Celebrating St. Joseph’s Table the Italian way on Route 66

Both I and my co-author Joe grew up in Eastern European families on the South Side of Chicago.  Mine is Lithuanian, whereas Joe’s is Polish and Czech (Bohemian).  Lithuanians and Poles both celebrate namesdays rather than birthdays; in my family, namesdays are known as vardinės, whereas in Joe’s family, the Polish term is imieniny.  It’s traditional for our families to wish someone well on his or her namesday – so of course, we were bound to recognize St. Joseph’s Day this week.  To be able to do so while researching our book on Route 66 was an extra treat, as was the fact that both locations were on (or very near) the route.  I’ve included more background about the day and the dinner below, after our discussion about the dinner Joe attended.

The feast of St. Joseph, foster father of Christ, occurs on March 19th and is celebrated by both Catholics and Anglicans (Episcopalians in the U.S.) as well as by Lutherans.  It is also celebrated in the city of Rabat in Malta, in the Philippines, and in New Orleans.  In New Orleans there are parades in the Italian areas, and the Sunday before St. Joseph’s is designated Super Sunday, the last day of the season when Mardi Gras Indians parade and masque, greeting each other in the streets, after which that season’s Indian costumes are taken apart and work on  new ones is begun.

In southern California, St. Joseph’s is the day when swallows return to Capistrano during the spring migration northward.  In Spain, Portugal and Italy, St. Joseph’s Day is also Father’s Day.  Both Poland and Canada hold St. Joseph  to be their national patron saint, so the feast day takes on extra meaning.  The Eastern Orthodox Church, on the other hand, celebrates St. Joseph’s Day on the Sunday after Christmas.

OLOP exterior 1 - blog (MRTraska)

The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, Chicago, IL    (photo copyright 2013 by M.R. Traska)

Different nationalities celebrate St. Joseph’s Day in different ways.  Lithuanians simply go to Mass, then party with and drink to their friends and family members named Joseph.  In the Philippines, many families select an older man, a young girl, and a small boy from among their relatives to represent the Holy Family; these three are then served an elaborate family meal while others recite prayers to St. Joseph.  Poles in the U.S. typically have a sweet table with statues of St. Joseph and holy cards set up after Mass on St. Joseph’s Day.  Italians – particularly southern Italians – go full out and arrange not only an altar but an entire community feast in the saint’s honor, known as St. Joseph’s Table or tavola di San Giuseppe; and because March 19th always falls during Lent, which is a season of self-denial and fasting, the St. Joseph’s Table typically features meatless dishes.  Some Polish-American parishes, familiar with the Italian tradition, now have St. Joseph’s Day dinners of their own.

Because my pal Joe and I are currently researching the backgrounds of the historic Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii and Ferrara & Co. Original Bakery on Taylor Street off Ogden Avenue, both of which are in the Illinois Medical District, we celebrated St. Joseph’s the Italian way this year.  Ferrara Original is in the Tri-Taylor area of the IMD, whereas the shrine is in the Little Italy area right next door to the medical campuses.  While everyone else was observing St. Patrick’s Day, Joe attended the Mass for St. Joseph on Sunday the 17th at Our Lady of Pompeii and stayed for the traditional feast honoring the saint.  Both of us spent part of Tuesday morning photographing the church and then headed over to the bakery café for lunch and an interview with current owners Nella Ferrara Davy and her husband, Bill Davy (more on that in a future post).

For this post, however, Joe will tell us about the feast while I provide some food background and links to St. Joseph’s Day recipes below  (all photos below are copyright 2013 by either J.D. Kubal or M.R. Traska; all rights reserved, reproduction elsewhere not permitted).

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Maria:  Joe, I understand that there was a bit of special to-do, some of it relating to the season of Lent.

Joe:  Yes.  All of the crucifixes and statues were covered with purple shrouds.  This is the custom during Lent, the season of fasting and reflection prior to Easter, and reflects a ‘fasting’ for the eyes.  A large symbolic crown of thorns was hung over the center aisle.  Also, at the start of the Mass, a large unveiled statue of St. Joseph was carried in during the entrance procession on the shoulders of several parishioners and carried out during the recessional.  Much of the Mass was offered in Italian.

Maria:  Unsurprising, considering that the shrine was founded by an Italian parish, and it remains Italian to this day.  Was there anything during Mass relating to the St. Joseph’s Table to follow?

