St. Joseph Pastries Back After Tough Year for Bakers

Sfingi and zeppole are pastries filled with custard, a special cream, or jam, in the traditional celebration of the Feast of St. Joseph. The feast is held each year on March 19. (Photo: Bill Miller)

CARROLL GARDENS — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City and the rest of the U.S. a year ago, it wasted no time stealing profits from pastry shop owner Antonio Fiorentino.

This time of year, the showcases of Italian bakeries in the five boroughs are brightened with dazzling pastries made especially for March 19, “la Festa di San Giuseppe” (the Feast of St. Joseph).

Fiorentino, a native of Sicily, has owned and operated Pasticceria Monteleone on Court Street in Carroll Gardens for 11 years. In a normal year, he might make as many as 1,000 sfingi or zeppole pastries. But, last year, just days into the pandemic, the feast-day pastry orders dwindled.

“Everybody knows there can be big parties or gatherings for St. Joseph,” the baker said. “They used to make a party at home or bring the pastries up to the office. But last year, I closed.

“I had COVID and the guy who worked with me had it. My son was by himself, and he wasn’t feeling well either. So, between St. Joseph’s and Easter, we really didn’t do any business. I shut it down, and we stayed closed for a month.”

Fiorentino said this year’s demand for the special pastries was slow but better than 12 months ago.

“In general, you see more people the day before,” he said of his St. Joseph pastry customers. “But it looks like it’s starting to pick up … People are getting vaccinated, and they’re starting to get more hope. I hope this year is better.”

The 2021 feast day will occur during the “Year of St. Joseph,” which began on Dec. 8 when Pope Francis called for a year-long celebration of the canonized carpenter. The pontiff made this decree on the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph being named Patron of the Universal Church.

The “Year of St. Joseph” also coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic. Italian bakeries, like most businesses, endured economic hardships that first took hold about a year ago. But this year, the special pastries began arriving in bakery showcases around mid-March.

These pastries are a big part of the Feast of St. Joseph, but the feast also has other traditions, according to Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn.

“Many Italians,” he said, “have the table of St. Joseph (Tavola di San Giuseppe) where, on that day, you invite people who don’t have enough food to come to your home, and you give them a feast on the feast of St. Joseph. It is because he’s the provident father in many ways.”

La Festa di San Giuseppe joins family and friends, traditionally dressed in red, to enjoy feast-day recipes, like pasta dishes with a St. Joseph tomato sauce or a savory St. Joseph’s Day soup made from fava beans and lentils.

Next comes the sfingi or zeppole — either a fried or baked fritter or puff filled with custard, a special cream, or jam. They are topped with another dollop of filling, cherries, chocolate chips, or some other tasty garnish.

Many bakers fill these pastries with the same custard used in their cannoli recipes.

Fiorentino, who is from the Agrigento area of Sicily, said his filling is made from ricotta imported from Palermo. To garnish, he adds a strip of orange peel and Amarena cherries.

Bishop DiMarzio said Italian-Americans anticipate the Feast of St. Joseph because it reflects their family values.

“They’re very close to Our Lady and St. Joseph,” he explained. “It is a very special reflection of their love for family as a very important part of the culture. Every culture has some of that, but they’re uniquely attached to the family.

“This is where I think St. Joseph fits into that.”

The Gospel’s limited descriptions of Joseph convey a behind-the-scenes stalwart who lovingly provided for Mary and her son, Jesus, the Messiah. There might not have been a Gospel if not for Joseph heeding the angel’s warning to evacuate the Holy Family to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s wrath.

St. Joseph thus became the patron of many causes, including fathers, immigrants, and workers; all three help define Italian-Americans’ history in New York City and the U.S. Given this culture’s loyalty to families, it is no wonder that this saint is celebrated with special meals and treats on his March 19 feast day.

“Joseph has a very special place in the history of salvation,” Bishop DiMarzio added. “St. John Paul II called him the ‘Guardian of the Redeemer.’ This is how Joseph loved Jesus.

“So this is why Joseph is important, and we honor him during this year.”