With St. Joseph’s Day around the corner on March 19, one of the most popular pastries will be found in bakeries and homes throughout the country. The zeppola is an Italian pastry consisting of a deep-fried dough ball of varying size but typically about four inches (10 centimeters) in diameter. This doughnut, or fritter, is usually topped with powdered sugar and may be filled with custard, jelly, cannoli-style pastry cream or a butter-and-honey mixture. The consistency ranges from light and puffy to bread or pasta-like.
For Cranston resident Alessandro Pazzi Amalfitano, 30, of Knightsville, it is much more than a pastry, however. It is a family tradition passed down from generations, as he recalls zeppole made by his grandmother, (Nonna) Filomena Zuena Amalfitano, from Itri, Italy. Since her passing in 2011, he now makes her special recipe every year in order to keep the tradition alive.
The zeppola custom was popularized in the early 19th century by Neapolitan baker Pasquale Pintauro for the feast of San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph’s Day.
According to legend, during the Middle Ages severe drought and famine plagued Sicily. Sicilians prayed passionately to St. Joseph for rain. They promised that if he sent rain, they would prepare a large feast in his honor. While they waited, Sicilians survived on fava beans, which saved them from starvation.
St. Joseph heard their prayers and sent rain. The Sicilians never forgot their promise to him for answering their desperate prayers, and true to their word, they prepared a banquet and placed huge tables for the poor of the town to enjoy. The tradition continues today with a day of generosity and kindness.
“Every March 19, Italians open their hearts and pantries. First, three-tiered altars are erected to honor the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph, surrounded by flowers and candles, decorates the top tier. On the next two tiers are foods like pasta, olive oil, fava beans and specially prepared breads and cakes. Also, no meat is allowed on the table, because the feast day falls during Lent,” said Amalfitano.
The significance of the zeppole to St. Joseph’s Day is what the turkey is to Thanksgiving, and corned beef and cabbage are to Saint Patrick’s Day.
“I still make them the way she did every year,” said Amalfitano. “We need to keep all our traditions alive to keep the memories of our ancestors alive.”
Below is the traditional secret recipe from Amalfitano, just the way his “Nonna” made them throughout his childhood:
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 lb. ricotta cheese
Mix eggs and ricotta until incorporated. Then add the sifted flour and baking powder and salt. Will become very loose dough. Bring a pot of vegetable oil to a frying temperature; at least 6 inches of oil in the pot. Use a teaspoon and scoop a spoonful of dough and carefully drop these into the oil. Fry to golden brown. They usually float to the top when done. Place Zeppole on paper towel to absorb oil.
When cooled, in a small saucepan, warm honey so it becomes thin. Drizzle over the fried zeppole. Then sprinkle colored candies over the top and enjoy.
Amalfitano is already planning his zeppole-making on the weekend before St. Joseph’s Day, as he will be reminded of his Nonna and Italian tradition.