrift Italian Festival on August 18, 2013
Nick Mitrakos | For the Valley News Dispatch
Ann Krafick, a charter member and greeter for 10 years warmly greets a mother and daughter to the 10th annual Vandergrift Italian Festival on Sunday, August 18, 2013.
Nick Mitrakos | For the Valley News Dispatch
Larry Lizik of 'Z-Finest Catering', a 10 year vendor, serves a customer on Sunday at the 10th Annual Vandergrift Italian Festival on Sunday, August 18. 2013.
Nick Mitrakos | For the Valley News Dispatch
At the 10th Annual Vandergrift Italian Festival, ALFIO comes off stage while singing in Italian to greet a small boy seated in the front row on Sunday, August 18, 2013.

About 60 years ago, eight brothers and two sisters left their hometown of Vandergrift for the opportunities offered by Las Vegas.

This weekend, three of the brothers came home, timing their visit to coincide with the 10th annual Festa Italiana di Vander-grift on Sunday in Kennedy Park.

“We all went to school here. We lived right over there,” said Charlie Silvestri, 79, the youngest of the returning brothers, pointing toward a house in view of the park. “This field, we used to play in. This was our playground.”

Silvestri was accompanied by his brothers John, 81, and Vincent, 86, along with several other family members. In all, 17 relatives flew in for the weekend, said Vince's daughter-in-law, Brenda Silvestri.

She said they went walking through the borough, visiting old haunts including the homes they lived in and the church — St. Gertrude's — where they worshipped.

“It's memory lane. They are having a ball,” she said.

A celebration of food, music and culture, the one-day Festa was as much or more about family and friendships, with reunions of all types taking place.

The Kiski Area Class of 1973 marked the end of a three-day 40th reunion by getting together at the festival. About 75 people attended a dinner and dance at the Clarion Hotel in New Kensington on Saturday night; a golf outing was held Friday.

It was the first time the class included the festival in a reunion, said Audrey Miller of Vandergrift. It allowed those who might not have attended the other events a chance to get reacquainted.

“We have so many classmates fly home to attend Italian days,” Miller said. “You could be gone 20 to 30 years and come back and pick up with people like it's yesterday.”

Kiski Area Class of 1974 classmates Charlotte Rojeski and Barb Emanuelson were catching up, despite the fact they don't live that far away — Rojeski in Washington Township and Emanuelson in Oklahoma Borough.

“I was in tears. I was crying,” Emanuelson said. “She was my best friend in school.”

How could they live so close and not be in touch? “She doesn't have Facebook,” Rojeski said.

This year's festival was dedicated to its founder, Vince Putignano, who died in 2008. He wanted an event to celebrate the Italian immigrants who settled in Vandergrift and the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Kennedy Park was awash in green, white and red. Food vendor offerings included ravioli, stromboli and gelato — no hot dogs, hamburgers or french fries.

The festival featured more for kids to do, including games and a storyteller. Many children were seen walking the park holding inflatable aliens about as big as they were.

Proceeds go to the Vince J. Putignano Memorial Scholarship, which has awarded $46,000 in scholarships in eight years, including two $2,000 scholarships this year, said his son, Brian Putignano, the festival's immediate past president.

Scholarships are awarded to Vandergrift area students of Italian descent; recipients are chosen based on an essay about the importance of their Italian heritage in their life. This year's winners were Janessa Young and Rachel Hollinger.

Italian pride was easy to see.

David Tarosky of Allegheny Township displayed a family tree on his family's reserved table. It went back to Antonio and Rose Intrieri, who came to America from Italy.

Tarosky said they come every year for the music, food and companionship. “Everybody comes out,” he said.

Charlie Silvestri said they wanted to show their family the place they had talked about for years.

“It brought back a lot of memories. Vandergrift hasn't changed that much. It's a lot smaller than we remember,” he said.

He said they were happy to renew acquaintances with people who remembered them and their parents.

“We're meeting all kinds of old friends. It's been a wonderful experience for us,” he said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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