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NOLA Italians Prepare for the Annual St. Joseph’s Day Celebration: Meet Peter Gilberti (Exclusive Interview: Part II)

As part of the celebrations of Saint Joseph’s Day in New Orleans, the St. Joseph Society hosts an annual parade through “Little Palermo” in the French Quarter. The afternoon before the parade, the Society hosts a pasta dinner that is open to the public. In 2023, the pasta dinner will be held on Friday, March 24th and the parade and gala on Saturday, March 25th. 

America Domani spoke to Peter Gilberti, the club president of the Italian American St. Joseph Society of New Orleans, about how the organization celebrates. The following interview has been divided in two parts and edited for length and clarity.

(Photo Credit: St. Joseph's Society via Facebook)

America Domani: In addition to the parade and gala, what other events take place?

Peter Gilberti: We will have the "pasta party" as we refer to it. This is to kick off our weekend on Friday. We host this luncheon that is free and open to the public, for anybody and everybody. The parade gala is a membership organization. You have to be a full-fledged, card-carrying member to attend the gala, and all the girls and their families pay to do that. But the pasta event is open to the public. We have a ballroom where we have this bowl constructed by Studio 3— they make a lot of the Mardi Gras decorative pieces that go on floats or for conventions—they constructed a bowl that is eight feet by eight feet, that is big enough to hold the 500 pounds of pasta. 

AD: What kind of pasta is served? 

PG: We usually make bucatini donated by De Cecco Pasta. Being a 501c3, we seek donations. 

Part of what we do is offer educational scholarships. The four recipients that the committee selects, I will award them a thousand-dollar scholarship before we get to the pasta. We have a big giant check made payable to them and each one of our scholarships are in someone's name. I present those formally.

Then I get up on stage with Studio 3’s creations -- they call them the Walking Heads. These are people wearing a huge head made of paper-mache. And also on stage is whoever is selected as our grand marshal -- this year it's Lena Prima. And last year we had some nuns who came to visit, and we got them on stage.

Finally, Chef David Grecco comes on stage. David owns Mike’s Deli on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. He was introduced to us around 2005. Before him, the Hilton staff prepared the pasta and two big old meatballs that probably weighed twenty pounds a piece. When I became the president, I said, guys, I know I've been around a long time but it is Lent. 

David does the pasta with sardines, pasta con le sarde. It has sardines in addition to anchovies. So David's up on the stage. He's in the kitchen from 4:30 in the morning until noon and he's cooking all that pasta. He'll have some guys with him -- his friends from New York -- and the hotel staff. They're diligently putting this together. 

We get the band there going with Che La Luna. I'll bark out, "Bring forth the pasta!" and everyone's clapping, and the doors swing open from the kitchen off the ballroom, and the culinary staff of the Hilton come out with bread pans stacked with the bucatini pasta covered in the sauce -- the gravy, whatever you want to call it. There's always an argument about that.

(Photo Credit: St. Joseph's Society via Facebook)

AD: Is it called gravy or sauce?

PG: My father would say gravy. And Like I said, he's northern and southern Italian. My mom would say sugo, and she's Sicilian. She referred to it as sugo which means sauce. I use both. 

These people come out in unison, with trays in one hand up over their right shoulder, and the music is going, and the people are clapping, and we get a path for them to use. They enter one side of the stage, give the tray to David, David flings it into the huge bowl, and we just continue this process. 

I'm barking out, "more pasta, more pasta!" 

It’s a joyous occasion. When we're done with that, the captain of the staff running the ballroom will give me the signal, no more. the band will stop and they'll do a drum roll, and I'll say, "bring forth the gravy!" and they go back into the same process. 

They come out with these big silver bowls filled with sauce. And they come up on stage in the same process and give it to David, and he pours it on top of the pasta. But he's artful and graceful with it. 

The media and television stations all come. One year, this guy had the camera on his shoulder standing on ground level. The stage is two and a half feet, and the gravy just does a swim across the pasta and just cloaks this guy. He put his camera down and the other guys started filming him. He laughed. What could he do? 

We go through the process of doing that. Once all the gravy is out, and then David has lined up behind him pine nuts, golden raisins, and parsley. Pine nuts represent the pignoletti that would go on a formal St. Joseph Altar because legend has it that Christ played with pine cones to amuse himself, as a toy. 

So, the pine nuts go on. Then the golden raisins. I've never seen that to have any type of meaning. Then David throws some Italian parsley, and then the last thing is the muddica, which is the breadcrumbs. 

Cathy, our first queen of the club in 1970, she makes the muddica every year. She uses sugar, Italian breadcrumbs, olive oil, and pecorino Romano cheese. She cooks it in olive oil in a very high heat in a skillet. You have to stay with it. You can't put it on and walk away because it will burn. You want it to get toasted. She makes like fourteen, one-gallon bags. We give that to the culinary staff. That's the last thing David throws on. The muddica represents the sawdust of Saint Joseph -- when you're a carpenter you're going to have sawdust. 

The anchovies and the sardines in the sauce represent the tears that Christ shed. 

AD: One of the biggest parts of the celebration are the altars of St. Joseph. Can you talk about that tradition and presentation of special food?

PG: The altars started in the home, to pay homage to the famine. They were very intricate. It seems over the last 40 years, it has slowly moved from people holding them in their houses to catholic schools doing it. My church parish, it happens to be where I went to grade school, they have a formal committee. And whoever wants to be part of it. They get together on Saturdays baking cookies. And they have a big altar they put in the gymnasium. So that's where it's headed now. It's open to the public. You can make a donation. Those occur on or as close to St. Joseph Day as possible. Since this year, St. Joseph Day is on a Sunday, a lot of that will be happening on the 18th, the Saturday. It's just that one day. It's an informal type thing. They don't serve all the food on the altar, that's just to observe.

Ian MacAllen

Ian MacAllen is America Domani's Senior Correspondent and the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.


Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.