Annadale resident Joseph Laino takes the first bite at the unofficial 2020 pastry taste-off. Courtesy Joseph Laino

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Nothing keeps Joe Laino away from Italian pastries on St. Joseph’s Day, not even COVID-19.

Observing social distancing edicts in the wake of the coranavirus pandemic, the Annadale resident and his wife, Tricia, were forced to cancel their annual St. Joseph Italian Pastry Taste-Off on Thursday, March 19, instead settling for an intimate party of two.

The cancelled event, dubbed “The Quest for the Best Italian Pastry,” is held annually on March 19, and celebrates the Feast of St. Joseph.

Laino hosts the annual event with his brother, Steve Laino, and his wife, Brenda, of Westerleigh.

After a scrumptious dinner, last year held at Jimmy Max, Westerleigh, the Lainos’ family and friends sample sfinges and zeppoles from different bakeries on Staten Island.

In 2019, there were pastries from 34 bakeries.

This year, because of the pesky pandemic, there were only seven bakeries represented: Annadale Bakery, Alfonso’s, Buono Bakery, Belli Baci, La Dolce, Renato’s and Sal’s Bakery.

Scroll down for photos of the luscious Italian pastries and insight to the Joseph Laino’s annual tradition.

And of course, the winner of the unofficial “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry.”

The 2020 pastries for “Quest for the Best.” Courtesy Joseph Laino

How “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” tradition started

Joseph Laino grew up in a close knit Italian-American Catholic family and is proud to be named after St. Joseph.

Of the many traditions surrounding the saint’s feast day, but Laino’s childhood favorite was always the St. Joseph’s pastry (Zeppole di San Giuseppe).

“Extended family would come and visit and we would always celebrate all the Joes in the family,” said Laino, a NYS licensed real estate salesperson for Cangiano Estates.

“I would be in heaven when family would come and bring boxes from different bakeries. The the older family member loved to feed me and see ‘little Joe’ eat, and trust me I didn’t disappoint!”

Sadly, over the years, Laino’s grandparents, aunts and uncles passed on, but Laino felt it important to keep the tradition alive. And the name “Quest for the Best” was borne out of water-cooler debates at which bakery had the best pastries.

In 2012, March 19 took an even greater importance in Laino’s life, when his brother and sister-in-law, Steve and Brenda Laino, received a long-awaited call: The home finder they were working with had an infant from foster care who needed placement and was placed in their care the same day.

“Of course I came over immediately,” said Joe Laino, “And of course I brought over Italian pastries.”  Today, that adopted baby is Arielle Laino, 8. Her biological sister, Alexis Laino, 6, rounds out the family.  Joe is Arielle’s godfather.

“Since that phone call, St. Joseph’s Day has taken on a grander meaning,” said Laino. “Since 2012, it’s also ‘Arrival Day.'”

Tricia Laino and her husband, Joseph Laino, of Annadale. Courtesy Joseph Laino

Social media support

The last few years, the “Quest for the Best” has been held at Jimmy Max, Westerleigh. “Jimmy McBratney has graciously let us hold it at his restaurant,” said Laino.

“What has made doing this even more enjoyable was while posting photos on social each year, I couldn’t get over the amount of people genuinely interested and/or excited to see what the next year would bring.”

Over the years, friends and strangers have reached out to Laino to make bakery suggestions.

“They would tell me places they liked or tell me of their tradition of that day,” Laino added. “And when Dr. Gracelyn Santos started to covering the event for Staten Island Advance/SILive, the responses were overwhelming.”

Courtesy Joseph Laino

COVID-19 derails 2020 “Quest for the Best”

While planning this year’s “Quest for the Best” event, Laino had one eye glued to the news and the developing coronavirus pandemic.

“I was praying for the people of Wuhan affected by COVID-19, but continued on with preparations, never imagining that in a matter of a few months the virus would not only find its way here but has become a world-wide pandemic,” Laino.

“A little less than two weeks ago I reached out to family and said I wasn’t sure if we should go through with this, thinking it might not be appropriate while so many were suffering.”

Over the next few days thereafter, it became clear the party had to be cancelled.

“It is absolutely frightening how the COVID-19 has brought us to our knees,” Laino said, adding that as a realtor, he is no longer showing properties.

“The stock market is tanking, children can’t go to school, adults cannot go to work and people are dying here and around the world at such a rapid rate,” he said. “So many are are in complete panic mode.”

