Cucina ebraica: exploring italian-jewish cuisine during the fall holidays

photo taken by Marjan Lazarevski, on October 20, 2012, CC licensing 

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Jewish Woman Magazine.

When the chestnuts in Piedmont ripen in time for the fall holidays, Roberta Anau serves her Rosh Hashanah guests special burricche: turnovers lush with chestnuts, onions, raisins, and smoked goose.

Silvia Nacamulli's family includes Swiss chard among the ritual foods at their Rosh Hashanah seder; growing in profusion, it symbolizes a wish for bounty in the new year. But this is Rome, so we're not talking about the familiar simply boiled vegetable. "We prepare it in a delicious frittata," she says, a savory combination of the cooked green leaves, sautéed onions, and eggs, fried golden on both sides and served room temperature.

Mention cucina ebraica, Italian-Jewish cooking, and most people-Italians included--are hard-pressed to come up with more than carciofi alla guidea, artichokes, Jewish-style. Those artichokes-fried until their spiky petals open into salty, crackly-crisp bronzed flowers-originated in the Roman ghetto and went on to become one of the glories of the mainstream Roman repertoire. But they are just one of the many treasures in the complex, diverse cuisine Jews developed during the 2000 years they have made Italy their home-the longest continuous Jewish community in the western world.

After retiring from teaching more than fifteen years ago, Anau followed her dream, opening La Miniera, an agriturismo (farm restaurant and hotel) not far from Turin. A gifted cook, she prepared regional Piedmont dishes using fresh, local ingredients, but found herself growing bored. "I wasn't happy," she explains, "because I realized I wanted to explore my own food traditions more deeply."
Her clientele included many Christians. Would they too enjoy the Jewish dishes she grew up with and the cucina ebraica recipes from other regions she learned from travels and research?

As Ariel Toaff puts it in his book, Mangiare alla Giudia (Eating the Jewish Way), for Christians, tasting cucina ebraica is exotic, "like taking a trip to a foreign land." 
Today, 30 to 40 regulars, Jews and Christians, show up at La Miniera for holiday celebrations that feature not just Jewish food, but traditions as well. Rosh Hashanah begins with a homemade challah and a marriage of two family customs: round apple slices (from Anau's Ferrarese father) fitted with fresh figs (from her mother's side in Turin), everything drizzled with acacia honey.

Nacamulli, who grew up in a family of passionate home cooks, was surprised to find that many of her favorite foods were unknown to some of her non-Jewish friends. Today she teaches Italian-Jewish cooking to both Jews and non-Jews in London (La Cucina di Silvia) and organizes special cooking trips to Italy; her catering company offers a menu of mouth-watering specialties from the cucina ebraica and mainstream Italian repertoires.
Ironically, some of Nacamulli's Jewish recipes might not be recognized as such by many Italians. For example, Roman Jews created cassola, a dessert somewhere between a pudding and an ethereally delicate cheesecake, in the ghetto. Today, many Romans traditionally end their Christmas dinner with it.

Every July, Venice celebrates Festa del Redentore (Feast of the Redeemer), commemorating the end of a plague that devastated the city in 1576. Just before the boom and blaze of spectacular fireworks, one of the traditional foods eaten is pesce en saor, fried fish marinated in a sweet-and-sour sauce, seasoned with raisins and pine nuts and served cold. The dish, and its many variations, is popular throughout the Veneto region, but few, other than culinary historians, are aware of its ancient Jewish origins. 
Jewish cooks developed the recipe to preserve fish for the Sabbath day. They doused fried fish with hot vinegar, then to counteract the acidic taste, added sweet sautéed onions, raisins, and pine nuts. The Jews had acquired a fondness for raisins and pine nuts, a typically Arabic combination, in Sicily (where they lived at least since Roman times) and in Spain. When the edict of expulsion was issued in 1492, many Jews from Spain and Sicily (which, along with Naples and points south, were under Spanish control at the time) fled north, traveling up the Italian peninsula.

The refugees brought their favored foods and flavorings to their new communities, among them marzipan, a taste for sweet-and-sour, and the raisin and pine nut garnish used with meats and vegetables, as well as fish. Caponata, now ubiquitous throughout Italy, was another Sicilian-Jewish dish. A sweet-savory cold salad of fried eggplant, onions, garlic, olives, and capers (and tomatoes-a later addition from the Americas), it is still labeled alla giudea, Jewish-style, on some menus.
In fact, Jews even brought the eggplant, along with artichokes. Iconic Italian vegetables today, they were despised by most Christians for many years, who considered them the "vile food of the Jews," according to Italian food authority Pellegrini Artusi. And while the ancient Romans had enjoyed fennel, it was no longer cultivated following the fall of the Empire until the Jews re-introduced it.

Italian Jews have always been exceptionally fond of vegetables and developed countless ways to use them. Spinach is a particular favorite: even the stems might be slowly braised for a side dish or the leaves combined with almonds in a dessert.

