"We have zero minus two minutes — so start your countdown," says the commentator at what might be the hottest ticket in town on this particular Friday night.

Father Joe Gillespie is warming up the crowd. In just a few minutes, he'll begin hawking raffle tickets and vocalizing a play by play of St. Albert the Great's storied Friday night fish fry.

The dinner, which runs for the six Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, has become a Lenten staple renowned far beyond Minneapolis' borders. Started in 1999, St. Albert's fish fry in south Minneapolis has grown from a couple hundred diners to thousands. In just one three-hour stretch, the all-volunteer kitchen staff might feed 1,200 guests. Add to that raffles, bingo and live music — plus Father Joe's incessant yet spirited commentary — and the event has become a quintessential rite of spring for locals.

"It's kind of like a three-ring circus," said Brian Arvold, one of the volunteer organizers who runs the prep kitchen.

While Friday night fish dinners occur nationwide, especially in Catholic communities during Lent, the Upper Midwest seems to have a special affinity for them, said local restaurateur Kim Bartmann.

"It has a kind of spring-ish celebratory feeling where everyone's getting together," said Bartmann, whose Red Stag Supperclub in northeast Minneapolis fries up cod and walleye on Fridays year-round, as they do in Bartmann's home state of Wisconsin. "It was the whole reason I opened the Red Stag — nostalgia about fish fries and supper clubs."

Although fish fries have taken on new life, their origin is certainly religious. During Lent, observers traditionally abstained from meat on Fridays "as a penitential practice," Father Joe said. "And it was good for the fish industry."

Lent "is a time of recognizing something different about your normal spirituality," Father Joe explained. "In a way, it's a kind of irony that Lent can be so much fun."

Ask Minnesotans for a favorite Friday fish dinner and you'll get recommendations for Northeast bars, a Knights of Columbus and several churches that each purport to have their own secret recipes. But one venue comes up again and again: St. Albert the Great.

"It's a local legend," said Nick Furlong, who found the dinner via Google. His own parish doesn't offer a weekly dinner during Lent, so he and his wife, Beth, wanted to attend one at another church. This one topped the search results.

"The energy is phenomenal," Beth Furlong said.

Much of the event's success, organizers say, has to do with Father Joe, whose bubbling personality is as integral to this event as the deep fryer.

Each installment of the fish fry requires the manpower of 130 volunteers, donations from supermarkets and bakeries, and fish — lots of fish. In one night, about 450 pounds of defrosted, trimmed, baked or fried tilapia will be consumed by more than a thousand guests.

"Most restaurants," Arvold said, "would die for even 600 people in a night."

The fish dinner at St. Albert the Great is loud, lively, no-holds barred fun — like a farcical play set in a church basement. But it starts with a slow burn: napkin-rolling at 9 a.m. Then, in the afternoon, the feeding frenzy begins. We were there every step of the way, so join us as we go inside this "three-ring circus."

Noon: Kitchen coordinator Brian Arvold leaves his chiropractic business early and picks up 50 dozen donated rolls from Grandma's Bakery in White Bear Lake and 50 baguettes from New French Bakery in Minneapolis — enough bread for at least a thousand people to get a nub, maybe two. At the block-long brick church, he unloads the bags, piling the bread into mountains at one end of the social hall.

Above every table, helium-filled sea creatures transform the subterranean venue into an aquarium. A parishioner who owns a balloon store donates the decorations.

1 p.m.: The basement mustiness is overtaken by a light seafood perfume as volunteers gather in the metallic kitchen to work on the tilapia. One person slices open a shrink-wrapped plastic bag, while the others start trimming the fish into two parts — the thicker piece bakes more evenly, and the thin one fries up perfectly. In the refrigerator, huge white buckets hold 120 pounds of homemade coleslaw, while a separate freezer is devoted purely to potato patties.

2 p.m.: Tartar sauce taste test. Although the kitchen staff has a favorite, the fish distributor wants them to try some new brands. So Arvold lays out three bowls and spoons. Next to them, a tray with a few cold pieces of fried fish are ready to be sauced. The sampling was like a "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" story: the first was too vinegary, the second was too pickle-y, the third — a sweet, mayonnaise-like mixture dotted with coral specks of carrot — was just right. "It's creamy and has a zing to it," Arvold said. "That's what we've served since we started, and I don't think we can change."

