Recipes from Home
written By: Alessandra Rovati
One of the most surreal experiences I ever had was when I moved to the States from Venice16 years ago: I found a very warm and welcoming Jewish Community, but it considered me a walking oxymoron: "An Italian Jew? Are there /were there ever Jews in Italy?!”
Interestingly, my sudden identity crisis was made more bearable by the tremendous popularity of my cooking; while I was still inexperienced in the kitchen, my new friends kept asking me how to roast this and bake that, projecting their own expectations that all Italians must be great cooks. To keep up with them, I was forced to rack up my telephone bills with countless calls to my mom and my friends’ moms, who were more than happy to share all their secrets and recipes.
This wide-spread notion that the best Italian food must be treif is quite ironic, because in Italy, local Jewish food is considered such a delicacy that some of the most defining dishes of general Italian cuisine are Jewish in origins. Take the most traditional food in Venice, Pesce in Saor, which tourists can taste at any Venetian café’ right next to shellfish appetizers: it consists of fried fish marinated in hot vinegar and sweet onions, a preparation that was apparently devised to preserve the fish prepared in advance for Shabbat before the advent of modern refrigeration. Caponata, a cooked vegetable salad from Southern Italy, also boasts Jewish origins. Not to speak of the famous Roman fried artichokes! There is even an old Italian proverb that goes “Dress like a Turk, but eat like a Jew”.
Since Italy is the only country in the diaspora where Jews have enjoyed uninterrupted presence for over 2,200 years, the result is a diverse and interesting cuisine with almost endless regional variations.
Roman Jews (“Italkim”) had started settling in Italy before the destruction of the Second Temple (the triumphal arch of Titus, still standing in Rome, depicts captive Jews in chains bearing the Jerusalem Temple Menorah on their shoulders). Their ancient cuisine is based on locally grown ingredients. Starting in the Middle Ages, they were joined by Ashkenazim in the North, and later - following the expulsion from Spain, Portugal and Sicily in 1492 - by Sephardim in the South, Center and Venice. Each new wave of Jewish immigration brought specific foods and culinary traditions to the Italian regions where they settled: in particular the Sephardim introduced Arab flavors (spices, marzipan, sweet and sour), and he Ashkenazim brought geese into Northern Italy, using them to prepare delicious sausages and cold cuts – including “Kosher ham”.
Italian Jews devised countless ways to prepare vegetables, even parts that were normally discarded, such as spinach stems. Most Italian Jews (especially in the Roman Ghetto) were poor and had to use spinach or celery to ‘stretch’ the meat of fish in their meatballs and meatloaves or stews (which, incidentally, made the preparations softer and more flavorful). The Jews even introduced new vegetables to the wider Italian public: eggplant, artichokes and fennel, defining elements of general Italian cuisine today, used to be considered inedible or unhealthy by Christians until the late 1800s.
As to absorbing local customs - Italian pasta was inherently kosher, and Jews fell in love with it immediately! A 14th century Italian manuscript includes macaroni and tortelli among Purim specialties. It might actually have been the Jews who invented cold pasta and rice dishes (now known as pasta and rice salads), so that they could enjoy them for Shabbat lunch.
The Italian Jewish kitchens opened further to outside influences when Italy was unified in 1861: Italian Jews left the ghettos and became assimilated, some of them rising in secular society to such high-level positions as cabinet minister and prime minister. Jewish cooking followed suit, imitating the structure of the non-Jewish Italian menu, with a first course, second course, vegetable sides, and dessert. This adherence to the “Italian style”, now taken for granted by Italian Jews even on the holidays, was probably quite innovative.
Judeo-Italian cuisine still continues to evolve, even in recent times. The Jewish exodus from Libya in the late 1960es, brought about 5000 Libyan Jews to Rome: their spicy and earthy dishes (combined with those of the Persian Jews, who mostly settled in Milan) constitute yet another extraordinary influence in the culinary kaleidoscope of Jewish Italy.
And for me, many years have passed since that day in 1995 when I first heard the question “Are there really Jews in Italy?”. I no longer mind. Maybe my sense of identity has changed: my kids are American, my husband an Ashkenazi from Brooklyn. I no longer rack up huge phone bills requesting cooking tips from people back home. And yet, cooking has kept me connected, over the years, with my community of origin. Every day, while responding to the basic need to feed my family, I celebrate the contributions that Jewish Italian women have, over the centuries, brought to their communities with their talent and passion.