March is one of my favorite months. Once the calendar turns to the first, thoughts of spring immediately come into mind. To me, March is dominated by the warming weather, the Ides of March, lots of green, Saint Patrick’s Day, and March Madness. But amidst all of these wonderful things, there is one thing that I always look forward to with the arrival of the month: Saint Joseph’s Day.
Saint Joseph’s Day is to the Italians what Saint Patrick’s Day is to the Irish. Just two days after the Irish drown themselves in Guinness, the feast of Saint Joseph is celebrated on March 19th. Though the husband of Mary, Joseph is an important figure in the history of Christianity, thereby March 19th is dedicated to his remembrance. Rather than wearing green, Italians typically celebrate by dressing in red. In Italy, il Giorno di San Giuseppe is also Father’s Day, Festa del Papà, but the day has even more significance in the south. Sicily regards Saint Joseph as its Patron Saint because many credit him with saving the people from drought during medieval times. Once the rains arrived, the Sicilians celebrated their good fortune with great feasts. Unlike the heavy Irish fare of corned beef and cabbage, the traditional celebratory food for the Italian feast is based upon the peasant cuisine of the Sicily, including minestrone with fava beans, la frittata, and plenty of fish. But considering that Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs, the holiday is most known for its signature pastry: la zeppola.
As an Italian-American, I grew up eagerly waiting for Saint Joseph’s Day because I knew it was the one day a year when I could go to a local bakery and indulge in una zeppola. Le zeppole are typically made from a choux pastry, which combines eggs, water, flour, and butter. They can be brought fried or baked and are usually filled with a rich pastry cream. On a mission to discover these pastries in their country of birth, I have been disappointed to learn that my American idea of le zeppole is very different from the Italian conception. In much of Italy, le zeppole typically refers to small deep-fried dough balls (think Dunkin Donut munchkins) sprinkled with powered sugar or honey.
Depending on la pasticceria, the doughnuts might be filled with the creamy custard that Italian Americans are accustomed to in the states. Unfortunately, these offerings seem to be in the minority, but this could be because I am not in the pastry’s region of origin. In Napoli, li zeppoli are small fritters of fried dough, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with this, they are just not what I associate with Saint Joseph’s Day. I have, however, discovered that the pastry of my childhood is best associated with the recipes from Sicily. Perhaps if I went to the island, then I would find the dessert that I crave 364 days out of the year.
Considering that I am living in Italy, it is has been difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I cannot find una zeppola that I am so accustomed to salivating over in the Italian bakeries back home. Although I am disappointed, my search for the pastry has shown me how Italian food traditions can vary not only from when translated to another country, but also from region to region. I always thought that taking a bite of una zeppola was one of the few genuine tastes of Italy that my stomach encountered, so I am hopeful that some time before I leave Italy I will encounter the la zeppole that I am so familiar with in the states.
For those interested, here are a couple of recipes I found for variations on Saint Joseph’s Day pastry:
This site also includes videos detailing (in Italian!) how to prepare various recipes for le zeppole: (Number 4 seems to show what Italian-Americans are most familiar)