While the origins of the zeppole may be murky, Rhode Island’s love affair with the pastry is certain. Some say the fritters come from Naples, where they were first baked at the Santa Patrizia convent in the 16th century. Other sources say they originated in Sicily, when St. Joseph saved the island from a severe drought. Whatever the backstory, the pastries celebrate the Festa di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph’s Day, which honors Joseph, the patron Saint of fathers, carpenters, and pastry chefs. (Yes, pastry chefs! Doesn’t it all make sense now?)
Since 1930, LaSalle Bakery has been Providence’s go-to spot for zeppole, where it sells the sweet treat from February 1 through Easter. St. Joseph’s Day is their second busiest holiday, just behind Christmas. But it is dominated by this one pastry. The bakery sells thousands of zeppole over those weeks, with the zeppole train running full steam in the days leading up to March 19. “From four in the morning until one or two in the afternoon, all we do are zeppoles,” says owner Mike Manni.
The zeppole’s shell is a pâte à choux – a pastry dough made from butter, water, flour, and eggs – that is twisted into a coil. The high moisture content of the dough puffs it with steam during the baking process. Then they are filled with a decadent Italian cream, which is made in “The Bravo,” a machine that simplified a very labor-intensive process.
“Before, we’d pour the filling from the stove into five 10-gallon buckets that we lined up in a sink filled with ice,” says Manni. “Then we’d have to stir it continuously until it got down to temperature.” LaSalle’s Production Manager Rob Gemma laughs. “We all had Popeye arms by the end of the season.”
The Bravo Trittico Executive is used to make semi-frozen desserts that need to be cooked, then cooled (think: gelato). The ingredients for the zeppole cream are poured into the upper tank, where they are brought up to temperature and cooked. The cream then moves into the lower tank where it is gently cooled. It makes 10 gallons every 20 minutes.
The bakery purchased The Bravo about 10 years ago, after a salmonella outbreak linked to another bakery’s zeppole turned the holiday sour. “The Bravo ensures that the temperature is exact and safe,” Mike says.
LaSalle makes four kinds of zeppole: traditional (which is baked), fried, Bailey’s Cream, and chocolate mousse. “We used to make all kinds of different flavors, but we scaled it back to the most popular,” Mike says. “It was madness!”
While the shells for the traditional zeppole are piped by a machine, the ones for the non-traditional flavors are done by hand. The cream is hand filled for all. Labor intensive, to be sure. But how else do you pay homage to the Patron Saint of pastry chefs?
LaSalle Bakery • 993 Smith Street • 831-9563