Celebrate St. Joseph's Day with bread

March 18, 2009 (CHICAGO) A big part of the celebration includes bread.. And only a handful of Italian bakeries make traditional St. Joseph's Day bread.

The feasts that take place between now and the weekend are meatless, obviously, because it's during lent. Traditionally, St. Joseph's Day bread arrives in the shape of crosses or staffs, coated in sesame seeds. But there is also something sweet on the menu this week, combining fried dough and custard. We headed out to Harlem Avenue - in the heart of the Italian community - to taste for ourselves.

For the past few weeks, the bakeries along Harlem Avenue - including Il Giardino del Dolce - have been busy preparing St. Joseph's Day breads, for one of the biggest food celebrations on the Italian calendar.

"St. Joseph's Day is a celebration of, in Italy it's traditionally for the celebration of Joseph, who's Jesus' father, in Italy some people also use it as a Father's Day," said Enzo Ventrella, or Il Giardino del Dolce.

The dough is simple; in fact, the only thing remarkable about it is its shape.

"It comes in crowns and staffs and crosses, representing Jesus, the crown and also the staff, Joseph's staff," said Ventrella.

While the bread is certainly important, and it goes with many of the savory dishes that are served this time of year, there is also a sweet celebration in the form of zeppole. This mild, unsweetened dough is first fried, much like donuts or paczki, and once they turn a light brown color, they are split in half and filled with a mild vanilla custard. Other fillings include chocolate custard or ricotta cheese with chocolate chips. After the other half of the dough is added, they're covered with more custard, then topped with a cherry and a dusting of powdered sugar.

Ventrella says while the neighborhoods changed, his customers still demand the bread and zeppoles this time of year.

"The tradition is still going on strong. It's kind of flowing just beyond the Italians, it's flowing in with other cultures too," Ventralla said.

Wednesday and Thursday are obviously the biggest days for getting St. Joseph's Day bread. The zeppoles, however, should remain in the bakery through the next several weeks.

Il Giardino del Dolce
2859 N. Harlem Ave.

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