Photo credit: My Jewish Learning.
Via Rua in Ghetto. It is painted by Ettore Roesler Franz. c. 1880.
“Dress like a Turk and eat like a Jew” is an ancient and much used Italian exhortation.
It encourages Italians to dress richly, with flair and decoration but to eat simply, sustainably and well, just like the Jews.
The history of the Jewish people in Italy is long and varied. As always, it has regional variations. As a non Jewish traveller, I have come to know the Jewish areas in Rome and Venice well but there are many other cities I have visited that also retain echoes of their Jewish past: Florence; Ferrara; Bologna; Palermo and Syracusa in Sicily; Lecce and Trani in Puglia. I am drawn to these areas because of my interest in food, history and travel, but also because of a personal connection that dates back to my early days as a caterer. I make no claim to a special knowledge of things Jewish but I find the lack of awareness of the vast contribution that the Jews have made to Italy's history, culture and cuisine rather sad.
More than a hundred years ago when I first started out in business (fact check, please!), I had a wonderful group of Jewish clients who supported my catering business and my cookery school. Often, as we discussed menus, I found myself relying on my childhood memories for dishes such spuma di tonno – a light, fluffy tuna dip for crudites, fegato alle uova sode, sauteed chicken livers stuffed into boiled eggs. Then closer to home, my sister in law’s family, from Abruzzo Molise, cooked baby lamb and artichoke with egg and lemon sauce, abbacchio brodettato con carciofi, for Easter and at Christmas time, they filled pastries with dried fruits, nuts and wine. At home, we made pizza 'chi foglie', a pie of bitter greens, anchovies, pine nuts and raisins. And caponata ebraica, a recipe from our Sicilian cousins - rich eggplant, capsicum and green olives - was always in the fridge, to be eaten cold with (pork!) sausage and crusty bread. I am ashamed to say, that despite the name, I did not make the connection. It is unthinkable for my Neapolitan family to celebrate Christmas without stuffoli. My Jewish friends were delighted. They ate it for Purim and its origins as a Sephardic sweetmeat is obvious.
Photo credit: Caponata Ebraica from a post I wrote on December 1, 2017, How to eat like an Italian Policeman. Case Study #1. There you'll also find the recipe.
Pizza 'Chi foglie': A pie of bitter greens, anchovies, pine nuts and raisins. In this recipe with ricotta but for Easter it is made without cheese. Recipe at the end of the post. Photograph by Tony Lewis for SALife, styled by Michelle Lee.
Struffoli is an ancient Sephardic recipe. For Italian Jews, particularly in the south, it is prepared for Purim. My family, like many Neapolitans, eat it at Christmastime. Photo from HuffPost by Franco Lania.
To my great surprise, so many recipes that I had previously identified as regional Italian ‘classics’ turned out to have a Jewish connection. How do we account for this?
Italian Jews fall into three main families. There are the people who have been in Italy since the second century BCE. These are usually referred to as the Italkim. Then, primarily in the south and central areas of Italy, are the Sephardim Jews who entered Italy after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 when Jews were expelled from Catholic Spain’s territories. They didn’t come empty handed, or ‘with hands in their months’ as my father would have said, but brought with them the foods of the New World to establish the quintessential flavours of the southern Italian kitchen – tomatoes, capsicum, corn, saffron, citron, eggplant and fennel. In northern Italy we find a small group of Ashkenazim who came from central Europe in the early 14th C. They settled in Piedmote, Friuli, Trieste, Bologna, Milan, Ferrara, Livorno and Modena. In the ghetto in Venice, they built well concealed synagogues called scuole which represented the different Jewish communities and exist to this very day – the scuola tedesca and the French canton for the Ashkenazim, the scuola spagnola for the Sephardim, the scuola italiana for the Italkim and the scuola levantina for the eastern and Arabic Jews. In 1796 with Napoleon’s entry into Italy, the ghettos were liberated. And then after the Risorgimento in 1848-49, the ghettos were closed for good. So, thereafter, instead of hiding the synagogues, the Jews built truly impressive ones – if you are in Florence, Turin, Rome or Milan, a walk past is worthwhile.
