Italian bakeries crank out millions of zeppole every Saint Joseph’s Day. Enjoying this delicious pastry is a tradition not only in Italy, but all over the world.
Saint Joseph’s Day
March 19th is Saint Joseph’s Day, aka the Feast of Saint Joseph. It’s also recognized as Father’s Day in many countries, including Italy.
All the best holidays in Italy are closely associated with a specific food.
On February 5th, the people of Catania celebrate Saint Agatha Day by eating little cakes called cassatelle di Sant’Agata. All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1st, means Italians will be eating Pane dei Santi, or All Saints’ Bread. And New Year’s wouldn’t be complete without lentils, a symbol of good fortune for the upcoming year.
Of all the holiday foods, the zeppole is my favorite. Every St. Josepsh’s Day, bakeries in Italy crank out millions of the little pastries.
Traditionally, zeppole are fried dough filled with custard or ricotta, much like a cannolo. They are then topped with powdered sugar, more custard or ricotta, and a cherry.
There are lots of variations on the traditional zeppole.
Rather than the 4 inch or so diameter zeppole, smaller versions are about the size of a donut hole. These are usually not filled.
In some places, including Sicily and Malta, there are savory zepploe. These often are filled with anchovy.
Zeppole can also be filled with chocolate.
Zeppole Origin Story
The first mention of something resembling a zeppole comes from an Egyptian traveler in Tunisia around 1460. He wrote of something called mujabbana. The description of a fried dough filled with cheese and sprinkled with sugar is similar to zeppole.
And, it wouldn’t be a surprise that this treat came from northern Africa since the migration of food to Italy, Spain, and Malta from Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt was common.
In the early 1800’s a baker from Naples, Pasquale Pintauro, popularized the custom of eating zeppole on Saint Joseph’s Day. However, Pasquale’s sweet treat probably more closely resembled the sfogliatella, which has a much crispier crust.
Other Saint Joseph’s Day Traditions
The Saint Joseph’s Day celebrations are especially festive in Sicily. Here, Saint Joseph is credited with saving Sicily from starvation in the Middle Ages. To mark the occasion, many Sicilians eat fava beans which are in season in mid-March.
On the island of Malta, there are lots of fireworks and processions featuring Jum San Ġużepp.
In Spain, Saint Joseph’s Day is celebrated as Father’s Day. Children cook breakfast for their fathers. This meal is usually vegetarian because the holiday normally falls during Lent.
Several U.S. cities, especially New York City, Chicago, and Providence, RI, celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day. But, New Orleans may have may have the biggest celebration of all. Here, something called Saint Joseph altars are built. Tables are set up in public and private spaces and filled with food to honor Joseph. The next day, the Joseph altars are taken down and the food is given to charity.
The Best Zeppole
If you won’t be in Italy for St. Joseph’s Day, don’t fret. There’s plenty of places to satisfy your zeppole craving in the U.S. Here’s a few of the best.
Rhode Island has one of the largest Italian-American populations per capita in the U.S. And, there’s tons of great Italian bakeries in the Biggest Little State in the Union.
Scialo Bros. Bakery (reopened in 2021) on Federal Hill serves some of the best zeppole I’ve ever tasted. La Salle Bakery in Providence also makes a terrific zeppole.
New York City if famous for its Italian heritage. Veniero’s Italian bakery has been in business since 1894, so you know they’re doing it right. Go to Veniero’s for a great zeppole on St. Joseph’s Day.
Northern New Jersey also lays claim to some very fine Italian bakeries. Palazzone 1960 is one of the best to satisfy your zeppole craving.
When Italians first came to the U.S. they landed in New Orleans. You might be surprised to learn that there is a lively Italian-American culture in Crescent City. But, zeppole aren’t readily available because of the prominence of it’s sister pastry the beignet. However, Restaurant Avo does have zeppole on the menu.