In the Middle Ages, a great drought had overtaken Sicily. WIth the countryside on the brink of famine, prayers went up to Joseph of Nazareth, the patron saint of the land, that he might bless their crops and grant them enough food to survive.
In answer, so the legend goes, the heavens opened up and enough rain fell to help cultivate a life-saving harvest. In the Catholic Church, that miracle marks the feast of San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph's Day, which is celebrated March 19.
To celebrate these traditions, a pair of Collingswood's finest Italian restaurants rolled out special menus Monday evening.
At , Chef Nunzio Petruno served up his take on the traditional St. Joseph's Day zeppoli. Among other things, St. Joseph is the patron saint of pastry chefs, and the zeppoli Petruno prepared seemed inspired by his touch: stuffed with vanilla custard, topped with whipped cream, candied oranges and a cherry.
At , Chef Joey Baldino was honoring his namesake with a three-course meal meant to mirror the privation of a Lenten feast.
The first course was St. Joseph's soup, a mixed-bean nod to the harvest of lore, then an entrée of spaghetti and sardines, and a ricotta-stuffed zeppoli for dessert. Baldino also served semolina bread baked in the shape of St. Joseph's staff, another food item steeped in tradition.
"When you break it you’re meant to say a prayer to St. Joseph," Baldino said. "Joseph was a carpenter, and the bread crumbs represent his sawdust."
Baldino also pointed other symbolic traditions around the day: restaurants commonly mark their doors with an olive branch or a small statue of St. Joseph to let their guests know that a special meal will be served there. This practice is a callback to a tradition honoring St. Joseph's day with altars of food for rich and poor alike.
In Sicily as in most regions of Italy, Baldino says, food is not only life, but it is love. He can recall his family celebrating the day with pastries, “and in Catholic school, every nun would give every Joseph in the class a [prayer] card.”
Baldino is personally thankful this St. Joseph's Day for the bounty of his own kitchen. Although it was announced Monday that Zeppoli did not make the final round of cuts for the 2012 , he said the surprise of its nomination for best new restaurant in the country helped raise the profile of his establishment and draw more business.
“I'm just happy I was a semifinalist,” said Baldino. “We've gotten a lot of positive feedback. I'm really appreciative.”