Food /
Flavors of Italy

One Recipe, A Thousand Different Names: Cenci

Were they fritters eaten in Ancient Rome’s streets or a sweet complement to the afternoons of royalty and nobility at the House of Savoy? Chiacchiere, or bugie or cenci or gale, have a history that scents of centuries and take you far back in time, getting lost in legends, grandmothers’ secrets and recipes written by connoisseurs. They are the undisputed stars of Carnival, whether they are fried or baked, plain, with ricotta or chocolate, in their simplicity they tell a lot more: Italian history, its popular festivals, customs and traditions which, as often happens in this country, are first and foremost brought to the dining table. 

Many historians decide Chiacchiere’s link with Carnival because of their similarities with frictilia. They were simple and delicious pancakes made of flour and eggs often dipped in honey and distributed to the crowds during the Saturnalia festivities, when semel in anno licet insanire (once a year it is licit to do crazy things). These popular celebrations belonged to Ancient Rome’s culture at the end of December, with the Winter solstice, when rich, poor, slaves and free people indulged in great revelry. It was a true hymn to escapism, so much so that it was permitted to disguise from one social class to another, even for a few hours. Only in the late Middle Ages did the festival move closer to the Spring equinox, thus becoming today Carnival. Marcus Gavio Apicius wrote the first words on frictilia in his “De Re Coquinaria”, a collection of Roman cooking recipes that he wrote in the first century AD. 400 grams of flour, three eggs, 50 grams of butter, 70 grams of sugar. Addition of white wine made them crunchy and slightly puffy. Today, some people add Marsala wine, others three tablespoons of limoncello, others Vin Santo or grappa, but the fact is that the recipe, so simple and with poor ingredients, has remained practically unchanged over the centuries and is still prepared in large quantities today. 

Like every story that spreads its roots in distant centuries, Chiacchiere’s one has at least a second version, this time linked more to the name than to the ingredients. Leave Ancient Rome, travel to the end of the 19th century, when Italy was a monarchy, and land in Campania, in Savoy’s House. The protagonist seems to be again Queen Margherita who, wishing to enjoy something sweet while entertaining her guests, asked the court chef Raffaele Esposito (the same who invented pizza Margherita!) to prepare something sweet to serve. And so Chiacchiere were born. Their name took inspiration to the occasion when they were first created and served.

Today, the lard used in the frictilia has been replaced by seed oil, the cooking process has been changed to a lighter one in the oven, and you don’t need to be with Royals to enjoy them. However, all the magic still lasts of this sweet that has accompanied Italy throughout its centuries of history and cuisine.

Cenci in Tuscany, frappe in Rome, galani in Veneto, cròstoli in Friuli. The name of chiacchiere varies from region to region and sometimes from city to city. In Piedmont they are called bugie or risòle, in Liguria, they are also called bugie or in the Genoese dialect boxie. In Lombardy, they are called gale, gali or lattughe in the province of Mantua. In Tuscany, they are also known as struffoli or crogetti. In Emilia Romagna, they are called rosoni or sfrappole, but in the province of Ferrara, they become cróstoli and Trentino. In Venice, they are called galani. Moving south, chiacchiere become frappe in Lazio and sfrappe in Marche, cioffe in Abruzzo, cunchielli in Molise, guanti in Calabria and maraviglias in Sardinia.