Whether they be baked or fried, filled with custard or whipped cream, topped with cherries in syrup or chocolate sprinkles, the Neapolitan zeppole di San Giuseppe will always whet your appetite. Let us find out more about the origins of this delicious dessert before diving into some of the modern-day recipes.
Even though the etymology of the word zeppola is still uncertain up to this day, it is possible to learn something more about the history of this term by following different paths. According to one school of thought, the word zeppola might derive from the Latin word cippus, a tiny wooden block that Neapolitan people used to place under chairs and tables so as to make them stand still. With time and after some phonological changes, people probably started using it also to refer to zeppole (plural of zeppola) because of their mutual little size. Conversely, others trace the etymology of this word back to the Latin words serpula and saeputla: while the first term was employed to refer to snakes, the second designated every round shaped object. Thirdly, some claim that cymbala, the name of a flat-bottomed and round shaped boat, might be the etymon of this toothsome Italian treat. In both cases, it was this round shape that allowed linguists to create an etymological connection between the terms. Since the mystery deepens, it is worthwhile looking at some of the legends related to this dish.
Two myths surround the birth of this delightful pan-fried dough. Chronologically speaking, the first takes place in 500 A.C. during the Roman empire when Quirites, as romans called themselves, used to celebrate the Liberalia on 17th March in tribute to Liber Pater (Bacchus) and his wife Libera (Proserpine), deities of fruitfulness and prosperity. Among festive songs, cups of wine and horns of plenty, it was also possible to taste an archetypical zeppola made with wheat flour and fried in lard. Moreover, it is believed that Catholicism assimilated this pagan worship by marking 19th March as the feast of Saint Joseph (Father’s Day). That might be the reason why today zeppole are considered to be the typical dessert of this recurrence in Italy.
Moving closer to the Anno Domini, according to another legend Saint Joseph, after the flight into Egypt, had to take up another job in order to support his family, therefore, alongside his carpentry trade, he started cooking and selling deep-fried zeppole on the street. This Catholic anecdote might have had an impact on the city of Naples where just few years ago it was still possible to see street vendors frying and stuffing zeppole in the most popular alleys, probably in honour of the Father of Fathers. However, in order to understand why Naples is believed to be the home of zeppole, an imaginary trip to the 19th century might be useful.
The first official recipe of this pastry dates back to 1837, when the Italian chef and man of letters Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, wrote in Neapolitan the Trattato di Cucina Teorico-Pratica in which he listed all its ingredients: water, flour, aniseed liquor, white wine or marsala, salt, sugar and frying oil. Nevertheless, in almost two centuries this initial recipe has undergone so many changes that nowadays almost each Italian region has its own version. In Calabria both the filling and the dough have been modified: while ricotta cheese, sugar, cinnamon and lemon make up the cream, potatoes have been added to the mixture. In Sicily zeppole are realised with rice flour and covered with honey or icing sugar. The Puglia region offers chocolate-flavoured zeppole for all chocoholics out there. Furthermore, many Italian chefs have also started creating their own original and unique zeppole made with the most diverse ingredients such as pistachio cream and tiramisu cream, to name but a few. If the most conservative tastes would turn pale just by hearing about the deconstructed or the vegan zeppola di San Giuseppe, the delicacy of these alternative recipes can be denied. Apart from the one on its top, no cherry-picking needed in this case.
Eurcamping. 2021. A father’s day recipe: Zeppole di San Giuseppe [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.eurcamping.it/pl/ricette/a-fathers-day-recipe-zeppole-di-san-giuseppe [Accessed 26 March 2021]
Zeppola.it. 2021. La zeppola: gioia del palato e curiosità della lingua [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.zeppola.it/origine.htm#:~:text=%2D%20serpula(m)%2C%20dal,dunque%20a%20forma%20di%20ciambella [Accessed 26 March 2021]
La Gazzetta del Gusto. 2021. Le zeppole di San Giuseppe. Storia, Origine e Tradizione [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.gazzettadelgusto.it/cibo-e-storia/zeppole-di-san-giuseppe-origine-e-storia/ [Accessed 26 March 2021]
Sorrento Lingue. 2021. Saint Joseph’s Fritters – Zeppole di San Giuseppe [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.sorrentolingue.com/it/saint-josephs-fritters.php [Accessed 26 March 2021]
Wikipedia. 2021. Zeppole [ONLINE]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeppole [Accessed 26 March 2021]
Gran Caffè Gambrinus. 2021. Zeppole of St. Joseph origins and curiosities [ONLINE]. Available at: https://grancaffegambrinus.com/en/zeppole-of-st-joseph-origins-and-curiosities/ [Accessed 26 March 2021]
Written by Raffaele Pizzo, PhD student in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology” at the University of Naples “Parthenope”