Pumpkin and other golden squashes-perhaps introduced from the New World by Spanish and Portuguese Jews-grow particularly flavorful around Ferrara and Mantua. Jews there often include squash on their Yom Kippur break-fast menus, either pureed with onion and perhaps a touch of crystallized citron (etrog), or flavored with Parmesan and raisins as a filling for pasta.
Much of Italian-Jewish cooking is cucina povera, cuisine of the poor, and as Nacamulli points out, vegetables were often used to stretch-or even replace-meat and fish. Sometimes, as in polpettine col sedano, chicken meatballs with celery, a Roman Rosh Hashanah specialty, the vegetables are cooked alongside the meat. In other recipes, olives, potatoes, cooked spinach or other vegetables are mixed into ground meat, creating meatballs and loaves that not only make the meat go further, but are more tender and flavorful as well.
Anau prepares fritters of shredded, raw baby chard leaves and canned tuna. Napped with a lemony tomato sauce and served cold, the little fish cakes are a wonderful choice for make-ahead fall holiday menus.

In the Roman ghetto, Jews ate lettuce not only raw in salads, but also braised with meats, fish, or vegetables, such as peas, green beans, and artichokes. Perhaps these dishes originated when the sumptuary laws enacted in 1661 limited salad greens in the ghetto to the simplest ones. Toaff traces a classic Roman Jewish recipe to those laws: forbidden sumptuous greens and limited to bluefish and related dark-fleshed fishes, Jews came up with aliciotti con l'indivia, savory baked layers of curly endive and anchovies. Eaten with country bread to sop up the juices mingled with fragrant olive oil, the poor components, he writes, "make excellent gastronomic sense."
The crowded ghetto in Rome, Italy's worst, was desperately poor. But olive oil was relatively inexpensive. Cooks could salvage bits and ends of vegetables, pieces of salt cod (baccala), or the cheapest cuts of offal, then batter and deep-fry them, creating glorious fritti misti and fried artichokes to tempt the Romans both inside the ghetto and out.

North of Rome, Ashkenazi immigrants from Germany and other parts of Central Europe brought their beloved geese to Jewish communities. Soon Italian-Jewish recipes incorporated goose fat and cracklings (griebenes in Yiddish; gribani in Judeo-Italian). Anau recalls that her great-grandfather, Moise Colombo from Turin, was so fond of "his gribani that he carried them around with him wrapped in paper, like chewing gum. He would go out for a glass of wine, unwrap the paper, and snack on the gribani."

But the fat and cracklings were just the beginning. Using techniques learned from their Christian neighbors, Jews transformed the goose into the "kosher pig," preparing richly flavored salami, sausages, cold cuts, and even ham from the birds. Anau says, "we use every bit of the goose" --she makes her own air-dried, cured goose breast and serves it thinly sliced with sweet-and-sour figs,

Edda Servi Machlin, who opened the door to la cucina ebraica for Americans like me nearly thirty years ago with her cookbook-memoirs, describes another "kosher pig." Speculating why the Jews of her native Pitigliano, in Tuscany, called their stuffed breast of veal "chazarello," or piglet in the local Jewish dialect, she wrote, "I don't know for certain, but I could imagine the reason...In the middle of the square loomed a pushcart that sold hot slices of porchetta, a stuffed roasted piglet which sent forth delicious aromas. The Jews, who refrained from eating pork to obey their dietary laws, were envious of their fellow Pitiglianesi and invented this dish which of course doesn't use any pork, but is as fragrant and perhaps as tasty as its namesake."
Italian pasta, though was kosher, and Jews were just as smitten with it. As early as the 14th century, the Italian-Jewish satirist, Kalonymus ben Kalonymus included macaroni and tortelli in a list of Purim dishes.

It's likely that Jews even devised the first cold pasta dishes. They needed special recipes that would taste wonderful even at room temperature so that they could enjoy them for their Shabbat lunch. In one of the oldest recipes, thin egg noodles are tossed with savory chicken or meat juices (or some very flavorful broth), then mixed with an egg-lemon sauce similar to the Greek avgolemono; Anau embellishes hers with slivers of goose salami. Another popular version calls for thin egg noodles combined with a lightly cooked tomato sauce, aromatic with garlic and parsley.

So attached were Jews to their pasta that they created a unique homemade version for Passover, sfoglietti, prepared with not matzoh meal, but a special rabbinically certified kosher-for-Passover flour, and moistened entirely with eggs-no water is used in the dough. It is rolled very thin and baked (to prevent leavening) before it is boiled.

Passover is artichoke heaven in Rome. I once walked down Via Portico d'Ottavia in the old ghetto there at the height of the season in the spring. Artichokes of every size and hue of green and violet were fashioned into fabulous beasts and other dazzling topiary creations, standing guard outside the Jewish restaurants and shops.

But the fall holidays in Italy are a celebration of the pomegranate, a symbol of extraordinary fruitfulness to Jews. Some Roman Jews bake a festive bread with pomegranate and honey to usher in a sweet new year. Silvia Nacamulli's family grows a special variety-the onyx-used for their Rosh Hashanah veal or chicken and hung in decoration in the sukkah they build on their terrace. For Simhat Torah, Roberta Anau sprinkles pomegranate seeds on a sumptuous risotto, enriched with cheeses and scented with the peel of the perfumed Sukkot fruit, the etrog, or citron.

Which brings us to the old, often quoted Italian adage: "Dress like a Turk, but eat like a Jew." 
Well, fashions may change, but cucina ebraica still allures.

Sephardic or Askhenazi