Zeppole and Saint Joseph's Day

Zeppole and Saint Joseph's Day

What would March 19 be without these Italian pastries?
by Nikki Batsford

Zeppola, LaSalle Bakery, 2015.
A tempting zeppola from LaSalle Bakery, Providence. (March 10, 2015).

Some holidays are best defined by food. Thanksgiving has earned the nickname "Turkey Day." Saint Patrick's Day means a dinner of corned beef and cabbage. And that lesser-known observance of Saint Joseph's Day would hardly be recognizable to most Rhode Islanders if not for the gluttonous consumption of zeppole on March 19.

What are zeppole?
Perceptions of zeppole (pronounced "ZAY-poe-lay") appear to vary based on location and background. Anecdotes and articles describe these pastries as anything from fried dough to cream puffs. In Rhode Island, however, the general consensus seems to be that zeppole are baked rings of pâte à choux—the same dough used to make èclairs—filled with custard-like pastry cream flavored with rum or vanilla. These pastries are typically garnished with powdered sugar and a Maraschino cherry.

Perhaps the only indisputable definition of zeppole comes from the James Beard Foundation website: "Saintly snack. March 19, the day of San Giuseppe, is the day tradition binds Neapolitans to eat zeppole... Not that it takes much encouragement."

Many non-Italians have trouble properly pluralizing the name of the pastries, attempting to get by with just slapping an "s" on the end. But zeppole is the proper plural form of the word, with zeppola being singular. Some sources claim that zeppoli is plural and zeppole is singular, but these sources are few and far between, and most agree with the first set of spellings.

A selection of zeppole, Original Italian Bakery, Johnston, 2017.
Original Italian Bakery, in Johnston offers an impressive array of zeppole, including original boiled cream, Bailey's Irish cream, ricotta, chocolate cream, and raspberry. (March 12, 2017).

Evolution of a Classic Pastry
Chef David Ricci, a baking and pastry instructor at Johnson & Wales University, grew up baking in Rhode Island. Between his former ownership of the Better Bake Shop (closed in 1999 after 54 years in operation) and his current position at LaSalle Bakery, Ricci is well versed in the state's zeppole trends. Despite various innovations, he noted that the conventional baked ring of pâte à choux filled with pastry cream is the biggest seller. He estimated that ninety percent of the zeppole sold at LaSalle are baked, and the previously preferred fried shells are dwindling in popularity.

How To Make Zeppoles from LaSalle Bakery on Vimeo.

That's not to say that these are the only zeppole available in Rhode Island; rather, some novel interpretations of the pastry have developed over time. Ricci credits the Better Bake Shop for beginning that trend.

"We were one of the pioneers when it came to flavors," he said of his bakery's zeppole.

This movement toward flavor evolved when the makers of Galliano liqueur approached Ricci and offered to supply umbrellas, displays, and other promotional materials if he used their product in his pastries. Galliano, an Italian liqueur flavored with herbs, spices, and flowers, was subsequently incorporated into the filling for some of the zeppole.

Today, Ricci explained, zeppole varieties are greatly expanding as bakeries incorporate new ingredients into their recipes. In addition to the customary varieties, LaSalle now produces zeppole stuffed with whipped cream, chocolate mousse, or filling flavored with Baileys Irish cream. Miniature zeppole are also available.

Other regions of the world disagree with the Rhode Island interpretation of this pastry. Ricci said that whenever he discusses the topic with students from New York, they adamantly insist that zeppole are simply fried dough.

Coffee milk zeppola, Borrelli's, Coventry, 2022.
Borrelli's Bakery of Coventry knows how to appeal to local tastes with this sassy coffee milk zeppola. (January 23, 2022).

Producing and Selling Zeppole
According to Ricci, zeppole usually are spring fare in Rhode Island, and almost every bakery takes advantage of the tradition. Although some shops carry them all year, most only produce them several weeks before and after March 19. Nevertheless, locals consume enough of these pastries during that period to make them a local institution.

Victor Calise of Lincoln's famed Calise and Sons Bakery produced many zeppole before becoming a full-time baking and pastry instructor at Johnson & Wales in 1988. He estimated that his own Vic Calise's Bakery, which he ran for twenty-seven years, would prepare roughly twenty-five thousand of the treats every spring. For St. Joseph's Day alone, the staff spent two weeks prior to the holiday generating about twelve to fifteen thousand shells, which were then stored in freezer space rented specially for the season. Calise also approximated that some 120 quarts of pastry cream were made for the zeppole. The most preferred flavoring for this filling was rum.

