Restaurant, chef perpetuate the Italian tradition of the Feast of St. Joseph

Rezero "Rizzi" DeFabo won't tell you that he wears the pants at Rizzo's Malabar Inn.

But he is the guy who's brought, in a big way, little "pants" to the Italian restaurant his great-grandparents started in the Westmoreland County town of Crabtree, just north of Greensburg.

The chickpea-filled fried pastries called St. Joseph's Pants -- in Italian, cavazoon, which is dialect for calzone, or pants -- are a big part of St. Joseph's Day, March 19. And St. Joseph's Day is a huge deal at the restaurant, which today, as it has done for almost two decades, will unveil a grand "altar" -- tables displaying the pants and other pastries and decorative breads that are part of the St. Joseph's Feast.

That is, La Festa di San Giuseppe.

Tomorrow through Sunday, Rizzo's will offer a special St. Joseph's menu with delectable specialties, including Hand-Breaded Smelts, Orange Salad (with olives), Hand-Breaded Baccala Fillet Dinner and Spaghetti with Garlic, Oil, Walnuts, Raisins and Bread Crumbs.

These are among the specialties served in a part of Italy during one of the biggest celebrations for Italians everywhere. The dishes and the customs vary from region to region, even village to village. But it's always about families getting together and appreciating good food.

As Rizzi explains in his forthcoming book, "Cooking with Rizzi," which he'll publish this summer, St. Joseph is the patron saint of many things, including the frying pan, and so fried foods tend to be on the menu.

St. Joseph's Pants hail from the area his family is from, Molise and Abruzzo. He says the tradition was instilled in him by his late Nonna (Grandma) Rocco, who prepared the pastries each year and gave them to friends and relatives in honor of Joseph, a carpenter who is patron saint of workers.

The village from which she borrowed the custom, Rizzi says, was renowned for the pastries, which are never sold, but given. "People would walk for miles to that town to get those pants. They were never refused."

His grandparents would "keep the day" -- that is, observe the feast day, as many Italian-Americans did, by gathering at a neighbor's home in Greensburg. Children stayed home from school. His parents kept the day, too, but his mom didn't make the pants.

As he gradually took over more of the restaurant from his parents, Rizzi rekindled the tradition there, starting around 1991, by making and giving away cavazoons.

Customers ate it up.

"It just escalated into a phenomenon," Rizzi says. "People would bring things -- their cavazoons. They'd bring a holy card. They'd bring a medal. They'd bring a recipe to share."

It all wound up on the table, which is a St. Joseph's tradition from Sicily. Rizzi started also making the St. Joseph's Day menu from his family's region, and the festivities grew.

Now Rizzi and two employees bake some 3,000 cavazoons in advance -- 1,000 on three consecutive Tuesdays -- and freeze them, then thaw them for this weekend, when they're free to everyone who wants them.

People come from far and wide for them, and to see, and often photograph, the table, which now are tables. They hold most of the souvenirs from past years, including photos of the deceased (the table is dedicated to his aunt Anna Marie Stabile), flowers, every kind of sweet. There also are decorative breads -- St. Joseph's staff, the Blessed Virgin's slippers, a peacock, picture frames -- made mostly by Rizzi's sister-in-law, Annie DeFabo, with her sister, Laura Valerio.

The breads -- some with fig filling -- are not for eating; they're kept from year to year for the display, which, this year, will include a new elaborate (three hours plus) sheaf of wheat Rizzi recently made.

If there's room.

"Sometimes you just can't put everything out or it looks like I don't know what," he says.

In a newer tradition, he invites his nieces and nephews to the restaurant to make their own pastries for the table. The family used to take them out of school, sending to their teachers notes saying "due to St. Joseph's" ("I figured if that's not a good enough excuse ..." Ms. Valerio says with a smile). But this year, they gathered this past Sunday before the restaurant opened.

For weeks the children had been asking "Uncle Rizz," When? He says, "Whatever they want to do, however they create it, I put it out on the table."

The kids were full of creativity, and soon covered with flour, as they turned pastry into bowls, braids, Jesus on the cross and a crown of thorns.

