PHILADELPHIA — Young couples in south Philadelphia are transforming something old into something new with their take on the Italian wedding serenade.
The serenade has been a tradition for hundreds of years, particularly in southern Italian regions like Naples, Puglia and Calabria. There, it takes place the night before the wedding, where the groom and a guitarist — or a full accompaniment of accordion, mandolin player and violist if he’s splurging —appear on the street outside the bride-to-be’s home. They sing traditional love songs as she gazes down from her window. She eventually descends to embrace her rose-bearing husband-to-be as neighbors and family members look on.
The age-old tradition came along with immigrants to Philadelphia in the 1800s and retained its modest flavor until recent years. Now, serenades have taken on an air of a block party, with grooms singing to a choreographed routine with popular songs as guests enjoy a catered meal, full bar and DJ dance party.
“It’s kind of like a New Year’s Eve to your wedding,” said Paolo DiPaolo, who serenaded his bride-to-be Stephanie Longo in October at a south Philadelphia street party that mixed the traditional with the popular. “This is one of the main things you look forward to.”
The street outside his now-wife’s parents’ home was blocked off to traffic as guests ate pasta at tables with white linen cloths. The bride’s father made batches of homemade wine, and DJ Johnny Looch — south Philly’s serenade expert, John Luciano — spun songs with love and marriage themes like Frank Sinatra’s version of “Get Me to the Church on Time” and The Dixie Cups’ “Going to the Chapel.”
To warm up the crowd, the bride-to-be’s uncle from Calabria sang traditional songs as he strummed a guitar, while the older relatives crowded around him, some singing, others tearing up.
Then the bride took a seat with a glass of wine, and DiPaolo unleashed his serenade — complete with dance moves — starting with DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You,” segueing into “Sexy Love” by Ne-Yo and finishing with the classic “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as the two danced and the crowd clapped and cheered.
Father Nick Martorano has been a guest at a host of serenades during his lifetime, both as his role as pastor of the St. Nicholas of Tolentine for over 30 years and his childhood growing up in the neighborhood. His church, one of the last Italian National parishes in the country, still celebrates one Mass in Italian every Sunday.
He remembers the more traditional serenades of his youth, where the groom and a guitarist would come the night before the wedding, and then be invited inside for coffee and treats.
As to why the tradition persists after all these years away from Italy, he thinks it’s a simple reason: “Because it’s a good, fun time. It’s friends, neighbors and the community coming together to celebrate two of their own.”
At the height of Italian immigration into the city, Philadelphia’s Little Italy was actually a patchwork of regional neighborhoods, according to an essay by historian Stefano Luconi. For example, people from Abruzzi settled on one street, and people from Calabria settled on another. The serenade tradition settled with them.
Diego Mautone is a musician in Naples, Italy, who makes a living as a serenade artist. There, the event still happens the night before the wedding, and grooms reach out to him to help craft a romantic experience , he said. They leave the singing to him.
Although he had never heard of the modern Philadelphia twist on the traditional serenade, he called the new take on it “fantastico!”
Newlyweds Dana and Danny Ricciardi had their serenade at the end of October in southern Philadelphia.
“I kept joking I was more scared of singing than saying ‘I do,’ Danny Ricciardi said, adding that his brother so loathed the idea of a serenade that he kept the tradition from his fiancée so she wouldn’t press him on it.
Ricciardi serenaded his bride-to-be with a rendition of R. Kelly’s “Ignition.”
Dana Ricciardi said she looked forward to the serenade almost more than the actual ceremony, because it was a time have fun and blow off steam from all the stress of wedding planning.
“We’re a festival people,” she said. “The serenade plays off that.”