Tuscan Coccoli Are the Deep-Fried Answer to Leftover Bread Dough
There might not be a more perfectly named food than coccoli, which translates to “cuddles” in Italian and refers to Tuscany’s favorite little balls of fried bread dough. Warm, pillowy, and torn in half to hug a salty piece of prosciutto crudo and a creamy dollop of Stracchino cheese, they really do taste like bite-size snuggles.
“Coccoli is something you know from when you are born if you are from Florence,” said Cristian Casini, a pastry chef at the Apicius International School of Hospitality in Florence. He grew up eating his grandparents’ homemade coccoli, served as an antipasto before pasta and rosticciana (pork ribs) at Sunday lunch. Now he remembers his nonni when he teaches the recipe to his students.
Fried dough exists all over Italy in various shapes and with different (but sometimes equally amusing) names.
Florentines know these crispy, fluffy, golfball-size bites exclusively as coccoli, but fried dough exists all over Italy in various shapes and with different (but sometimes equally amusing) names. Just 40 miles south of Florence in Siena, donzelle (damsels) are long, almost tubular, and stuffed with mortadella like a panino. Italians in Lunigiana, a region between Liguria and Tuscany, shape their fried dough into flat strips and call them sgabei. And in Puglia, street vendors sell spherical, olive-studded pettole (little farts) in greasy paper bags.
“I’ve had them square, opened up, and filled with marinated anchovies in Volterra,” said Judy Witts Francini, who leads cooking classes and culinary tours in Florence as Divina Cucina. “And then in Emilia-Romagna, you get a fried dough that is thinner than coccoli, the gnocco fritto. I always find it so hard to order food in Italy as everyone has a different name for things.”
Coccoli — and other iterations of fried dough — are believed to have originated as street food, when friggitorie (fryers) spooned leftover bread or pizza dough into bubbling oil. Francini remembers when the center of Florence was full of friggitorie around 30 years ago, luring students to their storefronts with the smell of freshly fried polenta, apple fritters, and bombolini (doughnuts).
Friggitorie are still common in southern Italy; calzoni fritti, arancini, and other fried delights remain popular lunch items in places like Naples and Sicily. In Florence, fast-food chains, Chinese restaurants, and kebab stops have largely opened in their place — though there are still a couple of old-school fryers, like Antica Friggitoria dell’Albero near the Santa Maria Novella train station and a newer stall dedicated to crispy snacks on the second floor of Mercato Centrale.
These days, though, you’ll most often find Florentine coccoli at sit-down trattorias and pizzerias. There’s even a restaurant named after the snack, Il Coccolo, where fried bites travel from kitchen to plate before your eyes via a whimsical conveyer belt. Their coccoli can be sweet, injected with Nutella or apricot jam at a self-service pump, or savory with preparations like gorgonzola and truffle, smoky scamorza and spicy ‘nduja, or even lampredotto — the Florentine specialty of slowly cooked cow stomach.
But according to an Il Coccolo manager, Casini, Francini, and me, coccoli are best the classic way: smeared with slightly tangy stracchino and wrapped in slivers of prosciutto. Why is this combination so irresistible?
“Allora…” Casini said, searching for the words to explain such beauty. “The hot coccolo melts the stracchino and the salty prosciutto. It’s cold, warm, a little creamy, and then the meat…” he trailed off with a laugh. “It’s a good play with consistency and temperature, something that I really like on the plate.”
If you’ve tried coccoli, you’ll understand why Casini speaks about them so poetically. If you haven’t and find yourself outside of Italy, they are fortunately very easy to conjure in your own kitchen.
For the over-achievers still making homemade bread, coccoli are a fantastic way to use up extra dough. Stracchino — which comes from the Italian word stracco (tired) because it’s made from “tired” cows’ lower-protein milk produced after a day of pasture-roaming — can be found stateside at Eataly and other specialty stores. Prosciutto Toscano would be the most traditional pairing, but you can use any prosciutto crudo you like.
For the over-achievers still making homemade bread, coccoli are a fantastic way to use up extra dough. Stracchino — which comes from the Italian word stracco (tired) because it’s made from ‘tired’ cows’ lower-protein milk produced after a day of pasture-roaming — can be found stateside at Eataly and other specialty stores.
The dough-challenged (like me) will be glad to know that Francini’s virtual cooking class students have had great success frying store-bought pizza dough and mixing sour cream with cream cheese as a DIY stracchino. Wherever your ingredients come from, just make these things and eat them as soon as they come out of the oil. We could all use some extra snuggles right now.
Makes: 2 servings
Time: 20 minutes
- ½ pound prepared bread or pizza dough
- A few inches neutral oil (like canola or grapeseed) in a medium pot, for frying
- Salt, to taste
- Prosciutto crudo and stracchino (or a combination of cream cheese and sour cream), for serving
- Bring the store-bought dough (or prepare your own dough) to room temperature. Meanwhile, heat oil to around 330℉ and do your best to maintain this temperature throughout the frying process.
- Use two spoons to drop tablespoon-size pieces of dough into the oil. They should start to puff up right away. Fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and sprinkle with salt immediately. (If you’re working in batches, which you most likely are, it’s a good idea to keep the rack in the oven at around 200℉ to keep the finished coccoli warm.)
- Serve coccoli warm on a platter with slices of prosciutto and a small dish of cheese so people can build their own perfect bites.