Zeppole are so easy to make—after all, they are basically just fried pizza dough balls—it is almost embarrassing to post about it, but since it was one of my favorite snack foods that Angelina made, it deserves pride of place on this blog. And, in any event, who doesn’t like fried dough?
Most people think of zeppole as a dessert, but in fact, they can be sweet or savory. And Angelina would usually make the savory variety that I love.
- One batch of pizza dough, preferably homemade
- One can of anchovies in olive oil
Simply make a regular batch of pizza dough (see my post on Angelina’s pizza casereccia for the recipe) or buy some pizza dough at your local Italian deli.
Grabbing a walnut-sized ball of dough, make a well in the middle of the ball with your finger and place a single anchovy fillet inside. Then bring the sides around the fillet to cover the well and form a nice ball. You may need to roll the dough around in your hands a bit to make sure the opening is well sealed. Continue in the same fashion with the rest of the dough.
Now fry them gently in olive oil, or a mix of olive and canola oil, until they are nice and golden brown on all sides. It will take no longer than five minutes or so. Regulate the temperature so they do not brown too quickly, before the insides have a chance to cook. They will swell up as they fry, which is exactly what you want. Drain them on paper towels or on a rack.
Zeppole are really best eaten right away, but you can keep them warm in a slow oven, on a baking rack placed over a cookie sheet, or even reheat them later. They will lose a bit of their crispiness but none of their goodness.
There seems to be some confusion, let’s call it, about the name these little guys. That’s not surprising, since it is common in Italian cooking, which is still highly regional, for the same dish (or with slight variations) to change name from region to place to place. According to Neapolitan gastronome Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, the ‘official’ name for what Angelina—and many others—call zeppole is pasta cresciuta, with the name zeppole reserved for the sweet variety. Readers have told me that they would call this dish pettole, which is apparently the name given to them in Puglia and Basilicata. Other there are still other names, depending on where you go: sfingi, fritelle… Well, this being Angelina’s blog, I’ll keep calling them zeppole.
The more common sweet version of zeppole are usually filled with crema pasticcera or sweetened ricotta mixed with some chocolate bits, or just the dough. Sweet zeppole dusted with confectioners’ sugar before serving. Of course, all kinds of other fillings, both sweet and savory, make for many variations. Without a filling, they can be shaped into rings rather than balls. Some variations are made from choux pastry and baked. But these savory, anchovy-filled fried zeppole are the ones I remember from my childhood and will always be my favorite.
Zeppole are traditionally eaten in Naples on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. In Rome a very similar fried pastry is, in fact, called bignè di san Giuseppe and eaten the same day. But apparently in other parts of Italy, such as Calabria, zeppole are traditional around New Years, which makes them timely around now. But, honestly, these are so good you won’t want to limit your zeppole making to one time of year.
A wonderful snack food, zeppole can also be used as a kind of antipasto, either alone or as part of medley of different offerings. Just remember to make enough: like potato chips, no one can eat just one!
Post-scriptum: One reader (my mother!) informs me that, yes, Angelina also made the sweet variety of zeppole, too. Funny I don’t remember that too well. But then, I was an unusual child in that I didn’t have a sweet tooth. I would eat sweets, of course, if there were given to me, but I didn’t seek them out. Nor, apparently, did I find them all that memorable.