Battle Jewtalian pits matzah brie against manicotti

By day, sous chef Sam Leonard works under the supervision of chef Christian Noto at Jersey Tomatoes, a catering company, and their popular San Francisco lunch spot, Split Pea Seduction.

But on the night of Oct. 9, on a San Francisco hotel rooftop, the Jewish Leonard took on his Italian mentor in a “Battle Jewtalian.”

Patrons enjoy the smells and tastes of “Battle Jewtalian.“

Presented by Jersey Tomatoes — which works with local farms to source all of its meat and produce — and Dishcrawl, an organization dedicated to bringing people together over food, the battle had the two chefs cooking four dishes each for about 40 people, most of whom were neither Italian nor Jewish. The dishes from each chef were served side by side, along with expertly paired beverages by BBC Elite, with diners voting on which plate they preferred. A chef would be crowned the winner by night’s end.

The battle came about because both Noto and Leonard are East Coast transplants with strong family ties, and as chefs have strong food memories.

“We both really enjoy doing simple comfort food,” said Leonard. “We thought it would be fun to update the food we were missing from back home, and do our own versions, giving them a more West Coast feel.”

Going into battle, Leonard admitted that he thought he might indeed be the underdog, but he relished that role. “Jewish food isn’t regarded as worldly as Italian food,” he said. With his cuisine, he said, “people will definitely be introduced to new flavors.”

Leonard chose to stay away from matzah ball soup and latkes, figuring they were too common.

Noto grew up in central New Jersey with many Jewish friends, and his wife is Jewish (“My own 2-month-old son is a Jewtalian,” he noted).

Sam Leonard plating for “Battle Jewtalian”

“I really like his dishes,” Noto said of his competition. “Jewish people don’t get enough credit for their cuisine.”

And so the battle began. A “harvest Negroni” (grapes muddled with the classic Italian apéritif) accompanied a salt cod salad from Noto and a smoked fish plate from Leonard. Both men cured their own fish, but Noto’s salt cod with fresh garbanzo beans and gypsy peppers was no match for Leonard’s silky salmon, savory whitefish salad, pickled red onions with capers, heirloom tomato slices and home-baked bread.

Echoing the sentiments of most of the diner-judges (it was later revealed that Leonard took every vote but one in this round), Jon Thoms of Mountain View proclaimed Leonard the winner of round one, declaring, “I’m a really big fan of capers.”

Next, a “dvash Frizzanti” (a cocktail of honey, plum slices, pear and lemon juices and Prosecco with a sage leaf garnish) accompanied Italian wedding soup and chicken soup with kreplach. Though Leonard stuffed his chicken kreplach with dried fruit and nuts, it was no match for Noto’s soup, which had meatballs, escarole and an egg. Round two went to Noto.

One of Leonard’s favorite holiday foods is matzah brie, and so his third course was a matzah brie Napoleon with wild mushrooms and leeks, with a six-minute egg served on top and homemade ketchup on the side. Noto served a fresh pasta with clams. An Orvieto was served alongside the pasta and a Sonoma Chardonnay with the matzah brie.

Most diners weren’t in love with either dish in this round, but the vote seemed to go to Leonard.

Beef brisket with fingerling potatoes by Sam Leonard

Jon Steiner, who was visiting from Los Angeles with his fiancée, Thu Duong, admitted that their expectations were high for round four. There would be brisket, and Steiner noted that his mother’s version is delicious. Of some of the previous rounds, Steiner said, “Some-times putting a new spin on Jewish food doesn’t work.”

Leonard’s meltingly tender brisket was accompanied by his version of tsimmis, blanched carrots with fresh herbs. That went up against Noto’s manicotti, a crêpe stuffed with ricotta, with a pork ragu and braciole, a piece of meat rolled with stuffing. Two glasses of red wine were brought for the pairing.

Duong said Leonard’s brisket might indeed rival that of her mother-in-law to be. “He’s too young to make such good brisket,” she said, adding, “He probably called his mother to get her recipe. You can’t make these things without the love and instructions of your mother.”

When Anoushka Day, a French Jew who lives in Berkeley, was asked whether the brisket was better than hers, she declared, “No way!” But she said that her mother’s was the best of all, as she used to marinate it for 10 days on her windowsill in Paris.

Attendee Justin Bosar of Mountain View only had one previous experience with Jewish food: when he had covered a seder for public access television. But in “Battle Jewtalian,” Bosar found the Jewish food “more exciting,” he said. “There was more contrast between the different elements, and it was more adventurous.”

No one seemed surprised when Dishcrawl’s Tracy Lee announced that Leonard’s cuisine reigned supreme.

“Everyone knows Italian food already,” said Leonard. “So I’m happy to help introduce Jewish food to more people.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."