2:30 p.m.: Arvold dips doughnuts into chocolate, vanilla, orange and maple frostings. Then, he rolls trays of the church-made sweets to the back of the social hall, where Paula Lindgren, leader of the "sugar babies," stores the donated desserts for the night. Two looming shelving units are filled with brownies, cupcakes and truffles that sugar the basement air. Signs inform guests that they are allowed only two desserts each.

"It gets pretty intense," Lindgren said.

3 p.m.: Spring starts early for Frank Bielinski, master of the recipes. While his fellow snowbirds stay in Scottsdale, Ariz., till early June, he heads home to Minneapolis the day before Ash Wednesday and stays until the day after Easter. After all, he's one of the founders of the fish dinner, and even after 16 years, it's a can't-miss event for him.

"It's the food," he said. The variety of dishes and the recipes, which the avid home cook developed over the years. The seasoning in the fish batter, which is salty with a little kick, comes from Louisiana, and "it has that French Quarter feel," Bielinski said. "I don't know of anybody else that has as tasty of a fish fry."

3:30 p.m.: Time to dip. Four women submerge dozens of filets into big metal bowls filled with batter, then fish them out and place them on trays of breadcrumbs. While most dig out the fish with one gloved hand, Roberta Erickson, 79, uses both. "No one is faster than Roberta at dipping fish — no one," said Sharon Schwarz, another volunteer.

Erickson, whose gray tufts pop out from under a green St. Albert's ball cap, has been volunteering here since Day 1. "This is my second home," she said.

4 p.m.: A line has formed in front of the not-yet-stocked buffet. Start time used to be 5 p.m., but around 50 senior citizens would line up so early each week that organizers decided to move it up to 4:30, Arvold said.

4:15 p.m.: It's fry time. Mike Tangedal has the task of deep-frying the battered filets for three hours straight. The pieces go in a goopy mess and come out golden and crunchy three minutes later. Tangedal, a computer programmer who once studied fisheries biology at Kansas State University ("I know more about this fish than anybody"), has an earbud in one ear, but no music is playing.

"This takes full concentration," he said.

4:30 p.m.: Grace. Father Joe leads the long line of soon-to-be diners through a prayer. "Good God," he says finally, "let's eat."

Then, the commentary begins.

"All right," Father Joe says, "the line has been breached. The hungry people are going through the first servings of fish, potatoes, and it looks like spaghetti as well."

Ben Wilkie is one of the first to fill his plate. The parishioner is a bingo caller tonight, and he'll have to head to the gymnasium soon to get ready for the post-dinner games. "It is the fish dinner," he said.

5 p.m.: Donning white gloves, and a jeans-and-suede three-piece suit, Mike Levey is ferrying people down to the social hall via the handicap-accessible elevator. He's been volunteering here for years, at the behest of a longtime friend who is a parishioner. It's not the least bit unusual to him that he donates his time to a Catholic church when he is Jewish. "When I see a good cause, people are all the same to me," he said.

6:30 p.m.: The now oil-scented chapel-turned-waiting-room — being entertained by seven young fiddlers — is still full, the line for the buffet is continuous, and the kitchen is in panic mode. All the prepped trays full of fish have been fried and consumed, and the kitchen staff must slice open the plastic packaging on another 30 pounds of fish, then trim, dip and fry it up to meet demand for the next hour. "We're in what we call crunch time," Tangedal said.

Meanwhile, Father Joe is still going strong on the mic. Like a car salesman, he's always ready with a zinger or a pitch.

He announces guests as they enter: "The boys from the Basilica are arriving now."

He critiques the menu: "It's looking very good tonight."

And, on this erstwhile day of penance that under his watch has transformed into a raucous celebration, he offers a word of advice. Call it spiritual guidance seasoned with the unique flavor of St. Albert the Great.

"Life is uncertain," he says, "so eat dessert first."

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853