Zeppole is a very popular word in many parts of Italy; it usually refers to fritters originally made with a sort of bread-dough and fried in pork lard or olive oil. They can be sweet or savoury. The sweet ones, sometimes filled with custard or ricotta, can be dusted with sugar and cinnamon or, as originally, dipped in honey. The word zeppole according to some language scholars, such as the German Gerhard Rohlfs, was already used in the fourth century and implied something like “a sweet made with dough and honey.” The savoury zeppole, on the other hand, could be filled with cured anchovies or simply be served with a salt dusting. Each central and southern Italian region has its own version, and some of them are very well known in many parts of the world, as in the United States, where they arrived with the Italian migrants.
Zeppole were and still are prepared in many places in Italy all year round and as a special sweet for the feast of Saint Joseph, on March 19th. The legend says that this tradition begun in Sicily during the Middle Ages during a severe drought, in which people prayed to this saint to bring rain.
The drought ended and along the streets, the Sicilians offered gifts, as a sign of gratitude, to Saint Joseph including food for the poor and zeppole prepared in huge quantities, because apparently the saint had worked as a fritters-maker at some point of his life. Thus, zeppole asserted their nature as a street food, as well as family and festive one.
The frictilia of Bacchus
During ancient Roman time, fritters (frictilia), very similar to zeppole, were the protagonists of Liberalia, an annual spring festival of great rejoicing and merrymaking, originally in honour of Liber Pater, the ancient Italic deity of fertility and agriculture, who was gradually assimilated into the figure of Bacchus, the god of wine (but wheat and oil as well were part of the festivity), and collective rituals of pleasure-seeking.
Liberalia was celebrated on March 17 and was ended when Theodosius II, the Eastern Roman Emperor, forbade, by law, all bacchanal worship.
This once pagan celebration, as many others, however, was transformed slowly but surely into a Catholic custom; it is not by chance that the day of Saint Joseph is celebrated on March 19th and, although it falls in the middle of Lent, it is a day in which the Catholic Church has always allowed room for celebration.
The shape of zeppole in Italy varies from an area to another, in some places they are rather small irregular buns, in others they are ring-shaped and in yet others kind of pretzel-shaped.
The recipe for the flour dough changes, too; it can have some potato added in Calabria, or in other places some white wine.
The nuns and the advent of the choux dough
The Zeppola di San Giuseppe, Saint Joseph zeppola, the one that we are celebrating in the tour La Vita è Dolce as an iconic product of pasticceria Italiana, was born from that ancient Italian tradition of making fritters, though it’s quite different from them. It’s a delicate choux dough, fried, dusted with icing sugar and decorated with some custard and either with one or two cherries or amarene, wild cherries, preserved in syrup, in alcohol or as jam.
All the most important sources agree that this zeppola was born in the XVIII century, in Naples, the former Capital of the then Southern Kingdom of the Two Sicily (the biggest among the Italian States), in one of the many convents, in which the nuns used to prepare delicious sweets. The nuns of Saint Basil, in the monastery of San Gregorio Armeno, in todays old centre of the city, were probably the inventors of the new sweet. There are no written documents of this popular belief. A recipe Tortanetti di pasta bigné in the Cucina teorico pratica by Cavalier Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buon Vicino, 1837, can be seen as a step towards the evolution of the ancient fritters. The Tortanetti, however, made with a technique somewhat related to choux pastry (without fat or eggs) are still dusted with sugar or cinnamon, or dipped in honey.
Naples invented zeppole and all Italians licked their fingers
Some claim that the “new” Zeppole were made for the first time in another southern city, Bari, the Capital of the Region of Puglia, but once again there are no written sources to confirm it. The Italian food writer Anna Gosetti della Salda, in her The Italian Regional Recipes presents three versions of recipe (Neapolitan, from Ischia and from Puglia), which are decorated in the same way, but made with different dough. In her opinion only the one from Ischia is made with pate à chou, but she doesn’t give any information on where her claim comes from. Some say that perhaps in Puglia begun the use of wild cherries in syrup as a decoration. In any case, Neapolitan authors, such Emanuele Rocco, in 1857, author of Uses and Customs of Naples and Environs had no doubts; “Naples invented zeppole and all Italians licked their fingers”, he wrote and added; "Thus, our city government will be able to say that they finally got one thing right, after all the mistakes they've made and continue to make every day."
Zeppole del pasticciere
In Naples, of course, the Saint Joseph Day celebration is all about zeppole alla crema e amarena, or zeppole del pasticciere, as correctly wrote a Neapolitan author in 1834, to distinguish them from the fritters, the savoury ones, also very popular in Naples, sold in friggitorie, fried food shops or peddlers’ stands, together with panzarotti, a fried potato croquette, often filled with mozzarella.
There are old Neapolitan prints picturing zeppole makers in the street. It’s hard to say if they were fritters makers or “pasticcieri”. And to further confuse the situation, there are reports that one of the most important pastry shop in Naples, the one owned by the dolciere, Pasquale Pintauro, in the central via Toledo, on Saint Joseph’s day used to fry, prepare and sell tons of zeppole, one imagines del pasticciere, outside his shop.
The only sure thing is that the traditional fritter and the “new” zeppola of the Neapolitan nuns of the XVIII century were still strictly fried but the evolution of the latter was remarkable. Thanks to those anonymous nuns he zeppola moved to the realm of the professional, and somewhat exotic, pasticceria and became what rightly was described as the zeppole del pasticciere. Of course this is true to some extent, because Zeppole are still today part of the homemade, family festive cuisine. But the change at the time was notable. To begin with, the nuns’ new sweet is shaped with a sache à poche and, more importantly, the dough is the “French” pâte a choux (sciù in Neapolitan). That is, something that at the time was seen as both exotic and refined. For long time in Naples, whatever came from France was believed superior and elegant; not by chance, in the kitchen, Neapolitan aristocratic families used to have a French chef (Monzù).
French pate pâte a choux: an Italian intention
The pâte a choux (the same used for profiteroles) of the Zeppole, however, doesn’t make the dessert less Italian. To the contrary, because it’s widely accepted that this pâte was invented in 1540 by the Italian Chef, Panterelli, who went to France with Catherine de’ Medici after she married the Duke of Orleans, the future King Henry II. Of course, it’s quiete possible that Panterelli just claimed the ownership of a technique that was perhaps widely known in his land of origin. At the beginning the pâte had the name of Panterelli, then it was called pâte a Popelini, from the name of the chef who made some variation to the recipe, and then called pâte a Popelins, which were cakes made in the Middle Ages in the shape of women's breasts. The pâte became finally known as pâte à choux (small cabbage in French), since only choux buns that had the shape as small cabbages were made from it. Antoine Careme perfected the recipe but there are a few doubts that the pâte a choux of the Italian zeppole del pasticciere was born at the time of Italian Renaissance.