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.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.