Joe:  A sampling of the food from the tavola was presented to the priest for blessing.  He mentioned that visitors did not have to participate in the offertory collection until they visited the church again, when they would be considered family rather than guests.  The priest joked that then they should donate double.

Maria:  So the feast followed immediately after Mass?

Joe:  Almost.  After Mass, I hung around a while to take photos of the interior.  Well, this put me at the end of the line for the feast, which was held in the adjacent building.  The line was long, but everyone took it in stride and conversation flowed freely among those in the queue.  The whole process was made a lot more cheerful as trays of pizza and red and white wine kept those outside warm and contented.  Once we got inside, free will offerings were suggested for the food and for the poor, and then you were in the buffet line.  The whole affair was well organized and people proceeded quickly through the line as food was heaped upon your plate.

Maria:  You know there are a lot of foodies reading this, so tell us about the menu.

Joe:  As you can imagine, with that kind of crowd I had very little opportunity to discuss the dishes with the servers and can’t give you a comprehensive listing of the offerings.  However, there was plenty of pasta – possibly including the traditional pasta con sarde (pasta with sardines), though I’m not sure whether or not I had that – a zucchini-and-egg frittata, an escarole and bean dish, two different eggplant dishes, a tomato and cucumber salad, fried fish, crab salad, smoked salmon and baccala.

Maria: Sounds like you didn’t recognize most of what you ate, but it was all tasty!

Joe: That’s it exactly.

Maria:  The word baccala, if I remember correctly, can refer to either dried and salted codfish or a dish using primarily that ingredient.  It’s not limited to Italy – in Spain, it’s called bacalao and in Portugal it’s bacalhau.  It’s also eaten in Tunisia, which was occupied at different times by the Sicilians, the Spanish, and the Venetians.

Joe:  That’s right.  Each person at the dinner was also presented with a small red net packet containing a medal of St. Joseph and several fava beans.

Maria:  Ah yes, the fava beans – that’s part of a Sicilian story about a miracle attributed to St. Joseph, isn’t it?

Joe:  Yes; his intercession supposedly prevented a famine.  During the Middle Ages, there was an extreme drought on the island of Sicily  The people prayed to their patron saint, St. Joseph, for rain, promising to arrange a great feast and share food with the poor if their prayers were answered.  The people recited a novena to St. Joseph the Protector for nine days, and it finally rained – so the people fulfilled their promise, and the festival continues to this day to commemorate the event.  Fava beans had supposedly saved the Sicilians from starvation at that point, so giving dried fava beans to visitors and revelers became a custom.  According to an Italian-American I spoke with at the feast, the beans are supposed to be kept in your pocket as a sign of good luck and to ward off starvation.

Maria:  Given such abundance at the feast, there had to be a sweet table.

Joe:  As with the Polish St. Joe tables, there were plenty of desserts.  However, the Italians have a special delicacy called zeppole di San Giuseppe.  These were similar to a cream puff filled with custard.  There was more wine, of course, and coffee.  The St. Joseph’s table itself was spectacular and was laden with an assortment of bread and wine.  Breads were covered with sesame seeds, symbolically representing sawdust, in honor of St. Joseph, who is generally thought to have been a carpenter.

Maria:  Yes, I’ve heard of pasta with bread crumbs being described as pasta with ‘sawdust.’  We’ve got a link for a recipe for that below.  And was there any entertainment at the St. Joseph’s Day dinner?

Joe:  Yes, there was an accordion player belting out Italian musical favorites.  The hall was generally noisy, as you might expect, and the mood was pretty festive.

Maria:  So I take it you had a great time?

Joe:  Overall, I had a wonderful time on my namesday, and I am blessed that I was named after St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus Christ.

Zeppole di San Giuseppe at the St. Joseph's Table 2013 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, Little Italy, Chicago   (Photo credit:  J.D. Kubal)

classic Zeppole di San Giuseppe   (photo copyright 2013 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

Well, Joe and I got to celebrate his namesday on the actual day by having lunch together at Ferrara Original Bakery in the Tri-Taylor Historic District, an area right next to the medical campuses of Chicago’s Near West Side that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  For dessert, we had Ferrara’s version of the zeppole di San Giuseppe – the classic version made with choux pastry (cream-puff dough), filled with a citrus-flavored custard and topped with whipped cream and a Maraschino cherry.  After interviewing Nella and Bill Davy, we were also treated to a couple of fresh sfogliatelle, which are clam-shaped, many-layered crispy pastries made of what looks like a hundred-layer version of something between baklava pastry leaves and puff pastry, filled with a light whipped-ricotta filling flavored with candied citron.  And they stayed crispy through the last bite.  Delicious! More on Ferrara in an upcoming post.

