For the visitor to Italy who likes food, the sagra (plural sagre) is a highlight of a stay in the Italian countryside.
Sagre are food festivals. They usually celebrate a food that is typically harvested at the time of the festival, often in conjunction with a Saint's feast day. Sagre can be quite specific. They can celebrate a type of onion or a specific dish or preparation.
How does it work? You find a line where people are ordering their food. Someone at a desk ticks off the boxes of the things you've ordered and totals your bill. You pay, take a ticket, and find a seat.
You generally sit at long comunal tables and the food is usually brought to you by the person who collects your ticket. The food at a Sagre costs much less than it does in a restaurant, and many times the profits go to some local charity or sports team.
How do you find out about sagre when you're on vacation? You drive or walk around a small town. Sometimes in the town itself, or just on the outskirts you'll see signs posted in garish colors along the roadside. Don't be suprised if a car stops right in front of you to read one.
You're seeing a Sagra Poster. And below is a picture of what one looks like.
Reading a Sagra Poster
This sagra poster is typical of the Lunigiana, where I stay. Yes, it's been out in the rain for a while, and plastered on top of other sagra posters which have been out in the rain even longer.
Most sagra posters are formatted the same way. At the top is the location information. Comune di Aulla (the major city) "sponsors" the event, which is held in a frazione or suburban town of Caprigliola.
The sagra celebrates the local Lunigiana feast day of Madonna del Buon Consiglio, or Our Lady of Good Counsel.
Moving down the poster, we find that the sagra is held at Il Campo Sportivo, the sports field, usually just out of town. There will be signs to the campo sportivo, of course, but if you go during the festival you'll probably end up just following a line of cars. In a town of this size, a line of cars almost always signifies a local festival.
The rest of the poster is devoted to the activities of the sagra. There is a limited bar menu in the evening on Friday, September 12. You can get Sgabei, a very local Val di Magra fried bread in the shape of small pillows. Sgabei is usually served with preserved meats like salami. You can also get my favorite porcetta (wood-roast spiced young pig, mmm), and patatine fritte, what we would call "French fries."
Things really get warmed up on Saturday night, when you have bar service and a wider variety of typical dishes of the region (piatti tipici), which includes polenta with mushrooms or with wild boar, ravioli, porchetta and a mixed grill with sgabei. All of this will be followed (at 9pm) by entertainment, in this case dancing by the "Borghetti Group."
Sunday is the day everyone eats out, so the food on Sunday is a cut above. Lunch, served at 12:30, is a fixed menu (menu fisso) at a set price. For 20 Euro you get everything, a full Italian meal including wine and mineral water. They suggest you reserve (si consiglia la prenotazione), and give you some phone numbers.
Sunday night features much of the same food, but you can probably order each dish separately, since Italians eat lighter after a big Sunday lunch. The specialities are ravioli and porchetta, an opinion which is highlighted on the lower right of the poster.
Go to a sagra if you want to get to know the local food specialties of the hour.