Immaculate Confection

S aint Patrick’s Day gets most of the attention in March, but the festival day of Saint Joseph falls just two days later—a celebration of the “foster father” of Jesus, a humble carpenter descended from King David. If you’re Italian (or happen to live in a city full of Italian immigrants and their descendants), you may already know how to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day: with zeppole.

The cream-filled pastries topped with powdered sugar and a split maraschino cherry are among several traditional offerings in the bakery cases at Petonito’s Pastry and Cupcake Shoppe in East Haven. If you want to sink your teeth into one of these delights, which come in three flavors—vanilla, chocolate and cannoli cream, sandwiched between a light, spongy fried pastry with a hint of almond—you have just a couple more weeks, through the end of Lent. By then, says head baker Michael Criscuolo III, the bakery will have sold thousands of them, and they’ll be off the menu until next year.

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I sampled several other Petonito’s classics on a recent visit. A shell-shaped sfogliatella had dozens of crispy, flaky layers and a dense fontina cheese filling with just a hint of candied orange. The cannoli’s crunchy, layered shells held a thick, rich filling with a pinch of high-octane chocolate bits. Both showed restraint with the sugar, giving the cream and cheese and orange and chocolate their due. The mini lemon chocolate pie (“you’re only going to find that in this area of the world,” Michael says) was baked in a thick, soft pie crust with a gooey lemon filling, topped with a thick layer of dark chocolate icing. Everything was so delicious I picked up every crumb.

Founded in 1954 by Salvatore Petonito and later run by his son Mark, the bakery since 2019 has belonged to the Criscuolo family. Regina Criscuolo (née Falcigno) first started working at Petonito’s in the 1980s as a 16-year-old counter clerk. Over the course of more than a decade, she eventually graduated to decorating wedding cakes, including her own, which she spent a marathon 11 hours perfecting. She met her husband, Michael Criscuolo, Jr., while she was working at Petonito’s; his father owned a hair salon down the hall in the small shopping center that houses the bakery. “Sal was like a grandfather to me,” she says. “He gave me a chance, he took me under his wing.”

Eventually, Regina went to college and became a teacher for New Haven Public Schools, but she never forgot how much she’d loved working at Petonito’s. When Mark Petonito decided to retire and sell the business, she saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue a dream of running her own bakery, even though she and her husband have spent their careers doing other work. “We’re not like young people here starting this business,” Regina says today. “It’s because it was this bakery” that they decided to take the leap.

Sal Petonito’s old recipes live on through traditional Italian pastries like the zeppole ($3.75, $4.25) cannoli ($3, $3.50 chocolate-covered) and sfogliatelle ($3). “Sal really taught me everything I know,” Regina says. “I just hope I’m making him proud with everything I do because it is his name [on the business].” At the same time, the Criscuolos—including son Michael III, who handles day-to-day operations, and daughter Amanda, who helps out on weekends—have brought their own ideas to the table. The shop has been rethemed with a cheerful purple, and engaged couples can taste wedding cakes in a new “bridal suite” corner. When they make their decision, Petonito’s celebrates by giving them T-shirts and taking photos for social media.

Super-sized treats like a giant cannoli shell wrapped around four dozen cannoli ($70) and a doughnut wall—a pegboard hung with serve-yourself doughnuts ($150 with 56 doughnuts)—are favorite party offerings. More relevant in these times are Petonito’s take-home cookie and cupcake decorating kits ($20). You might still be able to score a St. Patrick’s Day-themed cannoli with rainbow filling, and soon you’ll find eight-inch edible Easter eggs with candy inside ($40). “We try to constantly come up with different innovative ideas,” Regina says.

This sense of fun and whimsy includes seasonal cocoa bombs ($5)—candy balls filled with mini marshmallows and cocoa mix. The one I tried was made of white chocolate with Petonito-purple sprinkles on top. I plunked it into an oversized mug, poured some hot milk over it and watched the shell melt away and mini marshmallows bob to the top. After a good stir, I enjoyed a rich, white chocolate-laced mug of hot cocoa.

With warm weather will come different seasonal offerings including gelato from Gelato Giuliana ($2.50, $4.50, $6.50). In the summer, Petonito’s hosts carnival nights with fried dough, fried oreos and churros, and you’ll find the bakery at the East Haven Farmers’ Market on Sunday and Wednesday mornings.

For now, it’s zeppole time. How these pastries became the treat of St. Joseph’s Day isn’t exactly clear. Some say the tradition emerged from a feast medieval Sicilians cooked in honor of their patron saint after he brought rain to Sicily, ending a severe drought.

Of course, for many local celebrants today, the drought will come in early April, when Petonito’s zeppole disappear for another year.

Petonito’s Pastry and Cupcake Shoppe
190 Main St, East Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 8:30am-6pm, Sat 8:30am-5pm, Sun 8:30am-1pm
(203) 469-1817 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 features head baker Michael Criscuolo III.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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