Since then, I’ve found some zeppole recipes that treat the pastry more as a fritter and others that use a ricotta-based filling, along with a recipe from Bari that uses a whipped-cream filling and others that consider the pastry to be nothing more than a confectioner’s-sugar-dusted doughnut hole that incorporates the ricotta right into the dough.  I think the doughnut-hole fritter version is getting pretty far afield from the traditional St. Joseph’s Day pastry, but I could be wrong.  In fact, I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the term zeppola (that’s the singular form; zeppole is plural) is generic and encompasses a wide variety of filled and/or fried pastries, including a savory version made of fried bread that is filled with mashed anchovies.  So the zeppole di San Giuseppe would actually be a very specific form of zeppole, made just for that saint’s feast day.

The saint’s pastry was supposedly invented in Naples in 1840 by Don Pasquale Pinatauro – who, according to Epicurious.com, “was given a noble title by King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies for his creation. The Pintauro pasticceria still stands at Via Roma, 275, and it is still among the most highly regarded in the city, although some Neapolitans are fond of saying, ‘It isn’t what it used to be.’”  Until Pintauro adopted the much lighter, crispier French cream puff pastry – pâte à choux or choux pastry – for his bakery’s zeppole di San Giuseppe, the only kind of zeppole that Neapolitans ate were the much cruder zeppole di Natale (Christmas zeppole, called scauratielli in Neapolitan dialect).  Cream puffs are made with flour, eggs, butter and either water or milk, and the dough is prepared in a saucepan on the stove before being shaped and baked.  In contrast, zeppole di Natale are made from a dough of only flour and water, deep fried and then dipped immediately into hot honey or else dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar, after which they must be immediately eaten or they’ll go bad.  Which makes them highly perishable and impractical.  Besides, zeppole di Natale are heavier than choux pastry, which also lasts longer.  No wonder Pinatauro used a different recipe!

[Ironically, choux pastry is thought to have been invented in 1540 by a Northern Italian chef who traveled to France with Catherine de Medici, bride of the future French king, Henry II; but it took until the 1700s for French pastry chefs to transform the dough into choux buns, which were probably the predecessors of cream puffs.  Young Catherine and her Northern Italian chefs were responsible for introducing the French to many aspects of cooking that we now associate with French haute cusine.]

Sfinci, on the other hand, are varieties of pastries made of fried dough, including fritters.  Fritters are fried dough that incorporates something besides flour, water and eggs into the dough – like minced fruit (e.g., apples) or cheese.  Apparently, at some point zeppole di San Giuseppe became conflated (or confused) with sfinci di San Giuseppe, and people began treating the terms as equivalent when in fact the two pastries are very different.

So:  the official version of zeppole di San Giuseppe is made with cream-puff pastry.  However, there are variations of zeppole and sfinci di San Giuseppe that are eaten all over the southern half of Italy, from Rome all the way through the bootheel of Apulia and the ‘toe’ of Calabria to the furthest tip of Sicily.

Anyway, bearing in mind that Italian-American cuisine is sometimes different from original Italian cuisine, here are a bunch of links with recipes you can use to create your own St. Joseph’s table next year.

Until next time,
Maria and Joe

about St. Joseph’s Day and St. Joseph’s table:

the history of zeppole di San Giuseppe:

St. Joseph’s Day soup:

St. Joseph’s Day bread:

St. Joseph’s Pizza  (Sfincioni di San Giuseppe) from Mario Batali:

St. Joseph’s Day pasta:
http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/st-josephs-day-pasta-lasagnette-del-san-giuseppe-recipe/index.htmlLasagnette del San Giuseppe recipe from Mario Batali
http://www.mangiabenepasta.com/stjoseph_pasta.html – pasta with sardines  (pasta con sarde)
http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/04/st-josephs-sawdust-with-pasta-recipe.html – pasta with ‘sawdust’ a la John Besh

St. Joseph’s Day pastries:

Cannoli cream cake:


3 thoughts on “Celebrating St. Joseph’s Table the Italian way on Route 66

  1. Thank you for your support! We hope to have many more posts related to Route 66 while we finish writing our book. If you like what you’ve read so far, please sign up to follow the blog and tell all your friends and contacts about it. We’re trying to broaden our readership. Do let us know what else you like about our posts, and don’t forget to check out our In The News page. — Marie


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