Seems like ages ago that I wrote about my father’s LOVE for blueberry pie on “B” day. Remember I said he had a special LOVE during his birthday week? Well, it’s “Z” day; time for zeppole! (FYI, zeppole is plural; zeppola is singular. But I don’t know of anyone who ever refers to just one!)
An historical Italian pastry, zeppole began as deep-fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar, filled with custard (lemon, ricotta, or cream), and often topped with a maraschino cherry. Zeppole, although fried, are not the greasy fried-dough balls* ubiquitous at carnivals and street fairs. Inside, they are light and airy, while the outside is crisp. My understanding is, for you cooks out there, the pastry dough is similar to a pate a choux; however, in some locations pizza dough is used. Modern bakeries generally bake, rather than fry, zeppole and also offer various flavored fillings such as chocolate mousse, whipped cream, and Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Zeppole are traditionally consumed to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19th which usually falls during Lent, the 40-day period prior to Easter. During Lent, Catholics and other Christians symbolically duplicate Jesus’ suffering by committing to a Lenten sacrifice. One way is to forego “luxuries” such as desserts or to fast for a chosen time period. Additionally, Catholics historically were required to fast on a Saint’s Feast Day. The Vatican relaxed the rules for St. Joseph’s Day, possibly because of his status as Jesus’ earthly father, so pastry-loving believers could honor St. Joseph and enjoy their zeppole.
Rhode Islanders are known for their love of, and quality of, zeppole. For a small state, it has a relatively large number of people self-identifying as having Italian roots (approx. 20% of the population). A famous Italian enclave is based in Providence with fabulous Italian restaurants and bakeries in the Federal Hill neighborhood. My father, although not Italian, was Providence born and bred. He was never a huge fan of Italian food in general, but he LOVED his zeppole! I think as a child he thought they were his special treats, not realizing they were made for St. Joseph.
*Apparently, that’s what New Yorkers consider to be zeppole. They don’t know what they’re missing!