Forget the corned beef and cabbage, break out the zeppole! March 19 is St. Joseph’s Day, time to trade in the green for the red and forget about St. Patrick.
Italian-Americans throughout New England celebrate St. Joseph’s Day by binging on the luscious pastry known as zeppole, available in most Italian bakeries. Rhode Islanders especially dote on the saintly snack. Nearly one in five Rhode Island residents, 18.9 percent, claim Italian ancestry, making it the most Italian state in the country.
But you don’t have to have an Italian ancestor to love zeppole, also known as St. Joseph’s fritters or bigne de San Giuseppe.
Zeppole Come to America
Zeppole (pronounced ZAY-poe-lay) are loosely defined as baked or fried donuts or fritters with fillings such as cream, custard or jelly and topped with sugar or fruit.
According to food writer Nikki Batsford at Quahog.org, the consensus in Rhode Island is that zeppole are baked rings of pâte à choux (the dough used to make éclairs). Then they’re
filled with flavored pastry cream and garnished with powdered sugar and a maraschino cherry.
They came to New England with waves of Italian immigrants starting in the 1880s. Most came to escape grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.
St. Joseph, or San Giuseppe, is the foster father of Jesus and the patron saint of Sicily. The story goes that a severe drought struck Sicily in the Middle Ages. The people promised St. Joseph they’d cook a big feast for him if he brought rain. He did, and the tradition was born.
From Fava to Zeppola
Pope Gregory XV in 1621 declared March 19 the feast of St. Joseph. The original staple of the St. Joseph’s Day meal was the fava bean, which had saved the Sicilians from starvation.
Eventually the fava bean gave way to dessert. Some credit the convent of Santa Patrizia in Naples with making the first zeppola in the 16th century. Religious orders in Italy) or what became Italy after unification supported themselves by selling elaborate pastries.
During the 19th century, a Neapolitan baker named Pasquale Pintauro popularized the treat by selling them from a street cart every March 19. Wearing red also became part of the St. Joseph’s Day tradition.
In Providence, zeppole were long sold by Calise & Sons, a bakery that started on Federal Hill around the turn of the century. By the 1970s, the bakery had to hire a police detail to control the crowds clamoring for zeppole.
Bakeries ramp up production of the sweet pastry in the run-up to St. Joseph’s Day, but you can buy them year round in a couple of Providence shops.
Though associated primarily with Rhode Island, markets and bakeries in Italian-American neighborhoods throughout New England sell zeppole. In Boston, you can get them at Bova’s and Mike’s Pastry, in New Haven at Libby’s and Lucibella’s or Petonito’s in nearby East Haven. Hartford has a couple of old-school bakeries, Modern and Mozzicato Depasquale, where you can buy the sweet treat.
For a zeppole recipe, click here.
Image: Zeppola by By News21 – National – Zeppole, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34876662
This story was updated in 2023.