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Le Zeppole di San Giuseppe

One of our favourite times of year has arrived: zeppole season. Zeppole are baked or fried to celebrate la Festa di San Giuseppe - Saint Joseph’s Day - on March 19 (it’s also Father’s Day in Italy). Luckily, many places start serving them up from the first week of March, giving you a chance to try as many varieties as humanly possible.

This traditionally fried treat is typical of Naples. The pastries are then filled with custard or a ricotta-based cream, sometimes with small chocolate chips, and always topped with a syrupy amarena. But why do Italians eat zeppole to commemorate Saint Joseph? The first official recipe is found in a 1837 Neapolitan cookbook and is made by adding some anise liquor and marsala in the dough. Of course, like many Italian traditions, both inside and outside the kitchen, zeppole have a much longer story than that. And, as usual, the two legends explaining the origins of this dessert are linked to Christianity and ancient Roman paganism.

Painting by Guido Reni of an old man - Joseph - holding a baby - Jesus.
Guido Reni, "Saint Joseph and the Christ Child" (1640). Source:

In Christian tradition, the zeppola is a representation of Joseph’s work as a frittarolo (a street vendor of fried goods). It is said that, in order to support Mary and Jesus, Joseph, who is usually identified by his work in carpentry, had to take on this extra job. In devotion to Saint Joseph, the tradition of the zeppolari di strada (street vendors and fryers of zeppole) developed in Naples. In fact, he is the patron saint of all frittaroli.

A more ancient legend links the zeppole to the Roman celebration of Liberalia, the festival Liber, god of wine, fertility, and freedom (this will be very relevant in a second). The festivities began on March 17. Folks would drink liters of wine and eat wheat fritters that had been cooked in boiling lard. It’s worth noting that the story of Saint Joseph as a frittarolo takes place as he and his family are fleeing to Egypt, away from King Herod, whom an angel had warned would try to kill the infant Jesus. It’s a story of seeking freedom.

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