Of the many pastries and dishes that Italy has gifted to the world, the Neapolitan delicacy known as struffoli are the quintessential festive dessert on Neapolitan tables and for Italian-American families alike. They originated in Napoli, the capital of the region of Campania, and dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks who once ruled the port city. And then the Romans have adapted the recipe into their own version, stuffing the dough balls with candied fruits and chopped almonds. It seems the name struffoli comes from the Greek word stróngylos, meaning “round”, referring to the shape of the cooked dough pieces, while another theory states that the name is derived from the Italian word, “strofinare”, which means “to rub together” and refers probably to the act of rolling out pieces of dough into a long, thin rope shape before cutting it into tiny pieces.
These tiny honey balls are in fact pieces of dough that are deep fried until crispy, drenched in honey, and decorated. It takes some time and a certain flair to prepare this typical treat, and there have to be enough struffoli to go around to delight both family and friends.
Almost better than the flavor is the presentation: the dough balls are stacked high to form pyramids, towers, Christmas trees, or wreaths. Regardless of which style you form your struffoli, they are always festively covered with multi-colored candy sprinkles and colorful mixed candied fruits. When presented to guests, struffoli practically sparkle with their sugary coating, vibrant sprinkles, and glacé fruit.
According to popular belief, the many fried balls of honey-drenched dough are symbolic of money, and eating struffoli would bring prosperity in the new year.
Legend has that nuns used to make and give the Struffoli to the local aristocracy each Christmas as a gesture of gratitude for their donations to the church and their charitable works during the year.
Struffoli are a traditional Italian holiday treat for those living in Italy but also for those that live out of the country. People who grew up with this symbol of Christmas seem to go out of their way every year to make sure there is some on their holiday table.
Although traditionally eaten on Christmas in Naples and southern Italy, struffoli are also served on Easter in most Italian-American homes. In fact, many Italian bakeries in the United States go so far as to sell this treat only for Easter. One reason for this might be that the similar “cicerchiata” are traditionally served for Mardi Gras in the southern Italian region of Abruzzo, but also in Umbria, Molise, Marche and in some areas of Latium. In any case, similar specialities can be found throughout southern Italy. Farther south in Puglia, this is called purceddruzzi and in Calabria, this is known as both turdiddi and cicirata.