These beautiful cookies are a test of the Italian (and Italian-American) pastry chef's art. They can be a simple sweet biscuit or a fritter, topped with frosting or custard, with candied fruits or whatever else makes them pretty.
Traditionally made for St Joseph's Day (19 March—there's an ancient legend that St Joseph used to make them to support the Holy Family in Egypt), they are also known as sfinci or sfinge in some areas, or scorpelle or pettole.
In Western Sicily, sfincia di San Giuseppe are filled (usually) with ricotta cream, chocolate bits, pistachios and orange peel. In Palermo someone who is gentle and easily pliable is said to be moddu comu na’ sfincia ('as soft as a sfincia').
There are also savoury versions, called pettole, zeppole or zeppoline or zeppulelle or pasta cresciute or even bigné. These are usually just plain balls of fried dough, a bit like hush puppies in the southern United States. Their origins may go back to the Arabs in Sicily; now they're a common street food in Naples and the south, with a hint of anchovy, seaweed, cheese, salami or salt cod inside. They too are linked to certain holidays, and often they form part of an antipasto.
Also spelled pìttule, pèttuli or pèttule.
Images by: scattidigusto