Producing that much pastry is no easy task, and David Ricci emphasized that everything else in a bakery takes a backseat during Saint Joseph's Day preparations.

"It's a labor-intense product," he explained. While machines have taken over some of the toil of manually piping the batter and filling, zeppole production still requires extra workers.

"Friends would come in to get in the groove and have fun," Ricci recalled of his days producing zeppole in an assembly-line fashion at the Better Bake Shop. The fast turnaround required him to pipe hot pastry cream into the shells as quickly as his "slaving" father could get it off the stove.

Such high production rates were needed to accommodate seasonal demands for zeppole. "It's amazing how they disappear because people come in and they don't just take one," he explained.

For about the last thirteen years he was in business, Calise actually had to hire police to control the traffic generated by zeppole-seeking customers on Saint Joseph's Day.

"For about a week prior to the holiday we would sell about five hundred to one thousand pieces per day," he said. "Then the holiday madness, and after that you couldn't give them away."

Ricotta and orange zest zeppola, Sciallo Brothers, Providence, 2015.
Zeppole with ricotta and orange zest from Sciallo Brothers, Providence. (March 7, 2015).

Zeppole History
In The Catholic Cook Book, William I. Kaufman explained that the ritual of honoring Christ's foster father traces back to the fifteenth century, when Pope Gregory XV instituted a holy day of obligation and Rome dedicated an entire feast to Saint Joseph. The two celebrations that now honor the saint are the main feast on March 19 and the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker on May 1, Kaufman said. The former feast became associated with zeppole.

The Sorrento Info website credits the convent Santa Patrizia in Naples with creating zeppole in the sixteenth century. However, Don Pasquale Pintauro, already renowned for popularizing sfogliatelle, later garnered attention for his advancement of the pastry. During the early nineteenth century, according to WelcomeToItaly.com, Pintauro began frying zeppole in the streets on the morning of March 19; the custom then spread throughout Naples.

Providence Journal staff writer Matt McKinney asserted in his March 1999 article, "A Miraculous Confection," that authentic zeppole should still be fried, such as those found during the Saint Joseph's Day festivities on Providence's Federal Hill.

WelcomeToItaly.com also noted another historic development in the recipe: while older variations of the dessert were made from flour and water and were garnished with cinnamon and sugar, modern incarnations are airier and richer because of the addition of eggs.

Why Rhode Island?
While many areas of the country enjoy zeppole, Rhode Island appears to have a particular association with this pastry. The most plausible reason for this is the large Italian community in the state. According to the 2000 Census, nineteen percent of Rhode Islanders reported Italian heritage, making it the most common ancestry among the population.

Passing the Tradition
Just for kicks, try going into an Italian bakery someday to ask about the origins of the zeppole tradition in Rhode Island. You might be shocked by the answers—or lack thereof—that you receive.

The custom of preparing zeppole for Saint Joseph's Day is so longstanding that it predates anyone working in bakeshops today. Unfortunately, many of the bakers who knew the history of the product have passed away, often without sharing this information with younger generations. As a result, many bakeries do not fully comprehend the roots of the tradition.

Thankfully, the recipes survived, and zeppole continue to be produced across the state every spring. Since neither the customers nor the bakers are losing interest in this delicacy, the ritual could continue indefinitely.

If you do decide to query your local baker on zeppole history, be sure to avoid the Saint Joseph's Day rush. The overworked staff won't be in the mood for a quiz, and you won't want to be sent away without your dessert!

Nikki Batsford holds a B.S. in Baking and Pastry Arts from Johnson & Wales University. She has written food articles for several local publications and received a 2008 New England Press Association Award. An Italian-American Johnston resident, Nikki prefers her zeppole baked with rum-flavored filling.

Zeppole Year 'Round
If you feel a hankerin' for zeppole, but it's nowhere near St. Joseph's Day, try one of the following local bakeries:

Scialo Brothers Bakery
257 Atwells Avenue, Providence
(877) 421-0986

Solitro's Bakery
1594 Cranston Street, Knightsville, Cranston
(401) 942-9840

In addition, most of the bakeries we list for pizza strips also sell zeppole.

Or, if you feel confident in your own baking skills, try your hand at a zeppole recipe.

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