Cook­ing alla Giu­dia: A Cel­e­bra­tion of the Jew­ish Food of Italy

By – October 3, 2022

Jew­ish and Ital­ian food are not, at first thought, cuisines that com­ple­ment one anoth­er. Jew­ish food — at least with­in the main­stream Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion — is regard­ed as most­ly beige and punc­tu­at­ed by friz­zled onions, the rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple fare of Ashke­naz­ic lean­ings. Ital­ian food, on the oth­er hand, recalls deca­dent cheeses, tart toma­toes, pops of basil and the dairy- and meat-laden pas­tas of Roman and Bolog­nese cui­sine. While both are beloved, espe­cial­ly through­out New York and the sur­round­ing areas, they are not seen as remote­ly sim­i­lar, let alone deeply inter­twined. In her new book, Cook­ing alla Giu­dia, Benedet­ta Guet­ta repairs this per­ceived schism, cel­e­brat­ing the rich food cul­ture and his­to­ry of Jews liv­ing in Italy.

Guet­ta guides read­ers on an expan­sive and inspir­ing tour of one of old­est Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, high­light­ing how Ital­ian tech­niques and fla­vors have long been a part of the Jew­ish diet and vice ver­sa. She begins the book with a brief his­to­ry of Jews in Italy, from the Jews’ arrival to the Ital­ian penin­su­la dur­ing the repub­li­can age of Rome, through the medieval Jew­ish enclaves of Sici­ly, the first Jew­ish ghet­to in Venice, the Libyan com­mu­ni­ties of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and the mod­ern com­mu­ni­ties in Rome and Milan.

Through­out the book, Guet­ta homes in on par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tions between the two cuisines. Orec­chi­ette pas­ta (which means small ears” in Ital­ian), for exam­ple, was like­ly brought over by Jews from Provence — not native to South­ern Italy, as most believe. Guet­ta writes, The Jews of Provence cel­e­brat­ed Purim with a spe­cial pas­ta called … oznei galahim (”ears of priests”) … which trans­lates in Ital­ian to orec­chie dei preti,”a name that is still used in small towns of the Puglia region today. Addi­tion­al­ly, Guet­ta includes many recipes unique to Jew­ish Ital­ians — recipes like Pharaoh’s Wheel,” a savory baked pas­ta dish with many sym­bol­ic nods to the Israelites’ exo­dus from Egypt and Ital­ian-style hamin.

Cook­ing alla Giu­dia also makes space for kashrut, pre­sent­ing not one but two kosher ver­sions of spaghet­ti alla car­bonara, a Roman pas­ta dish. One uses dried beef or turkey bacon — sati­at­ing those look­ing for the meati­ness of tra­di­tion­al car­bonara — while the oth­er is an unc­tu­ous veg­e­tar­i­an spin. Oth­er kosher adap­ta­tions include pas­ta ama­tri­ciana and charcuterie.

While the book’s his­to­ries and tales alone make it a wor­thy addi­tion to any food, his­to­ry, or cul­ture buff’s library (or that of any­one learn­ing Ital­ian, since the name of each recipe is writ­ten in Ital­ian as well as Eng­lish), Guetta’s recipes are com­pelling and unex­pect­ed. Mod­ern in taste, and wel­com­ing in pre­sen­ta­tion, and they offer up the best of both Jew­ish and Ital­ian cuisine.

Han­nah Kres­sel is a cur­rent fel­low at the Pardes Insti­tute of Jew­ish Stud­ies in Jerusalem. She holds a Mas­ters in Art His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford and a Bach­e­lors in Art His­to­ry and Stu­dio Art from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. Her research exam­ines the inter­sec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art, food, and reli­gion. She is an avid bak­er and cook.

Discussion Questions

The deep-fried arti­chokes called Car­ciofi alla Giu­dia is a well-known Ital­ian Jew­ish spe­cial­ty, but who knew that S cook­ies and Veal Scalop­pine with Let­tuce are Jew­ish, too, the first served dur­ing Passover, the sec­ond to mark the feast of Sukkot? Such rev­e­la­tions are fre­quent in Benedet­ta Jas­mine Guetta’s illu­mi­nat­ing book, Cook­ing alla Giu­dia: A Cel­e­bra­tion of the Jew­ish Food of Italy, as she dives deep into the his­to­ry and food prac­tices of Italy’s Jews, begin­ning in the first cen­tu­ry CE and con­tin­u­ing up to the present day. Through appeal­ing recipes and prose, Guet­ta traces the last­ing influ­ence of Jew­ish cook­ing on Ital­ian cui­sine: it was Jews who intro­duced egg­plant into the Ital­ian kitchen and who turned hard­ship and poor ingre­di­ents into such inex­pen­sive but tasty snacks as filet­ti di bac­calà frit­ti (bat­tered stock­fish). Guet­ta high­lights the region­al spe­cial­ties that devel­oped in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties large and small; for those who want to explore Italy’s Jew­ish her­itage, she help­ful­ly includes trav­el essays that fea­ture Jew­ish sites, shops, and restau­rants through­out the coun­try. Today, when only about 27,000 Jews remain in Italy, Cook­ing alla Giu­dia ensures that the sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tions to Italy’s culi­nary and cul­tur­al her­itage will not be lost.