For the 12 years I was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, March 19 had special meaning. It was the Feast of St. Joseph, which honors Joseph the carpenter, husband of the Virgin Mary. It was one of the few days the hard-working sisters were celebrated.
Since I came to Rhode Island 30 years ago, March 19 is different. Here it’s filled with zeppole, a pastry some say is in the shape of St. Joseph’s hammer. It used to be that zeppole could only be had for the one day. But they’ve become so popular that most bakeries start stocking them on Super Bowl Sunday in February and keep making them until Easter Sunday. Some even sell them all year long.
Zeppole resemble a cream puff that’s been flattened and then adorned with whipped cream and a cherry, most of the time, and powdered sugar, always. Inside you’ll find pastry cream or ricotta or some other wonderful flavor. The feast’s close proximity to St. Patrick’s Day has given rise to Irish cream zeppole, one of my very favorites.
But everyone has their favorite, and a favorite place to buy them, part of their family tradition. It seems that every bakery in Rhode Island, even the Portuguese ones, make zeppole come March. Every year I find new ones that delight the palate.
Still, all zeppole are not created equal. If you’ve tasted enough of them, you’ll find that some have tastier shells, be they fried or baked, and are more tender. The creams run the risk of being too sweet, artificially flavored or even gummy.
Today I offer my Hall of Fame Zeppole. These are the pastries that year after year, time after time, deliver great shells and filling. They’ve never sold me a stale pastry past its prime.
If I only have one zeppole to enjoy, it’s going to be LaSalle Bakery‘s Bailey’s Irish Cream Zeppole ($3.49). It’s always a dream with light and fluffy cream tasting just like a sip of the liqueur. The pastry is flaky and pleasing. The size is nice, and they are always fresh. You can also get a chocolate mousse ($3.49) or traditional cream in a baked or fried shell ($3.25). You can order mini ones, with traditional filling only, by the dozen ($18.99).
When I want an elegant, artisan zeppole I head to Allyson Mansfield’s Vesta Bakery, in Westerly. Not only are they the best, Vesta also has the most varieties, including ricotta, vanilla custard, Bailey’s Irish Cream, caramel, chocolate, tiramisu and espresso. Each one also has a homemade candied cherry on top of the whipped cream garnish. That is unique. And the pastry is flaky and wonderful.
They also come in two sizes, and that is great, too: $2.50, and $1.25 for the mini versions. I suggest you order ahead.
How do you make a better zeppole? With fresh ingredients, of course. And none are fresher than at the farm where you get the milk. That’s why North Smithfield’s Wright’s Dairy Farm and Bakery is always a winner.
They only make one variety, but it’s a killer, combining rum-flavored boiled cream with ricotta cheese for the filling ($3.75). They make them fresh throughout the day. They begin with baked pastry shells that are dusted with confectioners’ sugar and finish with a topping of their freshly whipped cream. It’s the best whipped cream you’ll ever taste.
For Old World flavor, Buono’s Bakery in Providence delivers. I dream about their pistachio cream zeppole ($2.50). The pistachio cream is the ideal texture for the pastry. It is also very, very pretty as the cream peeks out of the pastry.
They also make a rum cream, Irish cream and chocolate. Next week, they’ll do mini versions of their zeppole ($1.25).
Providence’s DeLuise Bakery produces some of the most beautiful zeppole you’ll find. They do the classics here: traditional cream in a baked or fried shell; whipped cream; or chocolate ($2.95). That chocolate one has a light, perfect cream and it’s my favorite here.
Not only does the chocolate zeppole have the creamiest texture and most natural flavoring, I think it’s also one of the prettiest zeppole for a table.
On Twitter: @gailciampa