To most Americans, Father’s Day comes in June and is cause to craft pops a gift if you’re in grade school or, any older, buy dear old dad a tie and/or a beer. But to Italian-Americans (as well as bona fide Italians), Father’s Day comes on March 19 in the form of Saint Joseph’s Day—and along with it, zeppole di San Giuseppe.
Seemingly every region of Italy has its own form of ciambelle, or doughnuts, and sometimes the same one will have a different name in a different area. In Calabria, you’ll find grispelli made from sweet potato flour. Bomboloni are Tuscan cream puffs. Castagnole are Venetian morsels. And down in Sicily, where St. Joseph is the patron saint, we find sfingi di San Giuseppe, not to be confused with frittelle di San Giuseppe. (Frittelle, like fritters, comes from the Latin frigere, meaning “to fry.”) Actually, it’s okay to confuse sfingi and frittelle. Caputo’s Pastry Shoppe in Long Branch, New Jersey used to make both, but has since rolled them into a single catch-all, zeppole, a seasonal delicacy that’s made only in the lead-up to St. Joseph’s Day.
What is not acceptable is mistaking Caputo’s zeppole for the treat found up and down the Jersey Shore by the same name. The latter are essentially fried balls of leftover pizza dough rolled in sugar and sold by the bag or cone for as much as Caputo’s sells an individual zeppola. (The singular—zeppola, frittella—end in “a” while the plural ends in “e,” so there’s no need to say “zeppoles.”) The ones made at Caputo’s for nearly a full century look like French crullers, cut in half, then given one of three fillings: Italian vanilla custard, French cream, or, thanks to owner Joe Caputo’s handpicked dairy guy who provides the perfect firm yet dry impastata ricotta cheese, cannoli filling.
Having devoured them all, I can’t for the life of me determine which is the best. The fried dough base is soft and airy and would make a perfect complement to a cup of coffee on its own, but it’s not a zeppola until the sweet cream comes in, giving it the rich, luscious coating needed to glide into your belly. The French cream filling is the lightest while the Italian custard is gluttonously gloopy, and the ricotta one has a mature tang that deludes you into thinking you’re eating both a doughnut and a cannoli simultaneously.
In the large kitchen at Caputo’s Pastry Shoppe lined with all manner of racks, bowls, utensils, and a behemoth mixer, up on a shelf in a far corner there’s an old tin with the original handwritten recipe from Caputo’s founder Grandpa Joe: Water. Flour. Sugar. Ammonium carbonate (relax, it’s a leavening agent). And though the zeppole come around but once a year, they hold the dearest place in the younger Joe’s heart.
San Giuseppe’s Day, or St. Joseph’s Day, honors the Virgin Mary’s husband. Raising a kid you didn’t help make, even if it’s Jesus, takes some serious fathering chops. The Italian calendar is chockablock with saints’ days, and if you share the same name as a saint, you get to celebrate on their day (also called an onomastico) as if it’s your own birthday. So just imagine how meaningful it is when you’re a father and your name is Joseph, or any of its Italianized or anglicized versions or nicknames, including Giuseppe, Beppe, Peppe, or Peppino.
Although New York is home to twice as many Italian-Americans as New Jersey—approximately 3 million—they comprise a larger percentage of the population in the Garden State. Caputo’s Pastry Shoppe was founded by Joe’s grandfather (for whom he’s named) in 1923. The original bakery was in Brooklyn but, after two moves, is now located off exit 105 of the Garden State Parkway over 30 miles south of Staten Island.
When the elder Joe Caputo left Bari, the capital of Puglia (the heel part of the boot), it was in the classic quest of a better life. Eventually, the elder Joe’s son, Giacamo, took over the bakery, and now his son Joe, the current owner, runs the family business. Joe’s 15-year-old son, the eldest of his three kids, is named Giacamo after his grandfather.
The bakery specializes in Italian cookies, pignoli, biscotti, and other bakery staples from breads to cakes, but Joe only heats up the fryer to make zeppole once the calendar strikes March. After all, it’s Caputo’s Pastry Shoppe, not Caputo’s Doughnuts And Other Fried Treats Shoppe. Although Joe is frequently interrupted by friends and regulars who stream into the bakery, he works through baking sheet after baking sheet of halving zeppole, piping them full of the various creams, then dusting them with powdered sugar and topping with candied cherries.
His hands never stop moving because, not counting the sales in the days leading up to the Feast of St. Joseph, la festa del papa, Caputo’s sells around 2,000 zeppole on St. Joseph’s Day. And it’s on that day each year that Joe treats himself to one.