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Roman Holiday

Italy’s glorious food is well-known, but not its rich Jewish culinary heritage, spanning 2,000 years. In honor of the 40th birthday of Chez Panisse, I’m planning a menu of Italian Jewish classics.

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Apple-Apricot Crostada. (Joan Nathan)

Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I spent a wonderful summer in Chieti, a city in the Abruzzi region of central Italy, leading a group of high-school students. I lived with a local family, the patriarch of which we called Signor Franchi. Every day we sat down for an enormous lunch. When the pasta came out—a big bowl of it, before the main course—a hush would fall over the room. We would wait for Signor Franchi to take the first bite. He would taste it, checking to make sure it was perfectly cooked, al dente. It almost always was. Then he would shoot a smile at his wife, and we would all dig in.

I barely thought about cooking then—I simply enjoyed eating—but on that trip I fell in love with Italian cuisine. Years later, I came to learn about the proud culinary heritage of Jewish Italian cooking, which spans 2,000 years. Adapting regional dishes to the Jewish dietary laws, the tradition includes dishes like gnocchi with spinach and cream sauce, twice-cooked pasta dishes with meat, and local greens topped with fresh anchovies. Sephardic immigrants to Italy contributed recipes like spinach and eggplant dishes, while mafroum, a delicious meat and potato dish baked with a tomato sauce, was introduced to Italian Jewish cuisine by Libyan immigrants.

I was recently asked to share my knowledge of Jewish Italian food with Alice Waters. This year her restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., Chez Panisse, is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, she is hosting 14 fundraising dinners, from Sicilian feasts to Chinese banquets, in private homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. The menus are being curated by various chefs and cookbook authors like Nancy Silverton, owner of L.A.’s Mozza restaurant; Jessica Theroux, author of Cooking With Italian Grandmothers; and me. I helped to create a Roman Jewish dinner—I was given creative license to move beyond the city of Rome—that will be held Saturday, August 27, at Hillary and Danny Goldstine’s home in the Berkeley Hills to benefit the Edible Schoolyard Project.

I was honored to be asked by Waters, and I knew immediately some of the dishes I would include. Carciofi alla Giudia, Jewish-style artichokes, fried and smothered in garlic and herbs, was one definite for the menu. A very old recipe, these artichokes became justly famous in the ghetto of Rome and beyond. I have tasted many variations of this dish, with large artichokes and small, but one I particularly like came from Hava Nathan (no relation), an Israeli cookbook author who years ago interviewed the wife of the chief rabbi in Rome for her recipes. I based my Carciofi alla Giudia recipe on hers.

Another dish I was excited to make was crostada with apples and apricot. I had learned this recipe from the family of the late Francis Luzzatto, who lived in Washington but whose family came to Italy in the 16th century. (For the Chez Panisse dinner we decided to use seasonal figs instead of the other fruit.)

But for the other dishes, I decided I needed to do more research. First I turned to Fred Plotkin, the author of six books on Italian food, including Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. He told me that dishes like goose prosciutto, bacalao (salt cod), and bottarga, also called the Mediterranean caviar and made from dried, pressed mullet roe, were popular foods eaten by Italian Jews. Cities like Rome, Milan, and small towns like Pitigliano, located in the Maremma region of Tuscany, once had thriving Jewish communities. Today, the Jewish population in Italy is only about 28,000. “There have been some interesting adaptations of Italian recipes to a Jewish way of making them,” said Plotkin. “In the small town of Mortara in Lombardy, for example, the ancient Jewish community raised geese whose meat was used to make salami, prosciutto, and other products that were the goose equivalent of their porky relations. If a local risotto asked for crumbled sausage, a Jew in Mortara could prepare it with goose sausage.”

I also consulted Joyce Goldstein’s excellent Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen. Her Spinaci con Pinoli e Passerine, spinach with pine nuts and raisins, is a favorite dish of mine, with a sweet and savory juxtaposition that you often find in Jewish cooking, and especially in Sephardic traditions.

