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The History of Zeppole di San Giuseppe

By on Tuesday, March 12th, 2024 at 3:40 pm | 1,591 views

The zeppole di San Giuseppe are filled with custard or ricotta cream

The zeppole di San Giuseppe are filled with custard or ricotta cream


The Feast of San Giuseppe is celebrated every year on March 19, and is also known as Festa del Papá, father’s day in Italy. The feast day celebrates Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary. But it also means one thing for Italian American bakeries: zeppole di San Giuseppe.

When most people think of zeppole, the image of a fried ball of dough comes to mind, usually sold at street festivals by the dozen and covered in powdered sugar. The St. Joseph’s Day zeppole is a different sweet pastry entirely.

The pastry originates in Naples where there has been a long history of frying foods. Even pizza is fried in this city. Back in the 18th century, the term zeppole referred to inexpensive fritters made from yeasted dough, but not necessarily the sweet balls eaten today. Most zeppole were actually savory back then, filled with fish, meat, and vegetables like eggplant. There were sweet versions too covered in honey and candies, more commonly known as struffoli and served at holidays like Christmas and Easter.

But all that changed at the end of the 18th century, thanks to an innkeeper, Pasquale Pintauro. The hospitality specialist operated a variety of establishments around Naples, but eventually Pintauro became known as a famous pastry chef. His original shop, Pasticceria Pintauro, has become a tourist destination.

Pintauro today is best known as the chef who popularized sfogliatella, the clam-shell shaped pastry with a crunchy exterior filled with ricotta and almonds. Sfogliatella is thought to have been invented by a nun in a cloistered nunnery in the 17th century, with the recipe passed among masters of the pastry trade. But Pintauro made the iconic pastry popular among the general public in his renowned shop. However, he eventually gave up the restaurant to focus on restaurants rather than the pastry shop.

zeppole di San Giuseppe topped with cherries and candied fruit

Cherries and candied fruit are the traditional decoration


Pintauro also revolutionized the zeppole, and what he created would eventually become synonymous with St. Joseph’s Day. What Pintauro created was a pastry dough that was piped into hot oil, fried, stuffed with cream, and topped with an amarena cherry. The light, crispy pastry is essentially a cream puff.

Zeppole di San Giuseppe are not the only dish Italians eat during the feast of St. Joseph. A Sicilian pastry eaten in honor of the saint is the sfince di San Giuseppe. These can sometimes be found in Italian American bakeries alongside the zeppole. Like the zeppole, they are filled with cannoli cream and decorated with nuts and fruit, but the dough is softer.

In the northern provinces, particularly around Lombardy, a choux pastry known as tortelli di San Giuseppe are fried and covered in sugar. These look similar to the type of zeppole sold at street fairs, but the pastry dough is lighter. In Rome, St. Joseph day is celebrated with a fried bignè filled with cream. Southern Italians also make a Ravioli di San Giuseppe, a sweet pastry made with pasta dough and filled with chocolate and chickpeas. These are fried and covered in sugar.

So why is the feast celebrated with so many fried pastries? Joseph is known as a carpenter, but he also worked as a pastry chef. The well-known Catholic mythology tells the story of Joseph and Mary making a journey to Bethlehem in order to register for the Roman census. There, Mary gave birth to her now famous son, Jesus. However, after the initial fanfare, the family still had to return home, and now with an extra mouth to feed. Joseph was unable to work as a carpenter while away from home. He ended up as a frittellaro, a fried pastry chef. The direct translation from Italian is “pancake maker.” To honor his second career as a cook, Italians celebrate Joseph by eating fried foods.

Zeppole di San Giuseppe are fried in honor of Joseph’s time working as a frittellaro but today baked versions of the pastry can also be found. The filling is usually either a cannoli-style cream or a custard similar to Crème Pâtissière. Unlike most other pastries, Italian bakeries only make the Zeppole di San Giuseppe seasonally. Generally they can be found beginning in early March and sometimes as late as Easter.

Custard fills the zeppole and topped with a sour cherry

A sour armena cherry tops the custard-filled zeppole


The zeppole are popular in cities like New York and New Orleans with a high percentage of people of Sicilian ancestry. Sicilians in particular honor St. Joseph because he is said to have ended a drought in the middle ages.

The zeppole pictured here are from Fortunato Brothers, located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There, pastries are available in the days leading up to St. Joseph’s Day, and on March 19th, customers line up out the door to buy the zeppole.

Cross section of a custard-filled zeppole

The cross section of a custard-filled zeppole reveals the light dough filled with layers of pastry


In New Orleans, the zeppole can be found at places like Angelo Brocato Italian Ice Cream Parlor. The namesake Angelo supposedly was apprenticed to an ice cream maker at age 12. The shop first opened more than a century ago on Ursulines Avenue, but since moved about three miles away. The shop sells the zeppole and sfince, and also supplies cookies to the annual St. Joseph’s Society dinner.