In another post, I will talk about my experiences in Venice and the very sad indictment of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ present for all to contemplate in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo in Cannaregio. But in this post, I would like to share some personal reflections of my time in the Jewish quarter of Rome.
It was a warm and pleasant evening on October 16 last year in Piazza Santa Maria del Trastevere when we were humbled to accidentally become part of a commemoration of one of the darkest hours in Italy’s history.
Photo credit: Julie Reece, October 2017. Bella Italia Small Group Tour
On the morning of October 16th, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered the capture and deportation of the Jews who lived in the Roman Ghetto. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and sent to unspeakable camps, only 16 survived. An old gentleman, with tears in his eyes, told us that the city’s 2,000 years of history was blighted by the nine month German occupation, but then he smiled as he pointed out all the young people who gather every year for a candle light march in the Piazza Santa Maria inTrastevere and proceed across the Tiber to Largo 16 Ottobre in the ex-ghetto area.
NON C'E' FUTURO SENZA MEMORIA
16 Ottobre 1943
Memoria della Deportazione degli Ebrei di Roma
Photo credit: Julie Reece, October 2017. Bella Italia Small Group Tour. With permission.
In the Diaspora, the oldest Jewish community is in Rome. Jews have been in Italy since the second century BCE, arriving from settlements in Palestine when Judah Maccabeus formed an alliance with Rome in 161 BCE. A relief on the Arch of Titus near the Colosseum depicts the carrying away of the menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem after its destruction by the Roman army. This led to a flood of Jews entering Rome as prisoners and slaves. At the end of the first century, some thirty thousand Jews lived in Rome mainly in and around the district of Trastevere where I like to stay with my ‘travellers’.
Photo credit: View across the Roman Forum to the Arch of Titus Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Arch of Titus is located in Sacra Via, the highest point of Rome's "Sacred Way" that links the valley of the Flavian amphitheater (known to us as the Colosseum) to the valley of the Forum Romanum and the Capitoline Hill beyond.
Photo credit: Rome Jewish History Tour website.
The Arch of Titus, which became the model for triumphal arches, was built for the Roman commander to commemorate his Judean victory in 70 BCE. It shows the triumphal parade with the Temple vessels carried aloft, which is known as the 'Spoils of Jerusalem' relief.
Jews in Rome cooked simple dishes using familiar ingredients like artichokes, which are mentioned in ancient rabbinical writings. Other common Italian ingredients, such as eggplant and fennel, were at one time shunned in Italy’s markets as poor, Jewish foods but, of course, nowadays, Italian cuisine, particularly in the south, frequently makes use of these affordable regional vegetables in countless recipes.
Photo credit: the humble artichoke. Schinella's Local Market, Prospect.
I will suggest some wonderful restaurants in Rome that specialise in la cucina ebraica but sometimes it is hard to see what makes them particularly Jewish. In fact, only a few restaurants are truly kosher, while many will have pancetta in some dishes, dairy and meat together in others.
A personal favourite is Piperno, in operation since 1860. Today, it is hardly kosher but here one can eat Roman masterworks (and therefore read, Jewish masterworks), in a rarefied atmosphere with starched tablecloths and proper service. Certainly Piperno’s carciofi alla giudea is sublime. Two other old restaurants which cook Roman Jewish foods are Paris, again in Trastevere and the wonderful Da Giggetto on the Via Portico d’ Ottavia. Here, at Da Giggetto, eat anything with baccala’ – stewed with tomatoes, crumbed and fried or insalata.
Photo credit: carciofi alla giudea. Piperno's website. Photo by Alamy.
