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Keeping the tradition of the South Philly wedding serenade alive

South Philly wedding serenades are on

Richard DiGregorio and Victoria Fera's serenade
Richard DiGregorio and Victoria Fera's serenadeRead moreCourtesy of the DiGregorio and Fera

On the first warm night of spring, as the wind began to cool the air and whip around the eaves of the tent taking up a block of Girard Estates, Richard DiGregorio, 29, prepared to take the microphone. "Get some drinks in you, Rich — a half hour goes quick!" the DJ joked.

It was time for DiGregorio to serenade his bride, Victoria Fera.

Lore has it that the serenade comes from Italy. On the eve of their wedding, the groom would visit the bride's parents' house with friends and neighbors in tow. They might bang pots and pans to get the bride's attention at her bedroom window, then, from the ground, the groom would sing love songs to his love above — often accompanied by a mandolin, accordion, and strings. Coffee, cake, and a party followed — until the father of the bride shooed everyone home by midnight.

The romance behind the serenade keeps South Philly couples planning the tradition. Though revised, the key components remain: The party usually happens on the street or sidewalk in front of the bride's parents' house, and there is music. Some grooms lip-sync or sing karaoke. Others brave a capella or don't sing at all.

DiGregorio and Fera blended the old and the new for their serenade. Per tradition, DiGregorio's song choice, K.C. and Jojo's "All My Life," was a secret until Fera sat in a chair, surrounded by their guests for the big serenade. His encore, "No Higher Love" by Young Gunz, was a surprise detour from the conventional; guests posted live video of the performance and tagged the rapper on Instagram. But Fera switched up the traditional when she took the microphone after DiGregorio and sang "Respect" by Aretha Franklin, then "I Say a Little Prayer for You."

"In traditional Italy, weddings are not just a celebration of love. It is a link between two families, and the couples are ambassadors between them," says Marco Circelli, executive director of Filitalia, which promotes Italian language and culture through classes, workshops, and trips to Italy.

Along with block parties and proms, "serenades" are listed on the City of Philadelphia Streets Department street event application form. And though small, the number of serenade permits  has risen in the last few years. From 2015 to 2017, the department approved 21, 26, and 31 serenade applications, respectively. In 2018 so far, 13 couples have applied. For young Italian couples, the serenade is a nod to the past with a distinctive spin of their own.

"We are dealing now with the third or fourth generation of Italian Americans — the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants — so today's couples don't have a direct link with what it means to be an immigrant," he said. "So people try to revamp their origin, because they want that link to the old traditions."

Fera and DiGregorio's party spilled from her parents' Girard Estates porch and yard into a tent out front. The porch was decorated with ribbons, flowers, and Christmas lights — a nod to the tradition's humble origins. The bridesmaids wore black, the bride wore a cropped white T-shirt that read, "Feel my shirt. That's wifey material," and Rich's T-shirt said "Groom." Jello shots, a keg, and two cases of vodka kept the party going until after the tent came down at 11 p.m.

Beyond the sung performance, serenades have a reputation for being laid-back affairs. Wedding guests are invited, as well as acquaintances who didn't make the guest list, neighbors, and passersby. Though serenades have a casual block party feel, their price tag can be extravagant. To pull off a decent serenade, it's not uncommon to shell out $5,000 to $6,000, traditionally paid for by the bride's family. A full bar, a catered spread, a DJ, and a Port-a-Potty all add up. A tent or canopy — a serenade staple — can cost thousands of dollars. A block party permit through the city is $150.

Johnny Luciano, aka DJ Johnny Looch, emcees around eight or 10 serenades a year and offers packages for both the wedding reception and the serenade. "I can tell you that this tradition has expanded a lot in the past 20 years," he said. "Which is great for business."

And, he says, this tradition is strictly Philly.

"I can tell an Italian buddy from New York or Boston, 'I'm DJing a serenade,' and they'll have no idea what I'm talking about."

The serenade's Italian origin is linked to an emphasis on music and community, said Circelli, but its origin is murky. Five regional scholars of Italian American culture were unfamiliar with the tradition. Older Philadelphians remember serenades in the 1950s and '60s. The postwar era brought a more unified Italian heritage, rather than factions based on regions in Italy.

"The serenade is like the Christmas Eve before the wedding," said Carol Villone Sisto, 56, who had hers in 1979 at her parents' house at 19th and McKean. Sisto's husband hired a string band to play her favorite love songs, including "On the Street Where You Live." Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were traditional serenade standbys, she said. Her best friend Dena had a serenade, too — and years later, in 2015, Dena's daughter, Brittany, was serenaded by her fiance to Bruno Mars' "Treasure."

As for her own daughter?

"She says she doesn't want a serenade," Sisto said. "But she's getting one."

South Philadelphians had a spectrum of opinions on the time-worn tradition.

"We had it the night before the wedding," recalled Dan Iannuzzi, who works with his wife of 18 years at Talluto's Authentic Seafood in the Italian Market. "It doesn't matter if you're hung over. That's why you do it.  You drink enough so that you go ahead and go through with the wedding."

Today, Italian American millennials are sharing the serenade tradition with mates from outside the insular blocks of South Philly Italian communities.

Gina Gariffo, 27, grew up in the Stella Maris parish in South Philadelphia, and met her future fiance, Michael Penrose, 28, at Neumann Goretti High School. Penrose, who is Irish, grew up in the Mount Carmel parish, and had never heard of the tradition of the serenade. He's still deciding what he will sing at their serenade this month.

Observers say gentrification and the demise of parish elementary schools meant more mixing between neighborhoods and communities — and is a reason for young Italian couples to want to hold on to traditions like this.

Mark Kaachi, who married Elana Mele in March, is from the West Coast, a child of Indian and Swedish immigrants. Growing up, Kaachi's Indian father would often foist a microphone into his and his siblings hands at parties to entertain guests. Maybe that's why he was brave enough to sing a capella at a serenade for Mele in front of her parents' Packer Park home, the heated tent wedged onto the sidewalk so as not to block bus traffic, on a bone-chillingly cold day.

Both couples agree the rapid-fire sharing of wedding photos on social media makes the spectacle of the serenade all the more enticing.

"Facebook has a lot to do with it," said Gariffo. "Now, you can have a Snapchat filter for your serenade."

"It lives on forever," added her fiance, wincing.