19 March 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: A Few of My Favorite Things

CHIAVARI, Italy – There are many cookies and pastries connected to Lent and St. Joseph’s Day, the Festa of San Guiseppe, and every town and region in Italy seems to have its own specialty. You probably know the first pastry as they are popular all over the world, but the others might be a bit of a surprise.
 Pasticceria Giolitti, Rome, Italy
It’s not always easy to follow the threads from probable origins to the tables of today. But even though stories may jump centuries, they seem to turn up again and again and pick up not always where they left off, but where they are at that particular moment, and then go on to continue the story from there.  If nothing else, the tales show a respect for tradition and the foods – in this case sweets - that have come down to us through the centuries to find their place in the story of Italian food today.


Zeppole, or zeppele, are a good place to start. The origin of the zeppole dates back to the ancient celebration of the Roman festival Liberalia. This pagan feast, which was held on March 17th, celebrated the transition of 14 year old boys to manhood.  For the Romans it was an important festa complete with sacrifices, processions, rowdy songs and of course eating, drinking and carousing.   

Then, somewhere between the Romans carrying on as Romans liked to do, and the onset of Christianity, the buckwheat pancakes hung-over Romans used to fry up for breakfast after being out half the night, morphed and re-morphed into what we now know as zeppole.

The zeppole went on to become one of Naple’s favorite pastries, and in the early 1900’s, when millions of Italians migrated to the Americas, they brought with them the joy of the delicious cream filled zeppole we all enjoy today.

In the month of March, you will find these sweet little rice frittelle for sale throughout Tuscany. In Siena they are called frittelai, and in the past those who made them did their best to keep the recipe a secret. They wouldn’t tell anyone if they used rice, and if they did use rice, what kind of rice they used, or what kind of flour they used, if they flour.  Everything was done behind closed doors and as far away from prying eyes as they could get.

But then Maestro Martino de 'Rossi  wrote his famous cookbook "Libro de Arte Coquinaria" and right there, in Chapter 5, under “Frictella”, was the long held secret of the Siennese frittelle. No one knows how Maestro Martino got the recipe, but since it was the second half of the 1400’s, and he cooked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and also for Pope Martin V, you can believe he had some powerful friends who helped him out.   

What I find interesting is that at the time, rice was a mysterious thing to Italians, and they really didn’t know what to do with it. They certainly did not eat it. Instead, cooks in the medieval kitchens ground the grains into a powder and used it as a spice or to thicken soups and sauces.

Now that their secret cookie recipe is no longer a secret, on or around March 23rd, the women of Lupicciano-Pistoia throw a big party in the town’s piazza with music and games for the kids and lots of Frittelle di San Guiseppe to eat.  So do the ladies of Corsalone-Chiusi della Verna (Arezzo), but their party day is March 30th.  Even after all these centuries, the tradition of frittelle di San Guiseppe lives on in the heart of Italy, and in the hearts of the Tuscans.


Maritozzi are small sweet breads, about the size of a croissant. In the days of the Roman Empire they were sweetened with honey and raisins and called pagnottelle – or possibly pagnottelius. Either way they were a favorite snack with the locals, especially after a night out on the town.   

On the first Friday of March couples who were engaged would exchange maritozzi decorated with entwined hearts or hearts pierced with an arrow, often hiding rings or small gold trinkets in the sugary decorations. It was Valentine’s Day Italian style before there was a Valentine’s Day.

The name maritozzi was most likely extracted from the Italian word for husband, “marito”, as knowing how to make a good maritozzi was one of the criteria a guy used when he was looking for a bride. The girls who made the best maritozzi always got the most attention from the boys – and with a little luck, a marriage proposal. That must be where that old saying, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” came from. 

Sweet as they are, maritozzi are one of the few pastries allowed during Lent. The only reason why that is true, at least the only reason I can think of is either one of the Popes had a brother, or another relative, who was a baker, or he himself had a real weakness for maritozzi, so he gave them a thumbs up during Lent. I guess we will never know. Have a Happy St. Joseph’s Day.


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