Carroll Gardens today is all brunch spots and Canada Goose jackets. But back in 1969, the neighborhood was one big extended Italian family, with plenty of locals who hailed from a small fishing village in Puglia called Mola di Bari. The Molesi decided to host a beauty pageant — a common ritual among the towns in their homeland, and a way to bring a little bit of the old country into their shared brownstones. Forty-six years later, the Miss Mola USA pageant is still going.
The venue has changed, pushing farther and farther away from brownstone Brooklyn (like the Molesi-Americans themselves, who have since dispersed from Carroll Gardens to Bensonhurst and Staten Island and central Jersey). And the drama isn’t what it used to be, when there were 20 women seeking the trophy and as many as 600 guests; when there were rumors of fixed winners and tearful first runners-up spiking their bouquets in the street in protest. But the social club that hosts the evening, Van Westerhout Cittadini, is still based in Carroll Gardens, even though the event now takes place at El Caribe Country Club, all the way out in Mill Basin.
The contestants still buy their crystal-studded gowns at the same neighborhood boutiques where their mothers shopped, and 265 Molesi club members still come out to see them — a competition-cum-dinner-dance, where the girls are required to answer a single question before a panel of judges in between eating penne with red sauce and swinging to the tarantella. And even though only four entered the pageant this time around (the criteria is that you must be between 16 and 25 years old, and have at least one parent or grandparent born in Mola), the Generation-Z paesani that do show up have a fundamentalist devotion to the tradition.
Last year’s victor, in fact, drove in from college in Philadelphia — and missed a chance to see the pope — so that she could be there this past Sunday night, under the supermoon eclipse outside and crater-size chandeliers inside, to pass on her crown. The winner is tasked with appearing at social-club events throughout the year and, for some, keeping the bellezza della Mola alive in Brooklyn. Click through for big lashes, mermaid dresses, and a couple of mother-daughter duos representing Miss Mola past and present.