Laino hopes Staten Islanders can come together and help each other, something he does on his social media by posting funny jokes.

“Even if it’s as simple as giving people a moment of levity, it can be gratifying knowing you made someone smile.”

Courtesy Joseph Laino

The “Quest” must go on

Despite strictly observing social distancing, Laino decided to go to seven different bakeries, against the wishes of his wife, Tricia, and hold a mini- “Quest for the Best Italian Patry” event.

The guest list? Just Joe and Tricia.

“The past few weeks, so many people have been telling me how excited they were that the ‘Big Day’ was coming,” said Laino.

“I wanted to show in my own crazy way that life doesn’t have to completely stop and we’re stricken by fear.

Laino said he also wanted to support the bakeries, the local small businesses who rely on our support to survive.

“In my own little way I just want to believe that by doing this and posting on social media, people will be reminded to be cautious and safe, but also that life will go on.

“There is a light at the end of this dark tunnel.”

Courtesy Joseph Laino

And the winner of the 2020 “Quest for the Best” is…

“All were very good but if had to break it down, I’d say Buono, LaDolce & Renato’s were the top three,” said Laino, adding this is not a slight to other bakeries.

“Competition was strong. I give props to Belli Baci for most interesting new flavor with a chocolate cannoli cream with seven layer/rainbow cookie in the middle. OMG!” he added.

2019 memories: Members of the Laino family — Brenda, Joseph, Arielle, Steve, Jennie, and Tricia — are pictured at the 2019 St. Joseph’s “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” party at Jimmy Max, Westerleigh. (Dr. Gracelyn Santos/Staten Island Advance)

Throwback to 2019 “Quest for the Best”

Thirty-one bakeries were represented in the 2019 St. Joseph’s Taste-Off, hosted by Joe and Tricia Laino of Annadale and Brenda and Steve Laino.

The 34 bakeries included for consideration in last year’s pastry taste-off by the Laino family included:

From Staten Island: Alfonso’s in Westereigh, LaBella’s of Tottenville, Belli Baci, Top Tomato, Shop Rite, LaDolce Bakery, Annadale Bakery, Aunt Butchies in Tottenville, Montabano’s of Rossville, Amici’s Bakery, Holterman’s, Mark’s Bake Shoppe, Novelli’s, Piece of Cake, Pasticceria Bruno, Royal Crown Bakery, Buono Bakery, Little Italy Gourmet, Filoncino’s, Frank & Sal’s, Pastosa’s of Richmond Rd., Rispoli’s Bakery, Moretti’s Bakery, Renato’s Bakery, Enzo & Tino’s Bake Shop & Sweet Life Bake Shop.

From Brooklyn: Grisman’s Bakery on 86th St., Villabate Alba 18th Ave., Rimini Pastry Shop on Bay Pkwy, Reliable Bakery 18th Ave., Leske’s on 5th Ave., Paneantico Bakery & Cafe on 3rd; and finally Jean Danet on 5th Ave.

From New Jersey: La Bonbonniere of Woodbridge and Del Ponte’s of Bradley Beach.

Courtesy Joe Laino

Arielle and Alexis Laino are all smiles after tasting some Italian pastries at last year’s 2019 “Quest for the Best.”

Courtesy Joseph Laino

A sampling of the Italian pastries at the 2020 “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” event, one bakery of seven this year, compared to last year’s pastries from seven bakeries.

Courtesy Joseph Laino

A sampling of the Italian pastries at the 2020 “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” event, one bakery of seven this year, compared to last year’s pastries from seven bakeries.

Courtesy Joseph Laino

A sampling of the Italian pastries at the 2020 “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” event, one bakery of seven this year, compared to last year’s pastries from seven bakeries.

Courtesy Joseph Laino

A sampling of the Italian pastries at the 2020 “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” event, one bakery of seven this year, compared to last year’s pastries from seven bakeries.

Courtesy Joseph Laino

A sampling of the Italian pastries at the 2020 “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” event, one bakery of seven this year, compared to last year’s pastries from seven bakeries.

Courtesy Joseph Laino

A sampling of the Italian pastries at the 2020 “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” event, one bakery of seven this year, compared to last year’s pastries from seven bakeries.

Courtesy Joseph Laino

A sampling of the Italian pastries at the 2020 “Quest for the Best Italian Pastry” event, one bakery of seven this year, compared to last year’s pastries from seven bakeries.

Source: ‘Quest for the Best Italian Pastry’ cancelled because of COVID-19, but a winner still selected