Lucille Johnson’s grandfather and uncle helped build the Church of St. Rocco in Glen Cove in 1937. The meatballs served at the Catholic church’s annual Feast of St. Rocco, which concludes Sunday, are based on family members’ meatball recipes that have been passed down for generations.
And Johnson, 86, of Glen Cove, has been volunteering at the feast for years, helping prepare the homemade Italian specialties that thousands of Long Islanders and others line up for every year.
“We did 140 trays of eggplant and we did it in one day,” Johnson said of the eggplant Parmesan and eggplant rollatini. “We all know what we’re doing. We’ve been doing it for years.”
Johnson is one of the more than 200 volunteers who staff the event every day, said Maria Greco, 46, of Glen Cove, who helps oversee operations in the “pasta pavilion,” in a church hall.
“Without all the volunteers and all the women cooking, we could never continue,” Greco said.
“These positions have been passed down from generation to generation,” said Reggie Spinello, one of the event’s coordinators and a former Glen Cove mayor. “It’s really one of the most beautiful traditions of the feast.”
The 46th annual event, which began Wednesday, also includes carnival rides, games and, in the streets near the church, stands with decidedly un-Italian food like deep-fried Oreos, along with Italian specialties like freshly-cut peaches in red and white wine.
Food preparation began more than three weeks ago, said Johnson, whose family roots, like those of many Glen Cove residents of Italian ancestry, are in Sturno, Italy, east of Naples. Only 20 women and men prepare and cook the thousands of pounds of food, working as if in an assembly line.
Some dishes are prepared entirely on the same day.
“We had 700 pounds of tripe and we ran out” on Friday, Johnson said. “So we made it this morning.”
The tripe in red sauce with vegetables is a longtime favorite of some.
Arturo Gomes, the head cook and former owner of an Italian-French restaurant in Glen Cove, sent someone to Brooklyn early Saturday morning to buy the tripe.
Some of the dishes are on the menu every day, Gomes said. Eggplant Parmesan is typically the most popular dish, he said. Lasagna, baked clams, rice balls and pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage are other standards. There also are daily, freshly cooked specials, such as Saturday’s shrimp oreganata and short ribs and pasta.
Josephine Capobianco, 85, who emigrated from Sturno in 1959, has been volunteering for 30 years.
“I enjoy it because I love my church,” she said. “It’s the only way to keep the church going. We built it and we don’t want to let it go.”
Proceeds from the feast fund church operations.
St. Rocco’s still has a Sunday Mass in Italian, and even though Capobianco now speaks fluent English, she attends it every week.
“It’s your roots,” she said.
On Sunday, the feast runs from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the parish grounds at 18 Third St. and on surrounding streets. A traditional procession, with a statue of St. Rocco carried through the neighborhood near the church, begins immediately after the 10:30 a.m. Mass, Spinello said. It typically lasts until about 2 p.m., stopping at the homes of people who are sick, he said.
St. Rocco is a French saint who died in the 14th century and is considered a protector against epidemics and several diseases.