By Melissa Cannavo-Marino
Though people wouldn’t think so, given the presence of the Vatican, Italy has always had a significant Jewish population — the urban Roman Jewish community at the time of Tiberius (14-37 AD) is estimated to have been 60,000 strong, and many Jews fleeing persecutions elsewhere in Europe settled in the Peninsula during the Renaissance; Ferrara, Venice, and Rome, among other cities, had flowering communities. Alas, many of the most vibrant Jewish communities were north of the Front on Sept. 8, 1943, and therefore fell into Nazi hands following the Fascist collapse — up until then Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and minister of the Interior, had systematically stymied German attempts at deportation by having his bureaucrats find fault with the requests or tell the Germans that the necessary papers had expired or were missing (there was a war on, after all). The Germans were incensed and Himmler accused Ciano of subversion, but there wasn’t much they could do until they had direct control.
Mira Sacerdoti and her family were among the fortunate; they managed to get to Korcula, an island in the Adriatic off Yugoslavia, and though German airplanes occasionally strafed their town they were otherwise left alone. After the war she returned to a changed land — families were scattered and entire communities had vanished. With time, however, many of the survivors returned and established families; the reconstruction began.
One unexpected victim of the tragedy was Italian Jewish cooking; it was primarily family oriented, and almost entirely passed on from mother to daughter, aunt to niece. Many of the younger women establishing families had been too young to cook before the war and now had nobody to turn to. Mira, on the other hand, still had her mother to learn from and remembered the dishes prepared by her aunts and neighbors. Once her children were grown they asked her to write down the recipes they had loved in childhood. She did, under the title “Italian Jewish Cooking.” The book is delightfully written, with lots of recipes and menus for the major Jewish holidays. During Hanukkah week, she notes, it’s the custom to serve sweets and especially foods fried in oil, as the oil used in the frying also commemorates the miraculous oil that kept the sacred flame of the Temple alight for eight days following the victory of the Maccabeans over Antiochus of Syria in 165 BC.
Except for the region around Südtirol/Alto-Adige, tortei delle patate or potato pancakes (latkes) are foreign to Italian Jews, so don’t look for a latke recipe in Mira’s cookbook. But here are two suggestions that go good on any Italian table.
Eggplant is supremely well suited to being fried. This fried eggplant recipe is Italian Jewish, and, because it is fried, perfect for Hanukkah.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Eggplant was a staple food of the south, and I have found a number of recipes fairly similar to this in southern Italian cookbooks. Quarter the eggplant lengthwise and cut the quarters into 1-inch pieces. Put them in a colander, sprinkle them well with salt, cover them with a weighted plate, and let them sit for a couple of hours. Then rinse away the bitter juices and pat the eggplant dry. Heat the oil in a pot; add the garlic and some parsley, then the eggplant. Cover and cook over a medium flame until the eggplant pieces are fairly tender, then uncover, turn the flame up, and continue cooking until they are browned. Remove the eggplant from the pot to a heated serving platter with a slotted spoon, sprinkle with more parsley, and serve hot. Yield: 6 servings fried eggplant. For dessert try precipizi, fritters that bring to mind Neapolitan struffoli.
Mix the eggs, flour, sugar, olive oil and liquor to obtain smooth, soft dough. Shape it into almond-sized balls. Heat the oil in a pot and fry them until they are golden brown, then drain them well on absorbent paper. Lightly oil your work surface (it must be heat resistant). Put enough honey to cover all the balls in a pot and heat it. When it’s quite hot stir in the dough balls, then pour the mixture out onto your work surface, spreading the balls out so they’re close to each other but not touching. Using a greased knife, cut the mixture into 1-by-2-inch rectangles, transferring the cut pieces to another lightly greased platter and keeping them separate so they don’t stick to each other. As they cool they will harden, and at that point be ready.
Happy Holidays to All!