It’s the superstar of Italian pastry — but just for one day a year.
By Bill Tonelli
If you want to understand the meaning of the Italian pastry known as the St. Joseph’s cake, you must first understand the meaning of St. Joseph’s day, March 19th, and to understand the meaning of St. Joseph’s day, you must first understand the meaning of Joe — of Joes.
In my Italian American boyhood, on the street corner where we loitered and lounged, there was Joe Bird, Joe Bones, Joe Cal, Joe Mal (two Joe Mals), Joe Bugs, Joe Bates, Joe Perk, and Joe Ears, and I might be leaving out a few. Nicknames were needed due to the popularity of that name and the Italian custom of naming boys for their grandfather or father, which meant a lot of repetition. Naming daughters affords more leeway, which is why a couple named Carmela and Tony would have a son named Anthony Junior but a daughter called Meadow.
All those Joes existed because of the devotion in Sicily and the south of Italy to St. Joseph — San Giuseppe. Given his responsibilities as the earthly father of the infant son of God and head of the holy family, it’s no wonder that St. Joseph is the gold standard of Italian paternity, and why father’s day in Italy is celebrated on March 19th.
In most of the U.S., of course, St. Joseph’s day is not what you would call a huge deal. There’s no parade on Fifth Avenue or Hallmark greeting cards. Back in my high school days, though, the holiday played a role in the traditional ethnic strife between Irish and Italian boys. On St. Patrick’s day, every Irish kid proudly wore the green. Two days later, the Italians struck back — dressed in black shirts, not because Mussolini’s fascists wore them (we were barely aware of Il Duce, let alone his fashion choices), just for the pure badness of black, and in some cases with the full mafioso styling of a white necktie, too.
St. Joseph’s day is a big deal in Italian American pastry shops. The centerpiece of the celebration is zeppole — a light, airy doughnut made with full-strength flour, which is higher in gluten than the kind used for cakes, deep-fried in either lard or oil. It’s then split horizontally, filled (but not to extremes) with vanilla custard, and topped with confectioners’ sugar and an amarena cherry in syrup — the small, dark, slightly sour variety prized in Italy, not the industrialized maraschino, a cherry that’s first bleached, then dyed (using FD&C 40 colorant), then sweetened.
But why would something called zeppole, a word of Arabic origin, come to honor a Catholic saint in Italy? First of all, Italians revere practically anything deep-fried inside dough — cod, rice, cured meats, cheese, brains, artichokes, olives, zucchini flowers, the list goes on and on. Here in the U.S., every San Gennaro feast and two-bit Columbus Day fair features deep-fried dough balls covered with confectioners’ sugar (or, in their most Americanized form, deep-fried Oreos, the soggy, leaden abomination everybody should try — once). You can easily make the basic zeppole in your kitchen — as did Italian mothers of old — just by dropping pieces of pizza dough into a pan of hot oil, fishing them out once they turn golden, blotting them on paper towels, and then tossing them with granulated sugar.
In Italy, the connection between San Giuseppe and zeppole has a clearer pedigree. “In Rome, when I was a child,” says Fabio Parasecoli, a food studies professor at NYU, “on St. Joseph’s day it was common to see vendors frying bigné di san Giuseppe — fried cream puffs — in big vats of oil on the street. The story behind the tradition was that after the flight into Egypt with Mary and Jesus, St. Joseph had to sell fried food to support his family in a foreign land. For this reason, the Romans gave him the nickname il frittellaro, or vendor of fried dough. The legend reflects an attempt to give a historical genealogy to a popular custom, as well as informal legitimacy and social status to otherwise humble street vendors.”
It’s even possible to map regional variations in Italian fried dough. “I would say that north of the River Po, deep-fried dough is more of a dessert, like the Piemontese bugie — carnival-time fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar, called chiacchere in other parts of the country,” says Simone Cinotto, author of The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City. “In Emilia-Romagna, dough fried in pork fat — strutto di maiale — is very popular, like the gnocco fritto in Parma, Reggio-Emilia and Piacenza, eaten with salumi and sparkling Lambrusco wine. And pizza fritta — fried pizza — is very popular throughout the South and especially in Naples. In the Sophia Loren movie ‘The Gold of Naples,’ she runs a pizza fritta place with her husband, ostensibly because many brick ovens were destroyed in World War II, hence the popularity of fried pizza over baked.”
Some tributes to St. Joseph go way beyond mere zeppole. In the homes of worshippers, living rooms are entirely cleared of furniture to make way for St. Joseph’s altars — long tables piled high with mountains of shaped breads and other foods to honor the saint. Folklorist Joseph Sciorra, of CUNY’s Calandra Italian American Institute, has visited a community of Sicilian immigrants in Queens where children are recruited to portray Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the celebration. The kids are the first ones permitted to eat from the altar, to cries of “Evviva San Giuseppe!” — hooray for St. Joe!— after which the gathered crowd joins in the feast. “They even hired a donkey to carry Mary down the street,” Sciorra reports.
Even with all that tradition behind it, though, the appeal of zeppole is fading. Nutritionally speaking, refined carbs fried in oil is pretty much seen as poison. And old-school zeppole must compete with the popular variant called sfingi, which uses the ricotta filling found in cannoli instead of custard, and is usually baked, not fried.
Another reason may be the fate of Joseph itself — the name. In the 1920s, according to the Social Security Administration, it was the country’s seventh-most popular name for baby boys. For girls, Josephine was 33rd. By the 1950s, Joseph had fallen to 13th place and Josephine to 195th. In 2018, Joseph had sunk even further, to 23rd, while Josephine rose — but only as far as number 91. In Italy the names haven’t done much better — according to the website nameberry.com, in 2016 Giuseppe was 13th-most popular name there for boys, and Giuseppina didn’t even make the top 50.
Robert Zerilli has witnessed the change while working at the family pastry shop, Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe, in New York’s East Village. The business was started in 1894, back when the neighborhood was still an Italian enclave, by his great-uncle Antonio Veniero, who emigrated from Vico Equense, near Naples.
“When I started, back in the seventies,” Zerilli says, “when it got close to St. Joseph’s day, we would go through five hundred zeppole a day. Guys would come from the stock exchange and buy dozens to take back to work. People used to walk out of here with shopping bags full of zeppole. They came from the neighborhood, from Brooklyn, from Queens, everywhere. You know, back then everybody was either named Joseph or Josephine or they knew somebody named Joe or Josie, and they would give them gifts of zeppole on their saint’s day. At the peak, we would go through close to 2,000 zeppole on St. Joseph’s day. Now, we sell maybe two, three hundred a day. Maybe six, seven hundred on the day itself. Not as many people nowadays are named Joseph or Josephine! Plus, now the neighborhood’s all NYU, if you know what I mean.”
Still, despite the declining sales and labor-intensity of cranking out zeppole and sfingi, Zerilli has no intention of stopping.
“I feel like if I don’t do them,” he says, “I’ll be cursed.” ###