CARROLL GARDENS — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York and the rest of the United States a year ago, it wasted no time in stealing profits from pastry shop owner Antonio Fiorentino.
At this time of year, the windows of Italian bakeries in the five arrondissements light up with dazzling pastries made especially for March 19, “the Festa di San Giuseppe” (Saint Joseph’s Day).
Fiorentino, originally from Sicily, owned and operated Monteleone Pastry on Court Street in Carroll Gardens for 11 years. In a normal year, he could make up to 1,000 sfingi Where zeppole pastries. But, last year, just days after the start of the pandemic, orders for baked goods on the day of the holiday dwindled.
“Everyone knows there can be big parties or gatherings for St. Joseph’s Day,” the baker said. “They used to have a party at home or bring up the pastries at the office. But last year I closed.
“I had COVID and the guy who worked with me had it. My son was on his own and he wasn’t feeling well either. So between St. Joseph’s Day and Easter, we really didn’t do anything. I closed it and we stayed closed for a month.
Fiorentino said this year’s demand for special pastries was slow but better than 12 months ago.
“In general, you see more people the day before,” he said of his customers at the Saint-Joseph patisserie. “But it looks like it’s starting to pick up again… People are getting vaccinated and they’re starting to have more hope. I hope this year will be better.”
The 2021 feast will take place during the “Year of St. Joseph,” which began Dec. 8 when Pope Francis called for a year-long celebration of the canonized carpenter. The pontiff issued this decree on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the appointment of Saint Joseph as patron of the universal Church.
The “Year of St. Joseph” also coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic. Italian bakeries, like most businesses, have suffered economic difficulties that set in about a year ago. But this year, the special pastries started arriving in bakery windows around mid-March.
These pastries are a big part of St. Joseph’s Day, but the holiday has other traditions too, according to Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“Many Italians, he says, have the table of Saint Joseph (Table of San Giuseppe) where on that day you invite people into your home who don’t have enough to eat, and give them a feast on St. Joseph’s Day. This is because he is the provident father in many ways.
The Festa di San Giuseppe brings together family and friends, traditionally dressed in red, to enjoy festive recipes, such as pasta dishes with Saint Joseph tomato sauce or a tasty Saint Joseph soup made with broad beans and lentils.
Next is sfingi or zeppole – a fried or baked donut or puff filled with custard, special cream or jam. They are topped with another dollop of filling, cherries, chocolate chips or another tasty filling.
Many bakers fill these pastries with the same custard used in their cannoli recipes.
Fiorentino, from the Agrigento region of Sicily, said his filling was made with ricotta imported from Palermo. To garnish, he adds a strip of orange zest and Amarena cherries.
Bishop DiMarzio said Italian Americans look forward to St. Joseph’s Day because it reflects their family values.
“They are very close to Notre-Dame and Saint-Joseph,” he explained. “It’s a very special reflection of their love for family as a very important part of the culture. Every culture has a part of that, but they are particularly attached to family.
“That’s where I think St. Joseph fits into this.”
The limited descriptions of Joseph in the Gospel convey a devotee behind the scenes who lovingly cared for Mary and her son, Jesus, the Messiah. There might have been no Gospel if Joseph had not heeded the angel’s warning to evacuate the Holy Family to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod.
Saint Joseph thus became the patron of many causes, including fathers, immigrants and workers; all three help define the history of Italian Americans in New York and the United States. Given this culture’s loyalty to families, it’s no wonder that this saint is celebrated with special meals and treats on his feast day, March 19.
“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.
“That’s why Joseph is important, and we honor him this year.”