Michael Solitro Jr. left behind one giant “PUDDIN’ Hat” to fill.
In the thick of their first zeppole season without him, Solitro’s daughters, son and grandchildren have been taking turns filling the Italian flag colored chef’s cap.
Solitro’s Bakery, a Cranston institution since 1950, has been crowned the region’s Best Zeppoles in a contest held by Beacon Communications, publisher of The Cranston Herald, Warwick Beacon and The Johnston Sun Rise.
Michael Solitro Jr. died in November 2021, at 88 years old. He founded the Cranston Street bakery with his three brothers, George, Armando and Larry 72 years ago. The shop first opened across the street, and then built the current location two years later.
“My father was a master baker,” said Elena Pennacchini, who now owns Solitro’s Bakery. “As the years went on they started training me.”
In the Best Zeppoles Contest, Solitro’s Bakery competed against Johnston’s Original Italian Bakery, Palmieri’s Bakery and Bread Boss; Cranston’s DeLuise Bakery, Buono’s Bakery and Calvitto’s Pizza & Bakery; and Warwick’s A&J Bakery.
Readers voted for one bakery per ballot, and entries were dropped off or mailed to the Beacon Communications newsroom, left at Johnston’s Tailor on the Avenue, 1395 Atwood Ave., or emailed to our staff.
The secret to a good zeppole? Pennacchini insists it’s all about the cream-filling.
“Oh, it’s the cream; definitely, small batches of cream,” she said. “We make it from scratch. It’s mostly just eggs, sugar, vanilla, milk ...”
Pennacchini trailed off before divulging the full recipe.
“Scratch baking is not easy to come by,” she said, from behind the glass counter of the 1594 Cranston St. pastry and bread shop. “It’s hard work; long hours.”
By the time the business founder and family patriarch passed away last year, he had raised a kitchen full of children who were proud to carry on their father’s legacy. Some of those kids have had kids of their own now, and baking behind the scenes at Solitro’s has become a cooperative, family affair.
“On all the holidays, all my sisters come in to help,” Pennacchini said.
On Tuesday morning, Pennacchini and two of her sisters, Diane Notarianni and Paula Arlia were busy stocking the display case with wine biscuits and elephant ears, fresh-baked rolls and of course, the season’s specialty, zeppoles.
Michael Solitro III was hiding in the back, toiling with flour and eggs, and dressed in a mostly white powdered sugar tuxedo.
Most of the Solitro siblings live in Cranston.
Brendan Notarianni, Diane’s son, was stationed at a long table topped with antique scales, filling fresh pastry shells, dusting and topping them with cherries.
Missing today, but often working at the bakery through the holidays, two more sisters, Michelle Fitzgerald and Francesca Solitro, both live in Johnston.
While Elena and her husband, Eddie Pennacchini, are the current owners of Solitro’s Bakery, the whole family shares the burden of assembling 18,000-20,000 zeppoles each year, between February and St. Joseph’s Day.
The zeppole choices are simple at Solitro’s.
“We make baked and fried,” Pennacchini said in the back, rolling subtly purple piles of dough into small circular twisted wine biscuits. “We just stick with the traditional pastry and cream.”
Before his death, Michael Solitro Jr. would wear a fading fluffy baker’s hat emblazoned with the word “PUDDIN’,” as he stuffed the zeppole shells with fresh cream filling. The hat remains behind the counter; the chunky lump of fabric will always be one of the bakery’s prized possessions.
Some days Brendan dons the PUDDIN’ hat. And other days it’s Michelle’s honor.
As they gather to create enough zeppoles to fill a zeppelin, the Solitro’s admit this year’s St. Joseph’s Day will be bittersweet. Passing the PUDDIN’ hat helps them take a moment to remember the four founders who taught them the family business.
“Dad loved St. Joseph’s Day,” Pennacchini recalled. “He loved wearing his PUDDIN’ hat.”
Now, several Solitro generations are taking turns trying to fill it.
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