PAWTUCKET — Under a bright moon and with the Blackstone River gushing mightily over the dam by Slater Mill, hundreds of people ate, drank and danced at the kick-off Gala for the 2011 Pawtucket Arts Festival.
“The weather today has been great, and with so many nights of rain, I think it really energized people,” commented John Baxter, chairman of this year's Pawtucket Arts Festival. “The turn-out has been amazing, and I think the entire event is well put-together to offer a mix of not only food and music but culture as well.”
Baxter noted that a new twist to the Gala was offering entertainment vignettes from many of the singers, dancers, actors and other artists who will be featured throughout the entire three-week festival. The 10 to 15 minute performances served as a backdrop to the Taste of Pawtucket, showcasing the diversity of a line-up that ranges from rock music and opera singing to ethnic dancing and theater.
Mayor Donald Grebien also noted the festive mood that pervaded Roosevelt Avenue, as people of all ages sampled from the more than 50 restaurants and food vendors who had set up their tents. “I think this is exciting because it brings people to the city. I get concerned that many people feel the way they do because of the economy, but something like this is uplifting,” the mayor said.
Grebien added that this year's festival was the first in which he had asked for more volunteer help rather than having the event be so city-driven, and he said he was very pleased with the outcome. “The local businesses and many volunteers really stepped up,” Grebien said. “There were a few bumps in the road, but overall, it's been great. I am looking forward to the rest of the festival events.”
Grebien, who had once pursued training for a culinary career, got to put his skills to the test Friday night by joining Frank Terranova from Channel 10's “Cooking with Class” program. Grebien whipped up a chicken picata dish that earned praise from the local celebrity chef.
Herb Weiss, the city's Economic and Cultural Affairs Officer, played more of a behind-the-scenes role in the festival's organization this year. However, he noted that the 2011 Taste of Pawtucket, which was chaired by Scott Davis, had drawn in more participating restaurants and patrons than in years past.
“I think the people who came here tonight got to see that Pawtucket is truly a restaurant destination. They got to taste good food and see all the variety that is available from our city's many restaurants and eateries,” said Weiss. He added that particularly this year, the Taste of Pawtucket and Gala would not have been possible without the support of local businesses. “And I want to urge people to support them in return,” he stated.
The diversity in food choices was apparent on the plates of Cynthia Schimelpfenig and her daughter, Meg, of East Providence. While Cynthia enjoyed noodles, an egg roll and other Asian samplings, Meg sampled ziti, meatballs and pizza. “We love it. We came for the first time last year and the food was great,” said Cynthia Schimelpfenig. “I saw something about it on-line and it reminded me to come back.”
Jean Babiec, of Pawtucket, who attends the Taste of Paw-tucket every year, also commented on the many choices of food. She said she thought the lay-out was better this year, with the food vendors more spread out and with more tables to stand and eat at. “I think this is so nice. You can see from the expressions on people's faces—they're relaxed, happy, eating,” she stated.
Tony and Pat Mancini, who live “on the Pawtucket/North Providence line” and Gerry and Judy Audette, of Cumberland, also said they make the Taste of Pawtucket an annual event. “I like the food, the music, the people...everything,” said Judy Audette.
Pat Mancini said the foursome would be heading down to the music tent later to take in the lively zydeco bands.
School Committeeman David Coughlin and his companion, Jean Christy, said they are both fans of the Cajun-inspired zydeco music and dancing. They had heard the opening band, Slippery Sneakers, many times and were excited to catch the headline act, Rosie Ledet & The Zydeco Playboys. “We love the dancing, the culture, the food, all of it,” said Coughlin.
City Council President Dave Moran said he and his wife, Lynn, take in the Taste of Pawtucket just about every year. “It's good for the city,” said Moran, as he enjoyed some ziti and meatballs from Spumoni's Restaurant. “It brings in a lot of people who will then leave with a good opinion of Pawtucket. It's all very positive and the city needs it.”
David Graham, enjoying the music with his wife, Lisa, said, “It's good to see all the people here in downtown Pawtucket..it's like I remember it as a kid, when the city was full of people.”
Wayne Blatchley of Rumford, the owner of Fuzion Design, a graphic design firm located downtown, also noted the positive energy being generated from the crowd. “It's a great event, and a beautiful night,” he stated.
Blatchley said that he employs several artists and designers from Taiwan, who had come to the Taste of Pawtucket with family members and friends. He said that he and his staff were also planning to participate in the Chinese Dragon Boat races on Saturday.
For the vendors, the Taste of Pawtucket is a chance to show off some of their menu items.
Telmo DaSilva, an owner of Galito Restaurant on Columbus Avenue, was offering some specials such as a Portuguese beef stew called jardineira and a seafood rice dish. “This is a good thing for the city, and you've also got to do this---you've got to give back. We've been in the city for 10 years now,” he said.
Peter Dowhan, general manager of Chelo's on Newport Avenue, was ladling out bowls of chili among the restaurant's offerings. “Normally, we do chowder, but we decided to try something different this year. We're not as well known for our chili, but people seem to be liking it,” he said.
Visit pawtucketartsfestival.org for the complete schedule.