Italian seder dishes also please Catholics

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ROME — A recent book by an Israeli-based scholar provides a fascinating — and mouthwatering — glimpse at how Italian Jews sat down to the seder 100, 200 and even 500 years ago.

"Mangiare alla Giudia," or "Eating the Jewish Way," by Ariel Toaff, a professor at Bar-Ilan University who is the son of Rome's chief rabbi, is not a cookbook and does not include recipes.

Rather, it details the history and development of Italian Jewish cuisine from the Renaissance to modern times. It vividly shows how kashrut came together with Italian culinary art and how Jewish ways of eating influenced and were influenced by local tastes.

The book devotes a full chapter to Passover traditions.

Toaff describes how Jewish cooks adapted Italian dishes to the Passover requirements and also sheds light on the partly hostile and partly symbiotic relations between Italian Jews and Catholics.

Jews have lived in Italy for more than 2,000 years. The community was enriched in the late 15th and 16th centuries by Sephardic refugees from Spain and Portugal, and also over the centuries by Ashkenazi newcomers from Central Europe.

Jews in many places in Italy were forced to live in ghettos starting in the 16th century, and the Catholic authorities took other firm steps to separate the two groups. Nonetheless there was a rich, if tense, interplay between Jews and Christians in many places.

Food played a major role in this interplay. The rules of kashrut meant that eating habits were a key factor that set Jews apart from Christians. Food thus was a powerful symbol of Jewish identity and could be a potent source of fascination for non-Jews.

"The food shops in the ghetto bustled with Christian clients, gluttonous rather than hungry, while outside the Jewish quarters, cooks and bakers did not balk at trying Jewish recipes," Toaff writes.

Hundreds of years ago many foods now firmly identified with Italian cooking — such as the eggplant — were considered "Jewish" delicacies.

For a Christian, Toaff writes, "eating an artichoke cooked Jewish-style or sampling a piece of matzah was tantamount to taking a trip to a foreign land."

Indeed matzah, writes Toaff, "was considered, by common consent, the 'Jewish food' par excellence."

And matzah, he writes, was so popular among Italian Christians that in Rome, Mantua, Reggio Emilia and other cities Catholic authorities striving to keep Jews and Christians apart frequently banned Jews from selling matzah to non-Jews and banned Christians from eating it.

An edict issued in Reggio Emilia in 1701, for example, barred Christians from "receiving and eating the unleavened bread of the Jews." And in 1775, Pope Pius VI stipulated a heavy fine for both Jews who sold or gave matzah to Christians and Christians who obtained matzah from Jews. Italian Jewish bakers in fact prepared various types of matzah for Passover: plain matzah for the intermediate days of the holiday, strictly controlled ritual shmurah matzah for the seders, and, for refined tastes, the so called "rich" or fancy matzah, a sweet delicacy made with white wine, eggs, sugar, anise and goose fat.

According to one account dating from 1683, the matzah, and particularly the "rich matzah," baked in the Adriatic port of Ancona was so renowned for its quality that wealthy Jews in Venice spared no expense to import it for their seder tables.

Passover has always involved the creation of distinctive dishes based on the special dietary restrictions of the holiday.

"Given the amount of dietary restrictions and prohibitions that were either permanent or linked to the holiday, cooking and eating well during Passover were difficult arts," Toaff writes. "They required knowledge and experience and did not allow for improvisation."

That said, it should come as no surprise that in Italy, home to one of the world's great cuisines, Jewish cooks over the centuries invented a host of elaborate but ritually correct dishes that even include a type of kosher-for-Passover pasta.

Called "sfoglietti" or "foglietti," these are noodles made with flour and eggs, but without water, quickly dried and baked in a hot oven and then served in soup or with sauce.

Toaff describes dishes still served at Italian seders whose origins date back to the Renaissance or Medieval times.

These are dishes such as "scacchi" — or "checkers," squares of matzah soaked in capon broth, browned in goose fat and baked in alternating layers with cooked greens or poultry giblets.

In Venice, the matzah squares were not baked, but cooked in a pan on top of the stove, with legumes — peas, fava beans or lentils — which are considered kosher for Passover in the Italian tradition.

The menu for a seder in the central Italian city of Urbino on April 10, 1892, included, among other things, scacchi and a form of Passover pasta in broth, boiled meat served with goose salami, salad and desserts made from marzipan, matzah meal and quince preserves.

One writer in 1738 described charoset made of "apples, pears, figs, almonds, hazel nuts and similar things, cooked in wine." But some families used ingredients such as dates, raisins, cinnamon, pine nuts and — particularly in parts of northern Italy — boiled chestnuts.

Pastry chefs and confectioners outdid themselves at Passover in creating a rich array of unleavened sweets.

Venice was famous for unleavened cakes in the shape of snakes, round sweets made from eggs, sugar and matzah meal, unleavened cakes stuffed with marzipan and flat, doughnut shaped cakes rolled in sugar and cinnamon.

Tuscan Jews ate thick cakes made from matzah and egg, and in Ferrara the specialty was matzah fritters made with egg, honey, cinnamon, candied citron, pine nuts and raisins.

Jews in Rome, forced to live in a ghetto until 1870, were famous for lemon sorbet, almond cookies and "pizzarelle con miele" — matzah that was soaked, squeeze dried, fried in olive oil until crisp and served covered with pine nuts, raisins and heated honey.