STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — While writing about all the festival cancellations coming up, it’s became evident that one fall scent will be absent from the air — that perfume from fresh, fried zeppole. That unctuous food will be sorely missed at the Richmond County Fair and the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy, events I’ve covered for the Advance and attended for many years.
While it’s zippo on the crowds, not so on the zeppole for Staten Island as our pizzerias continue to turn out fabulous versions of the fritters.
Just the other day, Tina and Marco Recchia, owners of Gennaro’s Pizzeria at reopened Rab’s Country Lanes, brought a zeppole platter to one of the newly-built picnic tables outside the facility. Tina said their signature touch on the dessert is a distinct ring that forms in the dough, making each sweet zeppola (singular) look more like an onion ring. It’s a cool detail that experienced cooks make happen with a few pro tricks — wet hands and a flick of the wrist positioned just right over the boiling oil.
Staten Island does have a secret to its spectacular zeppole — the dough itself is a yeast-driven flour combination tuned up with a little sugar. Note to the uninitiated to the whole production process: zeppole are not made from pizza dough — garlic knot it is not.
And if not dropped just so into sizzling fat, the creation becomes that other fair food, something resembling more of a funnel cake.
Sal Finocchiaro of Palermo Pizzeria in Richmond Valley has produced a prized zeppole since his inaugural day on the Italian restaurant scene. That grand opening October day last year brought the dawn of a new zeppole to the deep South Shore — a plump thing that resembles a bombolone (doughnut) as it begs to be filled with Nutella and cannoli cream.
“My grandmother gave me the recipe,” said Sal. “It’s regular white flour — and a lot of love!” Sometimes that love comes with cinnamon or the more ubiquitous zap to a zeppola — powered sugar.
Camille Mule Pizzo, tender of Facebook’s Staten Island- and Brooklyn-centric “Quarantine Cuisine,” has seen a few recipe for the zeppole pop up on her pandemic page.
“The zeppole is our doughnut,” said Pizzo. And flavorings depend on what time of the year the dessert is made. In summer, her mother, Antonia Mulé, uses ricotta to fluff the fritter. She adds lemon juice, lots of lemon and orange zest and, sometimes, mini chocolate chips. In the fall or winter, she stuffs the zeppole with apples, cut-up dates, fresh or dried figs, crushed walnuts plus cinnamon. She adds a drop of wine to the batter and tosses the hot, cooked dough in a mixture of all-spice, cinnamon-sugar and nutmeg.
Springtime brings sfinge to Staten Island and Brooklyn bakeries with St. Joseph’s pastries, another version of the zeppole filled with custard or cannoli cream.
And there we go on seeing a zeppole come full circle in our great home town.
FULL CIRCLE AT THE FEAST
So, yes, this autumn I will miss all of zeppole hullaballoo and its deep-fried Oreo cousin plus sizzling sausage ‘n’ “pepp-uz,” particularly at the San Gennaro Feast. One of the highlights over the years attending this massive street festival was riding a float with comedian Vic DiBitetto when he was the grand marshal in 2018. DiBitetto is a former Great Kills and Rossville resident who now lives in New Jersey.
If anything highlighted the importance of following street dining setups, now so commonplace as dining rooms remain closed in New York City, it was at that very crowded street festival — the float, at one point, got caught in a strand of lights on a lemonade stand that stuck out a wee bit too far. Had Vic himself not intervened in extricating the tangled lines from the vehicle it would have taken the whole shebang along with the procession up Mulberry.
Now with anything in this world, there is always a Staten Island connection. My paternal great grandfather, originally from Benevento, Italy, owned the “Silvestri Bakery,” once near Ferrara’s. And so be it with the S.I. links with a restaurant I have enjoyed over the years — Il Cortile at 100 Mulberry owned by the Esposito family from Staten Island. So far, they’ve weathered this pandemic storm and are reopen outdoors — even with a handsome street extension. Although dining rooms New York City shut as of March 16, the business suffered for weeks before then as potential patrons feared getting the coronavirus while traveling through the neighboring Chinatown section.
I have great hope that there will be the scent of zeppole for a 94th celebration in Little Italy — one of these Septembers.
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Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.