March is the month for showing thanks to fathers in Italy. “La Festa del Papà” takes place on March 19, the day dedicated to San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph, father of Jesus Christ in the Christian religion.
Many Catholic churches in Italy and America, as well as Italian-American societies, host special ceremonies and parades to give thanks to St. Joseph. In my community in and around Chicago, this is a much-loved holiday that seems to bridge the generations between young and old. I’ve had the honor of celebrating St. Joseph’s Day many times, sometimes with two or three different Italian clubs each year!
The traditional St. Joseph’s Day celebration is completed with an afternoon feast, which is centered on a “St. Joseph’s Table”*—a large, three-tiered table with a statue of St. Joseph in the center surrounded by platter upon platter of special foods. Because it is the Catholic season of Lent, the traditional dishes for the St. Joseph’s Table do not contain meat. But that does not stop the Italians from creating a wonderful feast of pasta, fish, and special pastries to celebrate St. Joseph and all fathers of Italy.
Below is a bit of history about the day that I have found during my research on the topic. And, of course, because much of the focus of this holiday is on the special foods to be made for the feast, a Sicilian recipe for Sfinge—fried dough balls—is found at the end of the blog post.
*Featured image of a St. Joseph’s Table courtesy of azenofmyown.blogspot.com.
La Festa di San Giuseppe
Il 19 di Marzo
St. Joseph is honored with a special day by many countries of the world that practice Christianity. In Italy, it is said that the people from Sicily hold St. Joseph in special regard because they believe that their prayers to St. Joseph ended a drought that had caused a severe famine during the Middle Ages.
Legend has it that the drought in Sicily one year was so severe that the only vegetable left growing in the fields was the fava bean. The Sicilian people prayed to St. Joseph and promised they would honor him with a great feast every year if he ended the drought. They survived on fava beans until their prayers were answered and the rains came. From that time on, as promised, Sicilians all over the island have dedicated a feast in honor of Saint Joseph. The tradition has continued to today, and the St. Joseph’s Table, as it is now called, has grown into a feast rich in delicious and symbolic foods.
The St. Joseph’s Table should have three tiers, representing the holy trinity of Catholicism. In the center is a statue of St. Joseph. Fava beans are always included—in a bowl by themselves or as part of a dish. An ancient peasant food thought to have been introduced to Sicily by the Romans called “Maccu” (a soup of dried, crushed fava beans, fennel, and olive oil) was included in the past, as “Maccu di San Giuseppe,” but it is rarely seen today in Italy. Today, many Italian Americans have fava beans blessed at church and carry them for good luck for the rest of the year.
Breadcrumbs are also a popular component of the St. Joseph Day feast, and they are said to represent sawdust. This serves as a reminder that St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers and supported his family by working as a carpenter. Breadcrumbs can be found in many Sicilian dishes, and for St. Joseph’s Day, they are popular in stuffed artichokes or in pasta con sarde.
Treats from the bakery abound on the St. Joseph’s Day table, because St. Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs. Every region has its own special “San Giuseppe” breads and desserts. Breads are made into the shape of a staff or a cross. Fried pastries are very popular. “Sfinci” is a small, fried dough ball (fritter) sprinkled with sugar. Larger puff pastry balls called “zeppole” are piped with custard or cannoli cream and are often topped with a maraschino cherry.
The table is also decorated with many types of citrus fruits. And red is the color to wear for good luck at your Festa di San Giuseppe! When you greet people at the festa, say, “May St. Joseph always smile upon you.”
After the celebration, as part of the tradition, the table is broken down, and all food that is left is wrapped and distributed to various charities, so those less fortunate may also partake.
Traditional Sfinge di Ricotta from Sicily
Below is an excerpt from the site Visit Sicily about the wonderful Sicilian treat, Sfinge di Ricotta, which is traditional for La Festa di San Giuseppe. They are simple to make—a puffy, fried dough ball, or fritter, sprinkled with sugar—and delicious!
The recipe of “Sfinci” is one of the oldest, typical Sicilian recipes. Sicilian people, as all southerner people, go crazy for frying and during Carnival they prepare thousands of yummy recipes. These Sicilian cookies are small pieces of fried dough enriched with nuggets of raisins or ricotta cheese and then fried in hot oil.
There are several variants, some of these also add boiled potatoes in the dough. This is the most classic version with a simple mixture of water, sugar, flour and ricotta cheese. Try them, they are delicious, you will not stop eating!
- 500 g (whole milk ricotta cheese [about 15–16 oz.])
- 200/250 g flour (2–2.5 cups)
- 2 spoons of sugar (teaspoons)
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
Place all ingredients together in a bowl (eggs and ricotta in a well in the center of the dry ingredients) and mix them with a mixer or by hand until you get a dough with a solid and firm consistency. (Start with 2 cups of flour, and add the rest as needed).
Let stand for about 20 minutes.
Then take the dough with the tip of a spoon and push it with your finger in a saucepan filled with boiling oil. (A small, deep pot works well for this step. Use only small bits of dough and try to form a small ball as you roll it off the spoon. Test the oil by putting one piece of dough in and watch it cook. Moderate the oil so it does not get too hot, so the center of the dough will have time to cook.) Let them cook until they have a goldish aspect.
(The pieces of dough will form a puffed ball (fritter) as they cook. When one side is finished cooking, the ball will flip by itself to the other side. When the other side has finished cooking, the ball will flip again. Let the fritter cook a few more seconds after the second flip and then remove it with a slotted spoon.)
(Drain fritters on a paper towel and while still hot roll gently in sugar. Then remove them to a serving bowl and sprinkle with more sugar if desired.)
Sprinkle them with sugar and serve.
*Volumes are approximate and additional directions in parenthesis are added to the original recipe by the author.