In Italy la festa dei papa, the equivalent of Father’s Day, falls on March 19, the feast of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), the husband of Mary and the stepfather of Jesus. Italians celebrate with special foods and gifts from the children to their Babbo (Daddy in Tuscany, Sardinia, and several southern regions) or Papa (pronounced pa-PAH) in other regions.
Sicilians in particular, give thanks to San Giuseppe, whom many consider their patron saint, for saving their countrymen from famine in the Middle Ages. A terrible drought destroyed most of the crops, and people began to die of starvation. The Sicilians promised their saint to prepare a huge feast for all if he would bring rain. At midnight on March 19th the rains came and crops prospered.
In St Joseph’s honor, Sicilians and those of Sicilian descent celebrate the day by erecting an altar with levels to represent the Holy Trinity. The altar is adorned with specially formed breads, often featuring bread in the shape of a staff, symbolizing the humble carpenter. The finest legumes, grains, fruits, vegetables, seafood and wine are selected and the poor are invited to share in their prayer and festivity.
One of the most typical foods served for this feast are the pastry called zeppole di San Giuseppe, or sfinci in Sicily and bigne in Rome. The pastry is choux paste (think French doughnut) fried in the shape of a ring and either topped or filled with yellow pastry cream (custard) and sour cherry jam, then covered with powdered sugar. Some pastry shops also offer a choice of ricotta cream or whipped cream instead of the custard. Do indulge – they are so wonderful and only made once a year… it’ll be easy to work them off soon… spring’s coming, right?