il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

Kugel vs. Carciofi and other surprises along the Jewish-Italian foodways

By Maiya Urquhart*

I have had the privilege of experiencing the foods of many cultures. Eating is universal, but the variety of world cuisine is endless. I grew up with a Jewish mother, which means I constantly experienced the drama of whose matzoh balls were best. The gossip I heard about my grandma’s being too hard and my grandpa’s not being “sinkers” is something I will never forget, mostly because my mom won’t let me. The food I hold closest to heart is the Jewish cuisine that my mom’s side of the family always prepared. There is nothing more comforting than a huge bowl of matzo ball soup or a giant slice of noodle kugel.
In my opinion, some of the best eats by far are at Passover, despite the many restrictions imposed by the laws of the festivity. I find the togetherness and traditions of the seder meal to be heartwarming. I have not only been able to observe Passover with my family, but I have had the privilege of experiencing many of my friends’ family seders. Every Passover celebration is different, and that not only applies to individual households, but to different groups within Judaism. The cuisine of Italian Jews superficially seems quite different from what I know as a 21st-century American Jew, but in exploring recipes, I’ve uncovered some unexpected connections between the two.
Much of Jewish Italian cuisine has Mediterranean roots, featuring ingredients like olive oil, artichoke, and eggplant. I had never thought of any of these ingredients in association with Jewish cuisine, so I decided to call my mom, who lived in Italy for several months to study art history in college. She was so excited to hear about the dishes, as they brought back so many memories of her semester abroad. These ingredients that I had previously thought of as simply Mediterranean food were familiar to her as an expression of her religion through a different culture, making me curious to go deeper in my exploration.
Coconut macaroons are one of my favorite foods to eat during Passover, and after I found the Italian version, featuring almonds rather than coconut, my presumption of what is “traditional” changed completely. Coconut macaroons were the only version that I knew, so discovering the variety of this Passover sweet that exists in Italy helped me understand how my ideas of what is Jewish have been shaped by my American context. I experience this version along with other traditional Italian Jewish recipes with a bit of shock, because it is not the Judaism I know as an American Ashkenazi Jew.
I looked deeper and found more wonderful Jewish Italian recipes, such as pizza ebraica, of “Jewish pizza.” This dessert is typical of Roman Jewish cuisine is not what we in the U.S. think of as a pizza at all, but rather a sliced cookie stuffed with nuts and fruits. I have had mandelbrot before, which has a similar presentation, but had never seen a dish like this. The nuts and fruits are typical of Mediterranean cuisine, which as mentioned before is a large influence on Jewish-Italian cuisine, which is what was most surprising for me. For example, I think of fried artichokes as a dish I love to get at an Italian restaurant, but I have never thought of it as carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes), another staple of Roman-Jewish cuisine.
Jewish food for me is Americanized: I grew up eating matzo with cream cheese and my great-grandma’s stuffed cabbage, a dish featuring ketchup and a can of ginger ale. This is my idea of Jewish food, and I’m sure it’s as foreign to Italian Jews as anchovies and mozzarella are to me.
The study of Jewish-Italian foodways have helped me to realize that my ideas of Jewish traditions are not those of every Jew. It is now much clearer to me the influence that majority cultures have on Judaism, and seeing the varieties in cuisine has been a culture shock in a way. The traditions that American Ashkenazi Jews take for granted likely seem bizarre to someone whose Jewish experience was formed in another country. We all share our core beliefs, but there is so much beauty in learning about how many different interpretations there are.

Above, Still life with artichokes in a silver gilt wine cistern and other silver objects by Alexander Adriaenssen, 1647.

*This piece is part of a series of articles written by students of Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania, USA, enrolled in a course on the history and culture of Jewish Italy, taught by Dr. Daniel Leisawitz, Assistant Professor of Italian and Director of the Muhlenberg College Italian Studies Program.