The St. Joseph’s Day zeppole can generally be found anywhere with a sizable Italian American enclave, especially bigger cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. But there’s one region of the country where the zeppole di San Giuseppe have taken on a life of their own. In Rhode Island, particularly in the area around Providence, the seasonal pastries have evolved far beyond the centuries’ old treat invented by Pintauro.

candied fruit decorate the zeppole

Candied fruit top the ricotta cream filling. The filling is similar to a cannoli


According to the Providence Journal, St. Joseph’s Day started growing into a popular holiday during the 1960s, and the local bakeries embraced the trend. The pastries were fried back then, but by the 1980s, the baked version became more popular, likely because they remain crispy longer.

Since then, bakeries began filling the classic holiday treat in a variety of flavors including chocolate, strawberry cream, and others unique to each bakery. One now popular flavor is Irish cream, widely available and added to whipped cream rather than custard.

Don DePetrillo, who owns the Original Italian Bakery, first started with different flavors about fifteen years ago and now offers six varieties. DePettrillo created a chocolate filling in response to customer demand, and a green pistachio flavor to honor St. Patrick, whose feast day is two days before St. Joseph. DePetrillo told the Providence Journal back in 2021 that the shop sells 60,000 to 70,000 zeppoles during the season which ends at Easter.

Besides the different flavors, Rhode Island bakeries have also broken the mold when it comes to size. Many of the bakeries offer mini versions of the zeppole, just in case a standard-sized pastry is too much. And if it’s not enough, Felicie’s Coffee in East Greenwich offers varieties that extra large. Meanwhile, D. Palmieri’s Bakery created a Zeppole pizza– a circular pastry topped with custard and cherries. The “pizza” is sliced into triangular pastry pieces.

Zeppole di San Giuseppe are seasonally available throughout Italian enclaves wherever Italian pastries are sold. But remember, these special treats are usually finished by Easter.

Where to find San Giuseppe Zeppole:

BROOKLYN

Fortunato Brothers

This Williamsburg, Brooklyn pastry shop has been serving the neighborhood since 1976. The zeppole pictured here were purchased at Fortuntao Brothers in 2023.
289 Manhattan Ave
Brooklyn
Website

Circo’s Pastry Shop

First founded in 1945, two long-time bakers bought the shop. It’s now run by Nino Pierdipino and his sons Saalvatore and Anthony.
312 Knickerbocker Ave
Brooklyn
Website

Monteleone’s Bakery and Cafe

355 Court St
Brooklyn
Instagram

Nuccio’s Bakery

261 Avenue U
Brooklyn
Instagram

MANHATTAN

Ferrara Bakery and Cafe

Located in the heart of Manhattan’s Little Italy, the cafe has been operating since 1892.
195 Grand St
Manhattan
Website

Venieros

342 East 11th St
Manhattan
Website

Pasticceria Rocco

Rocco Generoso Sr. arrived in the West Village in 1956 where he started working as a dishwasher at Zema Bakery. He bought the business in 1974.
243 Bleecker St
Manhattan
Website

QUEENS

Pasticceria La Torre

158-12 Cross Bay Blvd
Howard Beach, Queens
Website

Rose & Joe’s Italian Bakery

22-40 31st St
Queens
Website

BRONX

Artuso Pastry Shop

670 E 187th St
Bronx
Website

Morrone Pastry Shop & Cafe

2349 Arthur Ave
Bronx
Facebook

Sal & Doms Pastry Shop

1108 Allerton Ave
Bronx
Website

Zeppieri & Sons Italian Bakery

3004 Buhre Ave
Bronx
Website

NEW JERSEY

Palazzone

190 NJ-23
Wayne
Website

Brunos

356 W Main Street
Freehold
Website

NEW ORLEANS

Angelo Brocato

The ice cream shop is more than a century old, first opening in the Italian section of the French Quarter on Ursulines Ave.
214 N Carrollton Ave
New Orleans
Website

RHODE ISLAND

The Original Italian Bakery

Don DePetrillo, who has been baking since 1967, founded the bakery in 2007 and now has a half-dozen flavors of zeppole di San Giuseppe.
915 Atwood Ave
Johnston
Website

D. Palmieri’s Bakery

The first D. Palmieri’s opened in Providence in 1905, operated by Domenico Palmieri. The current location is owned by grandson Domenic. The shop is known for Rhode Island pizza strips and invented the St. Joseph’s Day Zeppole pizza.
624 Killingly St
Johnston
Website

LaSalle Bakery

933 Smith Street AND 685 Admiral Street
Providence
Instagram

Borelli’s Pastry Shop

765 Tiogue Ave
Coventry
Facebook

DeLuise Bakery

1251 Chalkstone Ave
Providence
Facebook

Scialo Brothers Bakery

257 Atwells Ave
Providence
Website

Antonio’s Bakery and Charlie’s Deli

448 West Shore Rd
Warwick
Website

Felicia’s Coffee

The shop serves extra large zeppole.
5757 Post Rd
East Greenwich
Website