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On St. Joseph's Day, pass the sfingi and honey balls

To Buffalo’s Sicilian population, St. Joseph’s Day looms large.

For the rest of us, it is something of a mystery.

It is sandwiched between two gigantic Western New York party days, St. Patrick’s Day and Dyngus Day, falling on March 19 in 2018. These noisier occasions tend to obscure it. You do not find store aisles devoted to St. Joseph’s Day, as you do for St. Patrick’s Day. Though there is a massive St. Patrick’s Day/St. Joseph’s Day/Dyngus Day celebration, the holiday in the middle is in a class by itself.

It is celebrated wherever Sicilians are, said Peter LoJacono, the president of the Buffalo Federation of Italian-American Societies.

The roots of St. Joseph's Day, adding to its exotic nature, are distant and medieval. St. Joseph saved Sicily from famine in the Middle Ages, and Sicilians have been thanking him ever since, by holding St. Joseph’s Tables – elaborate feasts.

North Buffalo sisters Gaetana and Carmela Campanella make 600 pignolatas (honey balls) annually for St. Anthony's Church and Holy Spirit Church for their St. Joseph's tables. They've been doing this for 40 years. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A St. Joseph’s Day feast is always meatless. There were two reasons for that: One was that the day invariably falls during Lent, and rules used to be far stricter than they are now.

The other reason was less meaty, but more practical.

“People didn’t have the money to buy meat,” said Mary Balistreri, the secretary of St. Anthony’s Church. Her family owned the longtime Balistreri’s Bakery on Niagara Street on the lower West Side, and her brother currently owns Balistreri Pastries Plus in West Seneca.

On a recent weekday at Romano’s Italian Bakery on Kenmore Avenue, owner Vincenzo Battaglia was stationed by an ancient, blackened deep fryer and making the traditional Sicilian doughnut known as sfingi. Some will receive a ricotta filling – up to a half-pound per doughnut. Others will be empty, light and airy.

The St. Joseph's sfingi from Romano's Italian Bakery is topped with ricotta cheese and sprinkles. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Some 250 of these crullerlike confections would go to St. Anthony of Padua Church, the tiny historically Italian church in the shadow of Buffalo City Hall. St. Anthony’s had a St. Joseph’s Table scheduled for March 18 after the weekly 11 a.m. Mass in Italian. Some 200 more were earmarked for Holy Spirit Church on Hertel Avenue, another Italian bastion. Yet another 275 were bound for Tappo, the big Italian restaurant in downtown Buffalo.

Few people around town make these doughnuts, and demand for them soars around St. Joseph’s Day.

“You got to stay here all day to do this,” Battaglia said. "Turn around, turn around,” he said, flipping the sfingi in the hot oil as onlookers instinctively stood back.

“To make 5,000, 6,000 sfingi, you got to work,” Battaglia added. “Now, we have a routine. Before – all night.”

Sfingi are just one of the foods ordained for St. Joseph’s Day. A few blocks away, in their North Buffalo home, sisters Gaetana and Carmela Campanella were making another St. Joseph’s Day treat: honey balls.

They are crisp cookies the size of a fingertip, coated with sugar, honey and sprinkles and served in bunches. Several hundred cupcake-sized portions of these would go to Holy Spirit, several hundred more to St. Anthony’s, and still more to other St. Joseph’s Tables.

Sfingi is a light, airy pastry; a regular sfingi has no filling but gets cinnamon or powdered sugar on top. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

It is strange to think that such massive preparations take place under the radar of most Buffalonians. St. Joseph is the patron saint of Buffalo – hence, St. Joseph Cathedral. Buffalo, home to a huge Sicilian population, is one of the places in the world where the St. Joseph’s Day tradition burns the brightest.

“Viva San Giuseppe!” Italians call out, greeting each other on the saint’s feast day.

LoJacono said it is tradition to yell out that cheer during the course of a St. Joseph’s Table. When he was growing up, such celebrations were usually home celebrations. The shouts were a small part of the extensive tradition.

“An elderly gentleman, the grandfather maybe, would dress as St. Joseph, with a robe and staff,” LoJacono said. St. Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and foster father to Jesus, has come down through history, rightly or wrongly, as an elderly man. In Italy, St. Joseph’s Day doubles as Father’s Day.

Children dressed in white surrounded the Holy Family. The Rev. Charles Amico, who grew up on Buffalo’s West Side and occasionally celebrates Mass at St. Anthony’s, explained that decorations included lilies, the symbol of charity, and pineapple, the symbol of hospitality.

For Sicilian children, Mary Balistreri said, St. Joseph’s Day was a school holiday.

“In the old days, if your family said they were having the St. Joseph’s Table, the nuns would let you get out of school that day. You were free. It was a legal absence,” she laughed. “The tables would be decorated with pictures of St. Joseph. There would be flowers all over the place, and St. Joseph’s bread in the shapes of crosses. You had all the fried foods – frittata, the artichoke, the asparagus, the pasta con sarde.” Pasta with sardines, topped frugally but deliciously by breadcrumbs, is a St. Joseph’s Day staple.

The foods of the St. Joseph’s Table would qualify as “cucina povera,” or peasant cooking. Nowadays, such foods are stylish. Historically, they were a necessity.

“They weren’t exotic,” Amico said. “Cardoons, they were weeds. Dandelions. I would drive my mother around, and she’d say, ‘Charlie! Stop! I see some cardones there, alongside the road.’ They were the poor man’s asparagus.”

A St. Joseph’s Table was a kind of open house. Longstanding custom had it that all were welcome, including strangers who were less fortunate.

This random generosity could make for humorous situations. Amico, who grew up on Buffalo’s West Side, laughed that the hosts of one St. Joseph’s Table had to donate money to charity, because their efforts to feed the poor backfired.

“They invited the less-fortunate kids in the area. But the children weren’t Italian,” he said. “They didn’t like the food, so they left.”

Battaglia, at Romano’s, remembered one year when a St. Joseph’s Table he held at the bakery welcomed one guest who was particularly shabby.

To his astonishment, the man returned a few days later, bearing a check for $250, to donate to charity.

“You never know what you’re dealing with,” LoJacono said, joining in the laughter. “You can’t judge.”

Vincenzo Battaglia, who owns Romano's Italian Bakery with his two daughters, removes the sfingi from the deep fryer. He fries them for 13 minutes then takes them out. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The tradition of St. Joseph’s Day tables at home is dying out. Perhaps it comes down to time. A St. Joseph’s Day Table is a lot of work. Safety concerns might be a factor; people may feel more reticent about opening doors to strangers.

It could be, too, that piety is perishing. Looking around the Campanella home – shining and meticulously clean, with statues of saints, the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart – a visitor cannot help but reflect that you do not see this kind of décor much anymore.

At the public St. Joseph’s Day tables, however, ancient traditions live on. The greatest of these, said Amico, is charity.

“Most restaurants don't invite the poor, but they give some portion of the proceeds to a charitable cause. That’s very important,” he said.

Also important is the spiritual dimension. The hosts of a St. Joseph’s Table might simply be thanking St. Joseph, or they might be asking him for a favor.

One St. Joseph’s Day, Gaetana Campanella recalled, her mother was very sick, and her family asked St. Joseph to pray for her health. St. Joseph answered the prayer, she said. Her mother recovered and lived to be 95.

Her story plays up a wonder of Buffalo, that in our modern world, this ancient tradition lives. It can also make one wonder: What if you wanted to turn back the calendar, and hold a St. Joseph's Day Table in your home?

LoJacono had ready advice.

"Just do it," he said. "Invite everyone over."

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