By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
Some years ago, while walking through Rome’s famous Jewish Ghetto, an American couple who were eating at one of the kosher restaurants heard my husband and me speaking English. They politely asked us if we knew why there was no “Jewish” food on the menu. It didn’t surprise my husband who grew up in South Philadelphia and quickly understood that these tourists had no idea that Italian Jewish cuisine doesn’t include borscht, kasha, knishes, pickled herring, pumpernickel, corned beef, pastrami, stuffed cabbage or bagels and lox. Most of these are foods associated with American Jews of Eastern European descent, but in fact are ethnically Russian, Ukrainian, and/or Polish. In the end, what they could best hope to find on the menu were items that were variations on Italian dishes made to conform to kosher laws and preparation.
Of course this stems from the fact that the arrival of Jews in Italy dates back to the 2nd century B.C.. and, as is usually the case, sooner or later all cuisine is based on locally available foods and the basic cuisine of the country or region. As Eastern European Jews adopted foods like those mentioned above, Italian Jews adapted their cuisine based on that of their non-Jewish fellow countrymen. Now, over 2,000 years later, the traditions of Jewish festivals and holidays have assimilated into the culture of Italian Jews. For Pesach, Hebrew for Passover, Italian Jews have developed their own unique style and tradition of cooking Pesach dishes. Though the basic tradition of serving the Seder meal remains the same, the traditional Seder plate is presented on the Seder table with great pomp, joy and merriment. Often the presentation of the Seder meal is accompanied by singing traditional songs.
Although the city of Venice, located in northeastern Italy, was once the hub of the Italian Jewish community, Italian Jewish food has been greatly influenced by Roman cuisine. It is quite different from Sephardic Jewish cuisine in Spain and the Middle East as well as the Ashkenazy cuisine of Northern and Eastern Europe. The traditional Roman menu for Pesach begins with Haroset all’italiana, a paste-like mixture of ground dates, oranges, raisins and figs; carciofi alla romana and bresaola or air-cured beef with arugula and lemon. It also includes carpione, cubes of fried white fish marinated in an herb vinaigrette with caramelized onions, and stracciatella, an egg-drop soup. The main course of the Italian Seder includes tortino di azzine, matzah lasagna made from vegetables and lamb together with insalata alla Sefardita, a salad of romaine, dill and green onions with red wine vinaigrette. Desserts offered generally include ricciarelli di Siena and rich almond-paste cookies rolled up in powdered sugar. However, the universal Pesach tradition of cutting the middle of the three cakes of matzah or the unleavened bread is observed in Italy with the same fervor, devotion and enthusiasm as celebrated by other Jewish communities around the world.
The Seder plate is brought to the table with great honor covered with a beautiful scarf. Celebrants sing traditional songs to pay respect to the significance of the Seder plate. Before placing it on the table, the plate is placed on a child’s head and rotated allowing everyone to have a look at it. Three pieces of matzah are tied in a napkin to form a little sack. The sack is then passed all around the table from shoulder to shoulder. A green onion with long stems is placed beside each member at the Seder table. This is picked up and wielded like a whip while singing Dayenu, a universal Passover Song. While singing the chorus, the wrist of the person sitting next to another celebrant is whipped with the onion on the stem. This is strictly an Italian Jewish tradition.
Here’s a recipe for cookies that all our readers can enjoy.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Grind the almonds in a food processor until reduced to a semi-fine powder.
In a bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed, adding the sugar a little at a time. Once all of the sugar is mixed in, add the vanilla. Continue beating the whites until very thick and glossy, about 5 minutes. You should be able to turn the bowl upside down and the beaten whites will stay inside.
With a rubber spatula, fold in the ground almonds and orange zest. Use 2 spoons to scoop the mixture onto the prepared baking sheets. The cookies should be lozenge-shaped, about 2 ½ inches long and 1 inch wide. Only put about 9 cookies on each baking sheet as they will spread a little. Dust the tops of the cookies with confectioners’ sugar.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until firm to the touch, but pale in color, not brown. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool. When completely cool, re-dust the tops with confectioners’ sugar.
Makes about 18 3-inch cookies
*Some confectioners’ sugar incorporates a small amount of cornstarch to prevent clumping. If you are concerned about gluten, check to be sure that the confectioners’ sugar you buy does not contain wheat starch; some brands have recently been substituting it for the cornstarch.