While Crostini di Spuma di Tonno, Zuppa di Pesce Passato, Dolce di Tagliatelle might not sound like Jewish food, Italian Jews have long enjoyed these dishes.
Joyce Goldstein made her first trip to Italy in 1957 and instantly became what she calls a "fanatic Italophile." The former chef-owner of San Francisco's Square One and daughter of Russian immigrants, Goldstein threw herself into Italian art, architecture, language, culture and food.
Out of her travels and study came "Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen" (Chronicle Books, $19.95). Newly released in paperback, the book is a beautifully photographed homage to a cuisine that dates back to Roman times.
It's not exactly the first place you'd think to look for a Rosh Hashanah menu. But the Jews of Italy can trace their roots to the second century B.C.E., making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, Goldstein said.
As in every corner of the Diaspora, Jewish cooks throughout the ages have used their creativity to wed regional cuisine to the laws of kashrut. Sometimes a clue lies in what is missing -- no besciamella (cream) sauce or cheese on meat, for instance. The names of recipes may contain a tell-tale ending, "alla Guidia" or "alla Mosaica," denoting "Jewish style," "per Sabato" for Sabbath dishes or "per Pesach."
"These are very regional Italian recipes," Goldstein said, "and often you can tell just by looking at them where the Jews lived. Sometimes what makes these recipes Jewish is the name, like Scaloppini di Tacchino Rebecca or Minestra di Esau, but a lot of times you can't tell, unless you see margarine or oil where they might have used butter."
While the book is thoroughly researched, Goldstein never sacrifices flavor for authenticity. Where she finds a recipe bland, she adjusts the seasoning. "Our palates today are not used to things simple and good; they're a little more stimulated. We're used to eating all kinds of food here, so the ante is up and we want a little bit more flavor."
She also admits to adjusting cooking times, as many of the oldest recipes were overcooked by today's standards. "These are people who lived without ovens. They brought things to the baker to be cooked and picked up later, and some things were cooked a very long time. Vegetables -- in those days you never got a crunch in your life," she said.
Trained and educated as an artist, in Goldstein's capable hands food and art blend. "When you cook you are organizing flavors and appearance, colors, smells, tastes. To me that's like organizing a canvas when you're painting, like the composition, choice of textures and colors. With art you don't have smell and taste, so maybe food has an advantage, although art lasts and food gets eaten up. But both make use of creative energy."
She is equally passionate about using locally grown ingredients. "The raw materials of the region are fabulous: Italian eggs with red yolks; flavorful, fresh chickens; vegetables that are picked one minute and served the next. Italians are totally driven by the quality of their ingredients; whereas if I go to the supermarket, when was it picked? When was it put out? When did I cook it? Three days maybe have lapsed, and it's not as flavorful."
Many of the ingredients traditionally used in Italian cuisine -- tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, pumpkin -- were New World foods brought by the explorers to Spain and Portugal, where Jews, relegated to making their livelihood in trade and import, introduced them to the community at large. They were then transplanted to Italy by Sephardim who found refuge there during the Inquisition.
For Rosh Hashanah, try Stufadin di Zuca Zala (Braised Meat with Butternut Squash), reminiscent of Ashkenazic tzimmes. And no wonder. Many Ashkenazim immigrated to the Veneto, where this Venetian stew became popular. Here squash and Marsala add a touch of sweetness, bringing a wish for a sweet new year to your Rosh Hashanah table.
Traditionally for the holiday new fruits are served, and it is customary in Italy to poach quinces both for Rosh Hashanah and to break the fast for Yom Kippur. With an infusion of cloves and cinnamon, Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe (Quince in Syrup) brings a sweet, aromatic finale to your holiday feast.
Stufadin di Zuca Zala
(Braised Meat With Butternut Squash)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 pounds cubed veal for stew
Salt to taste
1 cup Marsala or other sweet wine
1 butternut squash, about 1 pound, halved, seeds and fibers removed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and parboiled in salted water for 5 minutes
1 1/2 cups meat or chicken broth, or as needed
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Warm two tablespoons of the olive oil in a sauté pan over low heat. Add onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté until tender and translucent, about eight minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Warm the remaining two tablespoons olive oil in a heavy pot over high heat. Add meat and brown well on all sides, sprinkling with a little salt after it has browned. Add wine and let it bubble up. Add sautéed onions, butternut squash, and broth to cover and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer gently until meat is tender and squash has formed a puree, one to one-and-a-quarter hours. Season with salt and pepper before serving.
Variation: You can use three-quarters of a pound carrots, peeled and grated, in place of the squash.
Makes four to six servings.
Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe
(Quince in Syrup)
2 pounds quinces
2 cups sugar
1 cup water, or as needed
2 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
In a large saucepan, combine quinces with water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook, uncovered, until barely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain quinces and when cool enough to handle, peel, halve, core, and cut into slices.
In a saucepan large enough to accommodate the sliced quinces, combine sugar, 1 cup water, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add quinces and additional water if needed to cover. Simmer five minutes. Then over the course of 12 hours, bring quince slices to a boil in the syrup three times, boiling them for five minutes each time. This helps to bring up the rich red color of the fruit and allows them to absorb the syrup over time.
Transfer to a serving dish and refrigerate. Serve chilled.
Makes six servings.
Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of "Melting Pot Memories" (Jan Bart Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com.