South Philly's Italian Market Festival started small one Sunday in 1971 as an excuse to parade around Bella Vista after Mass, then feast on roast pork sandwiches served from bingo tables set up along 9th Street.

Recently it's been mounting a comeback under the beneficent eyes of the Riz, as they say in these parts (referring to the Frank Rizzo mural across from the DiBruno Bros. cheese shop). A sunny weekend last year brought out the first real crowd in ages, and organizers have their fingers crossed for this year's street party, on May 19 and 20.

But, holy cannoli, in its heyday, was the festival ever something.

"Lunacy," said Gus Isgro, the third-generation Italian-pastry chef at Isgro Pasticceria on Christian Street.

"It took an hour and a half to walk one block," said Danny Vanore, who grew up at 7th and Catherine streets and whose nine-piece ensemble, The Business, is the go-to wedding band in South Philly. "I played the Italian Festival back when it was at its height in the early '80s, when you couldn't even walk on the pavement."

"Food, food, food," said Judy Faye, who's known citywide as the force of nature who promotes the Kitchen Aid The Book and The Cook Festival but who got her start as an entrepreneur shilling liquor-soaked cake at the festival in 1978.

And of course the greased pole, il palo della cuccagna: standing 25 feet high, slathered with lard, and topped with prizes like slabs of prosciutto, logs of provolone, and envelopes of money.

Shinnying up was no use, so neighborhood guys got creative. Some tucked rags in their pockets to de-grease the pole as they went up. Others formed human pyramids. Creative thinkers coated themselves in sand for traction, Isgro said. "They'd look like a veal cutlet."

Pre-Rocky start

The festival's glory days roughly parallel actor Sylvester Stallone's, from the mid-'70s into the early '80s, although the party started making its way up 9th Street five years before the movie character Rocky Balboa did and held up a few years longer than Stallone's box-office appeal. For the first few years, it was a homey affair, with merchants borrowing each other's refrigeration units and shuttling trays of cake around in their kids' wagons. A tie-in with First Holy Communion at St. Mary Magdalen De Pazzi helped build attendance and consolidate the festival's standing as an annual event.

At its zenith, organizers say, more than 150,000 people would cram 9th Street from Capitolo Playground all the way north to Catharine Street on the designated Sunday. "The crowds that would show up for the festival, it was amazing," said Emilio Mignucci of DiBruno Bros., who grew up on a side street just off 9th. "The night before, I couldn't wait. The Italian Market Festival, for us, was as exciting as waiting for Christmas."

Philadelphia was at its zenith in those days, too, and for Italian Market families like his, 9th Street seemed briefly to exist at the center of the universe. U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and the first President Bush all swept through during their campaigns for office.

Community leader Harry Crimi co-owner of Cappuccio's Meats and president of the South 9th Street Businessmen's Association from 1971 to 1994, would escort candidates "down the street." (Carter impressed him as "a gentleman." Ford was quiet and polite. Reagan's campaign stop was bedlam, with supporters jumping onto the scales in the butcher shop for a better view.)

When mayors collide

The most storied political moment from the Italian Market Festival itself came on the morning of May 13, 1983, during the Democratic mayoral primary campaign, when an entourage bearing former Mayor Frank Rizzo north on 9th Street ran into an entourage bearing soon-to-be Mayor W. Wilson Goode southward.

The most storied political moment from the Italian Market Festival itself came on the morning of May 13, 1983, during the Democratic mayoral primary campaign, when an entourage bearing former Mayor Frank Rizzo north on 9th Street ran into an entourage bearing soon-to-be Mayor W. Wilson Goode southward.

"I remember that. I was here at the store," Mignucci said. "It was odd. It was almost tense.

"I remember having seen Goode walk by, and we knew that Rizzo was on the street. I went outside and people said, 'Look, they're going to meet up.' It was like Clash of the Titans."

Faye, who was part of Goode's camp that day, said her walkie-talkie crackled with updates on Rizzo's advance as everyone braced for the two fronts to collide. "It was the hot front and the cold front - a special weather event," she said. "Then at Washington Avenue, one went east and one went west," silently acknowledging each other with a nod.

The cheese sponsor cometh

In the years just after the mayors' near-collision, both the 9th Street Italian Market and the Italian Market Festival slid down a long slope of disinterest. Merchants' children went off to college and then New Jersey. A garbage strike in 1986 and 9th Street reconstruction in the mid-1990s were two more nails in the coffin, and the festival folded after 1997.

Then, with the Italian Market and Bella Vista on the rebound, organizers revived it in 2003 with a corporate title sponsor, expanding it from one day to two. "We said, 'You know what, we should make this bigger and better,' " Mignucci said.

This year's Sorrento Cheese 9th Street Italian Market Festival kicks off at 11 a.m. on May 19, with an opening ceremony followed by celebrity cannoli-stuffing contests and Sinatra karaoke. May 20 starts with a procession of saints' statues through Bella Vista at about 11 a.m.

There's a lot to recommend the revived festival, even if it doesn't match the barely contained lunacy of the late 1970s. Central American street foods like cayenne-peppered mango now join the traditional Italian lineup of meatballs, gnocci, tortellini, stuffed shells, steamed mussels, antipasto, sausage and peppers and so on (and on). Capitolo Playground will have kiddie rides. Live entertainment will play on three separate stages both days until 5 p.m.

Mignucci calls the modern iteration "more manageable," which he considers to be a plus, although he's sorry to say the greased pole is history. "Our insurance company said, 'Are you crazy? You want people to climb a pole 2 1/2 stories high, you're going to put grease all over it, and you want us to insure it?' " *