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One night towards the end of July, I accidentally wandered into an Italian street festival somewhere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was immediately reminded of the year I spent in Florence. It was my freshman year of college, the first time I had ever left my small town in the small state of Rhode Island. Most of the time, I could pass for a local: My grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Naples when he was a boy, and I began learning to speak Italian around the same age he was when he moved to America.
In Florence, I often played translator for my friends, argued about prices with taxi drivers, and even won over one of the notoriously grumpy ticket collectors on a city bus when he noticed I have the same name as a beloved Italian actress, known for her unique brand of “erotic comedy” in the 1970s and ‘80s. But as much as I felt at home, there were always instances to remind me that I was still an American girl from Rhode Island. When I took weekend trips to visit my family in Bassano del Grappa and Naples, I couldn’t understand the dialects and slang they used. My cousins teased me for speaking “like a textbook.” I quickly caught a slap on the wrist from my zia when I picked up a piece of pizza to eat with my hands instead of a fork and knife. These gaps between my two identities are filled in by the uniqueness of Italian-American culture.
The summertime church festival in Williamsburg reflects a staple in Italian-American communities in both my childhood home and my current home of New York. The relaxed, festive atmosphere—a maze of neon lights, rickety rides, and cliched carnival games—reminded me of bustling Sundays on Federal Hill in Providence. I stopped for a juicy sausage grinder smothered in smoky sweet peppers, served by a woman with a thick Brooklyn accent and bright blue acrylic nails. She had the same rough, yet somehow comforting, attitude as the waitresses from Mike’s Kitchen—Rhode Island’s divey mecca of family-style Italian food. Everything about the festival felt familiar, and I wasn’t ready to leave.
And then I saw a sign: “Original Pete’s Zeppole and Calzones.” The first thing that came to mind was the decadent zeppole that our local pizzeria served back home in Rhode Island—giant, airy puff pastries filled with sweet, lemony custard, topped with a cherry. Not only were they delicious, but they had a special only-once-a-year allure to them since they were only made in March for the feast day of San Giuseppe. I hadn’t bit into one in so long, so I made a beeline for the stand. But Original Pete was selling something that looked like a tiny clam cake.
I was puzzled, since New York is known for its Italian food scene. After all, the city is home to the best pizza Napoletana I’ve had outside of Naples and authentically made fresh pasta dishes, not to mention a handful of restaurants that serve a great bowl of tripe. So I turned to Google to investigate the story behind these sugar-dusted dough balls. I found that countless pizzerias and bakeries in the city sold this strange version of zeppole—or, as some places called them, “Italian doughnuts.”
Still confused about the apparent misnomer, I went to the self-proclaimed king of zeppole, Valducci’s Pizza and Catering in Staten Island, for more information. On the day I called, the bakery was busy with an order from the New York Giants, serving its zeppole to about 500 people at a friends-and-family party for the team. Mike Valducci, one of the many co-owners of this family run business, explained their technique to me: They make their cake-like fried zeppole with yeast, water, and flour that becomes so airy “you forget it was fried,” he said.
New York’s take on zeppole are standard treats at fairs and boardwalks, enjoyed among other staples like corn dogs and fried Oreos. But in Italy, zeppole are meant for special occasions. They are usually given as a gift on Father’s Day, which is celebrated on March 19, the feast day of San Giuseppe. The dough, which is delicately coiled into a doughnut-like shape, is similar to the French pâte à choux. As the raw dough is gently fried, the pastry is able to puff up to its full potential: light and fresh on the inside with a slight crisp on the outside. Then, it is filled with crema, a thick, indulgent lemon custard, topped with a candied cherry. The treat is thought to have been invented at the convent of Saint Patrizia in Naples. Eventually, the recipe ended up in the hands of Pasquale Pintauro, a baker who sold zeppole in the street every March. (The pasticceria he eventually opened still serves zeppole today in the city’s Via Toledo.)
In Canada, food blogger Nicoletta Nardelli also laments the lack of a proper Father’s Day pastry. After she moved to Edmonton from her native Roma, she noticed that these sugar-encrusted fried dough balls were being passed off as zeppole. In an email interview, she explained her own confusion at this misnomer. Roma has its own fried dough balls, called castagnole, that are made for Carnevale celebrations later in the spring season. These small pastries are named after hazelnuts, since they have a similar shape, size and color. The “correct” way to make castagnole is a touchy subject, but they can be found plain, covered in icing sugar, or filled with Nutella, chocolate, chantilly cream, and even sweetened ricotta cheese.
Whether zeppole in New York were inspired by castagnole or were simply the invention of a Brooklyn grandmother with a family bakery is up for debate, but they are definitely not the real deal. For authenticity, brace yourself for an Amtrak trip and venture to New England.
Providence, Rhode Island, is a haven for cranky old Italians who sit around in cafes or bakeries and glorify the motherland they left behind. And no one there would let New Yorkers get away with their sad excuse for zeppole. Just like the pasticcerie in Naples and Rome, bakeries here wait until March to fill their display cases with rows of cream-covered zeppole, freshly fried or baked. Your first stop should be The Scialo Bros on Atwells Avenue, the center of the capital’s Italian district. Hop in the car and head from Atwells Avenue to Smith Street, about a 15 minute drive, where you’ll find La Salle Bakery—but note that they only sell their zeppoles in March, starting around the week before St. Joseph’s Day (the 19th). There, you can experiment with flavor and try zeppole with a twist, like chocolate mousse or Bailey’s Irish Cream fillings. If you still have room for one more, adventure 40 minutes south to coastal Narragansett and stop at Colvitto’s, which sells their zeppole year-round.
If you can’t get to Rhode Island in March, don’t worry. You can still have authentic zeppole without leaving New York—or anywhere else you are, as these don’t require difficult-to-obtain ingredients. Try out the recipe below, translated and adapted from the Italian YouTube channel Giallo Zafferano, and enjoy Father’s Day zeppole whenever you want.
- 1 cup water
- 5 tablespoons butter, sliced into 1-inch pieces
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 medium-sized eggs
- a pinch of salt
- grated zest of 1 lemon
- peanut oil for frying
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3 egg yolks
- grated zest of 1/2 lemon
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Cherries, for topping
- Powdered sugar for garnish
Tell us about your zeppole experiences in the comments!