Her cookbook also includes a helpful history of Italian Jews. I hadn’t realized that one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world could be found in Rome, where Jews have been living since the second century B.C.E. The first major Jewish immigration to Italy came after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, when Jews—many as prisoners of war—settled in Rome. By the end of the first century, some 30,000 Jews were living there. Over the years, there have been two other major migrations: the Ashkenazim who came from Central Europe in the early 14th century, and the Sephardim who came after the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Because of the influx, it is sometimes difficult to separate recipes that originated in Rome from those that were imported from Spain and Central Europe. Italy’s Jewish population, always small, was devastated by World War II. Today Italian Jewish food is influenced by the Jews from the world over—Tunisia, Libya, and Iran as well as those from Israel, France, and the United States.

While continuing my research, I turned to Edda Servi Machlin’s The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, a jewel of a book. It includes a favorite recipe of mine, a wonderful pasta casserole dish that has two names: Tagliolini colla Crocia and also Ruota di Faraone, the latter meaning Pharaoh’s wheel. It is traditionally eaten on Purim, but it is served throughout the year for the Sabbath, too. Fettuccine is first boiled and then mixed with pickled tongue or beef salami and raisins, and baked, an unusual but perfect combination of salty and sweet. The first time I tasted it, I thought, “Of course—Italian Jews had to have their pasta, even on the Sabbath.” I love the dish— and years ago was lucky enough to have Edda prepare it for me—but ultimately decided not to include it on the Chez Panisse menu, as it was too heavy for a summer meal.

But the artichokes, spinach, and crostada all made the cut, plus a variation on the goose prosciutto Plotkin told me about and a salt cod ravioli. The final menu reflects the bounty of the season in California and the poetic license of modern chefs. I hope it will be a perfect meal to celebrate this significant anniversary of Chez Panisse, as well as honoring the rich culinary tradition of Italian Jews.

Carciofi alla Giudia (Artichokes Jewish Style)
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook

12 small artichokes
Juice of 2 lemons
Olive oil for deep frying
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ cup fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
10 cloves garlic, crushed
Matzoh meal or flour for dredging

1. Trim the tops off the artichokes, working around the globe to retain the shape. Halve the lemons, juice them, and cover with cold water. Soak the artichokes in this lemon water until ready to use, then drain dry.
2. Hold the artichokes by the stems and bang them a little against the countertop to open the leaves.
3. Combine ½ cup of the olive oil, the parsley, basil, salt, pepper, and garlic and sprinkle the mixture between the leaves. Roll each artichoke in matzo meal or flour.
4. Heat a large pot, wok, or Dutch oven with a cover, filled with about 3 inches of oil, to sizzling. Deep-fry 2–3 artichokes at a time for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally with a tongs; they will puff up as they cook. Serve hot, sprinkled with additional sea salt.
Yield: 6 servings

Spinach With Pine Nuts and Raisins
From Joyce Goldstein’s Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen

2 1/2 pounds spinach
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 small yellow onions or 6 green onions, minced
4 tablespoons raisins, plumped in hot water and drained
4 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Rinse the spinach well and remove the stems. Place in a large sauté pan with only the rinsing water clinging to the leaves. Cook over medium heat, turning as needed until wilted, just a few minutes. Drain well and set aside.
2. Add the olive oil to the now-empty pan and place over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the spinach, raisins, and pine nuts and sauté briefly to warm through. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.

Apple-Apricot Crostada
From Joan Nathan’s New American Cooking

4 Granny Smith or other good cooking apples
½ cup sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter or pareve margarine
2 large egg yolks
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup apricot preserves

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and grease a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
2. Peel, core, and slice the apples into crescents about a fourth to an eighth of an inch thick. You should have about 24 pieces.
3. Place the sugar, butter, egg yolks, flour, and salt in a large bowl and press everything together with your fingers or combine the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until the dough forms a ball. Either way, do not overwork the dough.
4. Take the ball of dough in your hands and flatten in the center of the tart pan. Working with your fingers and a cake knife or wide spatula, spread the dough evenly around the pan and up the sides. The dough should be about 1/2 inch thick on the sides. Press the dough into the flutes and spread it evenly across the bottom of the pan, then trim and flatten the edges with a knife. Starting on the outside and working toward the center, lay the apple slices in an overlapping, concentric circle.
5. Place the apricot preserves in a saucepan and heat over a low flame until it has liquefied. Using a pastry brush, glaze the apples and the visible crust.
6. Place the tart pan on a cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven to 350 degrees and continue cooking until the crust is deep golden brown, about 45 minutes. Bring to room temperature, unmold, and put on a platter or serving dish.

