Festa celebrates all things Italian this weekend

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Most people know the episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucy stomps grapes with a frown on her face, but not everybody knows that grape stomping is one of the most popular events at the Italian Heritage Association Festa.

The 24th annual Festa will be 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds. After the opening ceremonies, attendees will be able to watch traditional Italian dancing performed by children and adults, play bocci ball, listen to Yakima's Bob Deccio band and munch on all kinds of Italian treats -- from pastries to sausage.

If eating's your pleasure, don't miss Saturday night's Italian dinner. At $25 for adults and $10 for kids ages 6-10, the dinner (which is prepared with the help of culinary students from Walla Walla High School) will feature meat and pasta dishes and a friendly family atmosphere.

Sunday will feature contests in the culinary arts, with prizes for the best red pasta sauce and the best biscotti. But expect the fiercest competitive spirits to come out for the grape stomp. After the "kiddie grape stomp" at 11:30 a.m., which allows kids to experience the sensation of squished grapes between their toes in a baby pool, the adult competition will start at noon.

Paul Castoldi, the organizer of the Festa grape stomp, said stomps have long been an Italian tradition.

Though home stomping was phased out in the 1940s and '50s, the tradition was revived when heritage organizations like the IHA started popping up across the nation.

The competition allows for up to 12 teams of 3 members each. Three teams at a time compete in a first heat that lasts for three minutes, with each team member stomping for one minute each. At the end of the heats, the three teams that have extracted the most juice move onto the final.

"You think it's easy, let me me tell you, it ain't easy. Boy, it's measured right to the one-hundredth of an inch!" IHA founder Carmy Buttice said.

This is the Festa's 21st stomp, and it should prove as competitive as ever. While the winners of the stomp are awarded $75, it seems the real reward is a year's worth of bragging rights.

"There's teams that have been entering for eight, 10 years now. They basically look for each other's teams to stomp against," Castoldi said.

So what makes a good stomper? Castoldi named passion and stamina as essential traits, but it seems that consistency, rather than strength, is the real key.

"The ones that win stomp in the same fashion and stay with that the whole time," Castoldi said.

For those who appreciate artifacts above sportsmanship, both days of the Festa will feature a collection of old photographs and family memorabilia in the flower building. This year's show will exhibit more pictures than in the past.

All the events are family-friendly, and the IHA has made sure to furnish the fairgrounds with ample activities for kids to enjoy. And whether or not you're Italian, the emphasis on family is likely to rub off.

"The whole Italian community in town -- there's a lot us -- they're always there for you. Whether you're related or not, it's a close family. Your life is their life and their life is yours. That's what I like about it," IHA president Pam Elia said.

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