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Custard’s last stand: Zeppole

Steeped in tradition and rich in the masterful way that four generations have preserved, Lezza Spumoni & Desserts in Bellwood create confectionary wonders from recipes that originated in the small Neapolitan town of Nola, Italy.

Salvatore Lezza held on firmly to those recipes when he set up shop in Chicago in 1905. He teamed up with his cousin and opened the Ferrara Lezza Co. in the Taylor Street neighborhood, creating confections, cakes, authentic cannoli and uniquely genuine spumoni that would become his legacy.

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Squeezed out of the city by the University of Illinois expansion, the company moved to Bellwood in the 1960s. Known back then as Victor Lezza and Son and today as Lezza Spumoni and Desserts, the business has achieved a nationwide reputation for excellence.

Ever mindful of the past, third-generation President Ed Lezza continues to uphold the family tradition, inspired no doubt by the applause that has been resounding over the decades since Lezza spumoni was served in the Italian pavilion at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In more recent years, Lezza products have been hailed by the Chicago Tribune, Food Industry News and Entrepreneur magazine, and their spumoni earned its own page in the book, “The Very Best Ice Cream and Where to Find It.”

Lezza products are distributed to grocery chains, specialty stores and summer festivals around the Midwest, and to nationally-franchised restaurants as far away as Hawaii. Still, Ed never strays far from the headquarters at 4001-09 St. Charles Road in Bellwood, where his father greeted the walk-in customers in a retail space that was recently remodeled to accommodate bigger displays to showcase their mouth-watering specialties.

One of those specialties is that gem of the St. Joseph Table, zeppole. As Jeanne Francesconi wrote in La Cucina Napoletana, “San Giuseppe is the day for zeppole. The pastry shops and friggitore (fried food stands) churn them out in astonishing quantity, for eating zeppole on March 19th is another of those traditions that must be observed. Despite their size, everyone eats at least two or three, or even four, because the sweet, delicate pasta bigne, flavored with a hint of cream and one or two bits of candied cherry, is so good and goes down so smoothly.”

Recipes for zeppole are as varied as the customs in each village in Italy. Francesconi’s research concludes that this is the oldest tradition of zeppole: “Made from a flour and water dough that’s fried and dusted with sugar and powdered cinnamon or dipped in honey. It’s known that this traditional version was quite ancient. It’s also known that on March 19th they were made by the ton in pastry shops and frying stalls as well as at home.”

Lezza’s version is legendary. Soft, airy and filled with custard cream and topped with a maraschino cherry, these Lezza-fresh zeppole create customer chaos among suburban Italian Americans who know that they are available but once each year.

At Lezza’s, they are made exactly the way Ed’s grandfather wrote down in a “little book that he kept,” filled with handwritten notes and recipes, carefully detailed with dates. “These are the zeppole we grew up on,” reflected Ed, “and obviously a lot of others did, too. People who come in won’t hesitate to tell us, ‘This is exactly how we remember them.’ One local businessman buys 200 each year to share with everyone in his office.”

For more than a century, the Lezza family has never once deviated from Salvatore’s high standards and fresh ingredients. At one time, that was enough to distinguish the business from the rest. Today, rigid on-site testing by the American Baking Institute yielded a coveted rating of “Excellent” for Lezza Spumoni & Desserts. After days of white coats and flashlights, the Lezzas implemented further advanced manufacturing, calibration and documentation procedures that give the Bellwood company even greater credence in the wholesale industry.

The Lezza family has cherry-topped more zeps than they could ever count. Despite the inevitable automation within their Bellwood plant — where 160 gallons of ice cream are produced each hour and 16,000 cannoli are packaged every Monday and Thursday like clockwork — it is undoubtedly the spirit of the white-aproned Salvatore Lezza that still guides the business.

From the Middle Age, when prayers to end a severe drought were answered, St. Joseph’s Day has been a day of generosity and kindness. Zeppole are made to be shared, and for those who cherish the tradition, Lezza Spumoni & Desserts is a prayer answered as well.

And finally, for the first time in generations, there is a Joseph in the Lezza family — born on Sept. 24, 2011 — who will surely be initiated with a lick of zeppole this year!

About Tina Valentino