"I made the underwear of thorns!" Carmen DeFabo announced with a grin.

Just about everything on the table and the menu is symbolic, and so customers are given an explanatory brochure from the restaurant, which also is run by Rizzi's brother, Jerome "Jerry" Jr., and parents, Jerome and Mary Frances DeFabo.

Rizzi isn't sure they'd do a big bash if it weren't for him, but he believes some relatives would continue to keep the day at home, and his Nonna would be proud.

And so they help keep alive a tradition, not just for their own family, but for many others.

The St. Joseph's altar is a tradition that not only is alive and well, but spreading to other cultures. So members of the Association of Food Journalists were told in New Orleans this fall by Sandra Scalise Juneau. She's from Sicily, where St. Joseph's is perhaps the biggest deal, going back to the Middle Ages when, the story goes, St. Joseph saved the starving islanders with a big fava bean crop. To give thanks, Sicilians prepared a table of symbolic foods and invited the poor in to join them. Resurrecting that tradition, including the making of the fig-filled cakes Sicilians call cuccidatta, led Ms. Scalise Juneau to become an expert on it.

And what tickles her is how it's being embraced by other Catholic groups in Louisiana and beyond, including African, Hispanic and Vietnamese, each incorporating their own cultures into the pastry designs. That's part of the point of the St. Joseph's altar display at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

This year, she e-mailed last week during her frantic St. Joseph's baking at home in Madisonville, La., a local Episcopal retirement community will have a St. Joseph's altar. A friend set up one in her jewelry store, offering the public pasta Milanese and the Sicilian frittata called froscia.

As Ms. Scalise Juneau put it this fall, "It's just astounding to me how this tradition has touched people and has grown." She's working on a book about it that could come out this year.

Rizzi, who is 37, isn't aware of any place in this region doing up St. Joseph's as big as they do at his restaurant. But some area Catholic churches mark the day with Mass and sometimes a meal.

"It's a dying thing, I have to say, in the home," he says. "Grandma's gone and Grandpap's gone, and they don't know how to do many of the dishes."

So they crowd into the restaurant. While the St. Joseph's specials end after this weekend, the altar stays up through Easter, maybe longer, he says.

"As long as they keep calling to come see it, we leave it up."

For reservations: 1-800-794-4323; for directions and more information:

St. Joseph Pants (Calzone di San Giuseppe)

So many people request this recipe that Rizzo's Malabar Inn prints it up and gives it away, along with the pastries.

For filling

  • 2 19-ounce cans chickpeas, drained

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 3 tablespoons honey

  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

  • 3 tablespoons light brown sugar

  • 3 tablespoons white granulated sugar

  • Zest of 1 lemon

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For dough

  • 3/4 to 1 cup sugar

  • 3 beaten eggs

  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

  • 1 cup milk

  • 5 cups flour

  • Vegetable oil for frying

To make filling

Grind chick peas in a food processor, 1 can at a time, until smooth. Place puree in a bowl and add vanilla, honey, lemon juice, brown sugar, granulated sugar, lemon zest, and ground cinnamon. Stir well to be sure spices are well blended.

To make dough

In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla and milk. Whisk until well blended. Gradually stir in flour until a soft dough forms. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface, and knead for just a few minutes. Cover and set aside.

Divide dough into 4 equal parts.

Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll out on a floured surface to about 1/8-inch thick. With a 3-inch cookie cutter, or inverted glass, make as many rounds as the dough will permit.

Place 1 teaspoon filling into center of each circle. Fold dough over to form a half moon.

Seal seams of dough with a fork.

With a pastry wheel, go around the edge to remove just a small amount of dough to ensure that edges are sealed. Scraps of dough can be set aside to rest and re-rolled at the end. Continue until all of the pants have been made.

Place a medium saucepan over medium heat. Pour in oil to a depth of about 3 inches. Fry the pants in heated vegetable oil for 1 to 2 minutes, until just browned on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Yields 5 dozen.

-- Rizzi DeFabo, Rizzo's Malabar Inn

Bob Batz Jr.: or 412-263-1930. First Published March 18, 2010 4:00 AM


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