Astoria, Dessert
Mar 15, 2016

Sfinge and Zeppole at Parisi Bakery for St. Joseph’s Day

Enjoy these delicious St. Joseph’s Day pastries in Astoria, Queens.

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Back in 2014 I took a look at the St. Joseph’s Day pastries available in the Ditmars area at Rose & Joe’s Bakery and La Guli Pastry Shop. This past weekend when I was strolling down Broadway, I noticed that Parisi Bakery was selling them, too, so I decided to try them out. My conclusions were not what I expected them to be.

As a reminder, these pastries are traditionally eaten on March 19 (this Saturday), St. Joseph’s Day, but start to appear in traditional Italian and Sicilian bakeries in NY around the beginning of March. They are a Sicilian treat (legend has it that St. Joseph prevented a famine there), basically oil-fried dough stuffed with a sweet dairy product. With the sfinge (AKA sfincia), it’s filled with sweetened ricotta and chocolate chips, just like what you’d find in a cannoli or cassata (BTW, La Guli offers this beautiful cake). Sometimes it is topped with candied citrus; here in Astoria a candied cherry is usually set atop the pastry (red is worn on St. Joseph’s Day, so that makes sense).

The extensive use of ricotta and citrus is commonplace in Sicily. I’m told the best ricotta is made from sheep’s milk, and the seasons of winter and spring yield the best milk production by sheep in Sicily. If sheep’s milk ricotta is used, it gives the filling an additional tang, which is a nice foil to how sweet it can be from the sugar.

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The zeppole, with origins in Naples, is filled with more of an egg custard cream, and is a simpler affair. The pair of pastries are part of a sort of food rivalry for some. In a NY Times article from 2005, Bagio Fortunato of Fortunato Brothers bakery in Williamsburg said the zeppole is the real deal. “This is the original one, made in honor of St. Joseph.” On the other hand,  Emanuele Alaimo of Villabate bakery in Bensonhurst said, “This was created as a joke. The sfingi is the real thing.” Apparently there is a school of thought that says mainland Italians can’t handle the magic of sweetened ricotta.

As an aside, my research reveals the savory sfinge from Malta. It’s called sfineġ in Maltese, eaten on Lent, like the others, but is stuffed with anchovy. In Morocco, it’s a simple round yeasted donut topped with sugar.

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But on to the sfinge and zeppole. I was fully expecting to like the sfinge over the zeppole, since I love sweetened ricotta filling, but that just didn’t happen! Both were delicious, don’t get me wrong, but I absolutely loved the texture of the zeppole form—it reminded me of a French cruller. It was light, a little creamy on the inside, and the custard filling was lightly sweet. You could eat a bunch of these in one sitting

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The sfinge, on the other hand, was like a meal on its own. The ricotta filling was creamy with an almost viscous body, and if you didn’t know it, you would not have believed that it was made of cheese; it was almost like a very heavy, sweet cream. I loved the chocolate chips in it, too. The dough was not as light as the zeppole, but that’s understandable since the ricotta is much heavier an ingredient and it needs something to hold it up.

Both were beautifully created and I loved the look of the filling, piped into the pastry a gorgeous swirl. These pastries are a highlight of the Lenten season, and we are lucky in Astoria to have so many options. So go get one! You won’t regret it.

Here are three Astoria bakeries that offer sfinge and zeppole we feel good about recommending:

Parisi Bakery (30-17 Broadway, Astoria. 718-728-5282)
La Guli Bakery (29-15 Ditmars Blvd, Astoria. 718-728-5612)
Rose and Joe’s Bakery (22-40 31st St, Astoria. 718-721-9422)

About Meg Cotner

Meg Cotner was trained as a harpsichordist and now works as a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to Queens," and is a skilled and avid home cook, baker, and preserver.

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