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Dr. Michael Zidonov says:

A Most Excellent Article !!! Great Histiry Lesson, and the Dishes discussed are well laid out … Brings back Memories, of growing up the only Jew in an Italian Neighborhood …

Thanks for this one …….

Thanks for your lovely piece. I was reminded of an experience I had some years ago when my son was living in Italy and an Italian-American friend was going for a visit. We got into talking about Jews in Italy. It had never occurred to him that we were a very very old community there. After all I said, who do you think brought Catholicism to you.
Later the same year we went to visit our son and the three of us went to Venice. While there we stayed at a friend of his hotel just outside the Ghetto. So we decided to take a tour. Needless to say, it was very moving. Toward the end of the tour during which we visited the Ashkenazi and Sephardi shuls, the guide pointed out the various scoulas around the square including the Italiana. I asked, what’s that? Having been raised in a rabidly Zionist family, having gone to Zionist summer camp and Hebrew day-school from kindergarten through high-school, it never occurred to me that Italian-Jewish traditions not only exist, but pre-date almost all of the others.

Mike Shapiro says:

We were doing the “usual tourist thing” in Rome, and went to the ghetto, as part of the tour. By that time, I was convinced that Italian food (not what one got at “Luigi’s or Gusti’s) was more than something special.

Then, I had the fried artichokes at a Kosher restaurant. I had met my “death row dish”. There simply is nothing better, in the world.

Edda Servi Machlin’s, THE CLASSIC CUISINE OF THE ITALIAN JEWS holds a place of honor in my kosher cookbook collection. Her recipes are easy to follow, delicious, and are supported by great info and history. Buon apetito!

Stella L. says:

Wonderful article with great recipes. While Jews came to Rome after the destruction the Temple, some of them jumped…ship in Greece, settled in Ipiros and were known as the “Romaniotes.” However the first Jews that came to Greece were with the returning legions of Alexander the Great after his death 323 BC. The first synagogue was found on the island of Delos. The Greek Jewish cooking is a mixture of mostly Sephardic and Italian as Venice occupied the islands of the Ionian Sea and many Jews settled in Salonica after their expulsion from Spain and when Greece was under the Ottoman empire.

jdana says:

I forwarded this to one who apparently is a very astute observer.
Seems the lovely photo of the apple-apricot crostada shows a garnish of a few sliced toasted almonds. No mention of almonds is made in the ingredient list or related text.

[Didn't realize how tough writing recipes could be, or editing for a cook book]

Hillel Wallick says:

A few years ago, we were visiting Rome and were invited to Shabbat dinner and lunch by a fellow we met in shul to his mother’s home. She was of Libyan Jewish heritage and her late husband had been a true Roman Jew. The food was a combination of Roman-Jewish and Libyan-Jewish cuisine and, to this day, I assert that those meals were the best I’ve ever eaten.

Adeena Sussman says:

Can’t wait to try these recipes.

You are astute! I threw in a few slivered almonds at the last minute! Joan

Mario Anzi says:

Nice article. Thanks! As a lover of Rome and Roman-Jewish food I’ve bought and tested all the guidebooks and cookbooks I can get a hold of. Those you mention are great. I can read Italian so have many in that language. I would add two to your list in English by a writer not of Jewish origin but who has written sensitively about Jewish food. They are Food Wine Rome, a very detailed guidebook, and Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome. The author is from California, according to the biographical info in his books, but his mother is Roman. The recipe he gives for carciofi alla giudia is the best I’ve found anywhere.

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Roman Holiday

Italy’s glorious food is well-known, but not its rich Jewish culinary heritage, spanning 2,000 years. In honor of the 40th birthday of Chez Panisse, I’m planning a menu of Italian Jewish classics.

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