Last updated: February 16. 2013 9:33PM - 889 Views

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For the past 37 years, Mario and Sam Diana have been a fixture on the corner of Spruce and Washington for downtown Scranton's La Festa Italiana, and if they have it their way, that will be the case for the next 37 years.

"We've been there from day one, and we're going to be there until the end of time," said Mario.

The two brothers began working at La Festa Italiana, which is currently going on and scheduled through Monday, Sept. 3, when they were 10 and 12 years old, helping out their parents, Salvatore and Rosemarie Diana, who owned Diana's Pizza in Scranton.

"Our dad (had) one of the first pizza places in the '50s, in Scranton" Sam said of Diana's Pizza. "He was one of the first guys to start delivering, and he had eight kids."

"Four boys, four girls," added Mario. "So, as a family, we all worked down there."

"Then, in 1975 I think, they said, ‘Hey, we're going to have a festival downtown.' My father said, ‘Let's try it.'"

Originally held on Columbus Day, the two said the first La Festa was a far cry from what it has become, with only a handful of vendors and maybe a tenth of the crowd.

But, the Diana family saw the potential and made working the festival an annual activity.

"I'm proud of it, because we saw where it came from when there were maybe only a hundred people walking around the square. And they were shivering because it was cold out," said Sam of the first few years.

The days of anyone shivering at La Festa are long gone. After snow hit in 1980, it was decided to move the event to Labor Day weekend the following year. Now, instead of snow, Mario and Sam said they find themselves checking the weather for possible hurricanes every year.

The improvement in the weather isn't the only thing that's changed, the number of vendors has grown from about a dozen the first year to 80, with an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people walking through downtown Scranton every two hours during the long weekend.

But, while the event has grown, Mario and Sam said the spirit has remained the same through the years.

"It's an honor to do it, (it's about) heritage, tradition, and it's something you're born with, and you have to carry it on," said Mario.

That sense of heritage and tradition is what kept the Diana family coming back to participate in La Festa, even after Salvatore and Rosemarie closed Diana's Pizza in the mid 1990s.

Mario and Sam said that as their parents got older neither they nor their brothers and sisters were interested in running the restaurant, but they all wanted to continue with La Festa, taking a week off each year to help work the tent.

Rosemarie passed away in 2000 and Salvatore in 2006. Following their passing, Mario and Sam's brothers and sisters moved away or became too busy to work the festival, but the two brothers have kept the family's presence at the event alive.

"We held onto the roots and said we're not letting it go," said Sam. "I said, ‘Listen, we're doing this to carry our mom and our dad's name, we're carrying tradition.' Sometimes you take a loss, but we're just happy when someone comes and says, ‘Oh, Diana's,' and they think about my dad and my mom."

"It's tradition," added Mario. "How do you close the book and throw it away? You have to keep the tradition going, because once the book is closed you're never going to open it."

In many ways the brothers said the weekend is a trip down memory lane, giving them a chance to see former customers who bought pizza from the restaurant and getting to have the experience of working in a restaurant again.

"Every time I do it I think about my parents. When I was a little boy and that's how they raised us and struggled hard and working all those hours, and I couldn't let it go," said Sam. "I'm doing it for my parents. I'm carrying the torch, and I'll do it as long as I can."

While the weekend does bring back memories, both said it is work. Salvatore had a policy that Diana's Pizza would be the first stand to open and the last one to close. Mario and Sam have continued that tradition, which requires the two to rise as early as 4 a.m.

"We get two hours of sleep that whole week, because we're preparing food. It's tremendous work, but we're into it," said Mario. "We're psyched about it."

The work actually begins a few months before the festival, when the brothers go out to pick cardoons, a rare vegetable.

Over the years, while Diana's Pizza is known for its extensive menu, which includes pizza, sausage and peppers and pizza fritta, they're probably best known as the only stand that offers cardoons.

"You'll see an older adult tearing up in their eyes, in their 60s, 70s or 80s," said Sam. "And you say, ‘Ma'am, what's the matter? Is it any good?' And she'll say, ‘I had these when I was little girl. How did you make them?'"

The two said they love it when they get compliments on the cardoons, but they won't be sharing how they obtain or prepare them, unless, of course, Sam's son, Salvatore, 7, or Mario's daughter, Isabella, 8, who will be helping out selling soda this year, eventually ask.

Sam said it's his hope that Salvatore and Isabella will take over working the stand when he and Mario are no longer able

In addition to Salvatore and Isabella, family and close friends will be helping Mario and Sam in different ways throughout the weekend.

If you go

What: La Festa Italiana

When: Sunday and Monday, Sept. 2 and 3, Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Where: On Courthouse Square in downtown Scranton.

Info: www.lafestaitaliana.org

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