It seems Italians will always find an excuse for a feast, even during the 40 days of Lent when meat consumption is prohibited and favorites like prosciutto are off limits. And they’ve found one in St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, when they turn to fish, minestrone and le sfinge di San Giuseppe, or zeppole filled with sweet ricotta cream or custard, essential to the holiday’s traditional potluck.
Saint Joseph’s Day celebrates one of Christianity’s most beloved saints, Joseph, the carpenter, patron saint of workers and family and protector of the church. Traditionally, Italians gather at the church for a day-long communal feast built upon the altar in three tiers. The bottom two tiers feature lilies, candles, pineapples for hospitality and lemons for luck. The top tier showcases a vision of spring with a statue of Saint Joseph surrounded by flowers and greenery. The spread doesn’t stop there; hearty bread with a cross baked into its thick crust is served with the soup and seafood. Fava beans always make an appearance; they represent luck due to their resiliency in the madness of March’s unpredictable weather. Some regions make pasta with breadcrumbs, which symbolizes the sawdust that covered Saint Joseph’s floor.
My favorite is the sfinge di San Giuseppe. While almost every Italian bakery on Long Island pumps out these fluffy and delicious pastries, I can never get my mind off of those from Garguilo’s Bakery in St. James. A family of Italian foodies runs this cozy bakery, where you can always count on a floury handshake from Big Mike to go with your treats. Everyone appreciates the delicate sweetness of a cream filled fried dough ball, whatever their religious background. In the words of the Italians, vive la tavola di San Giuseppe and long live the tradition of gathering at the table.
photo by Manuela Zangara