While my knowledge of kashrut laws are through my reading rather than lived experience, I will take the liberty to endorse Ba’ Ghetto restaurant for meat dishes. Here we see many offal dishes – the poor Jewish population were centred around the meat markets of Trastevere and Testaccio and threw nothing away. Today, their thrift has elevated ‘poor’ dishes to Italian standards - coratella all’antica con carciofi (sheep entrails with artichokes), fegato al miele (liver with honey) and cervello fritto con carciofi (fried brains with artichokes). Ba' Ghetto is also on Via del Portico d’ Ottavia, at number 57.
One year I stumbled into the restaurant called Yotvata and realised that by a happy chance, I had ‘discovered’ an excellent Kosher dairy restaurant. I had a series of fried dishes from their antipasto section and everything was delicious - potato croquettes, battered and fried baccala’, and mozzarella in carozza. Yotvata’s address on Piazza Cenci (cenci means torn rags) reminds us that at one time, occupations for Jewish people were curtailed to money lending, fish selling and the ‘rag’ trade. A glass of Cantina, an Italian kosher wine, pairs nicely with Yotvata’s fried foods.
While it is not the done thing to eat pastries while walking about like an uncivilised tourist, my paper bag full of goodies from Pasticceria Il Boccione did not make it back to the hotel. The world-weary women, descendants of the original Limentani family, who work behind the counter were not charmed by my dithering. In the end, they chose for me. They decreed I had to have the Pizza Ebraica which is a delicious sweet and crunchy pastry, made with raisins, almonds and candied fruits. While Pizza Ebraica's origins are murky, it was very likely brought to Rome from Spanish-ruled Sicily in the 16th century by Jews fleeing the Inquisition. It is echoed all over the south of Italy in the dried fruit and nut pies made for Christmas. I also had a rich pie filled with ricotta and cherries and a handful of amaretti. Il Boccione is on Via Portico d’ Ottavia, close to the synagogue.
A Personal Bibliography
Claudia Roden, THE BOOK OF JEWISH FOOD
Slow Food publications, RICETTE DI OSTERIE DELLA COSTA DEGLI ETRUSCHI & RICETTE DI OSTERIE DEL VENETO
Mira Sacerdoti, ITALIAN JEWISH COOKING
Rabbi Robert Sternberg, THE SEPHARDIC KITCHEN
Joyce Goldstein, CUCINA EBRAICA
Edda Servi Machlin, THE CLASSIC CUISINE OF THE ITALIAN JEWS
PIZZA 'CHI FLOGLIE' A Bitter Greens Pie made for Easter.
300 g plain flour
20 g fresh yeast or 10 g dried yeast, dissolved in 1 cup water
30 g butter, lard or oil
Bring together all ingredients and knead for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. Set aside in an oiled bowl and allow to double in volume ( this may take up to 30 minutes depending on the ambient temperature)
Meanwhile, prepare the filling.
1.5 kg green leafy vegetables – endive, spinach, kale or rape
3 garlic cloves, chopped
½ cup sultanas or raisins
2 tbsp chopped capers
10 anchovy fillets
10 black olives, pitted and chopped
30 g pinenuts, toasted
salt and pepper to taste
125 g low fat ricotta, crumbled (optional)
Cook the washed leaves for 12 minutes, drain and squeeze out moisture. Chop roughly. Sauté chopped garlic in oil, then add leaves, stirring occasionally. Add the sultanas and capers and rapidly boil away any liquid.
Allow to cool, then add anchovies and mash them thoroughly into the oil with a fork. Add the pinenuts. Add the ricotta, if using. Check for salt and pepper.
To assemble, grease a 25 cm round, shallow tin. Divide the bread dough into two parts, one part should be twice the size of the other. Roll out the larger piece to cover the bottom of the tin, line the sides and leave some hanging over the edge to seal the pie. Cover the top of the pie with the second piece of dough, press its edge against the dough lining the tin, bring top edges over and press lightly with your fingers.
Cook for 45 minutes at 190C. Cool on a rack. Serve lukewarm or at room temperature. Don’t refrigerate.