It is fitting that the front cover of Benedetta Jasmin Guetta’s new cookbook (her first in English) should feature carciofi alla giudia. If ever a dish symbolised Jewish influence on Italian cuisine it is this. You’ll find these crispy deep-fried globe artichokes all over Rome, snack fodder seemingly amalgamated in to the city’s ancient fabric. Yet they originally sprung from its Ghetto. In 1555 Pope Paul IV forced the Jews to be segregated into ghettos.
The first was in Venice and the site was originally a foundry surrounded by canals. The word ghetto comes from gettato, meaning cast metal. The Roman one, which lasted for 300 years, was around the Portico d’Ottavia. Even today the city’s 15,000-strong Jewish population congregates around that area.
The artichoke dish’s true ethnicity make an interesting footnote in Guetta’s Cooking alla Giudia: “In 2018 the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared that carciofi alla giudia are not kosher because they might conceal non-kosher insects. Roman Jews disagree, arguing that the artichoke leaves are so thick and dense that insects cannot penetrate the artichoke. In my opinion carciofi alla giudia are kosher.”
Splitting hairs over antipasti, well that’s a first. Or maybe not in the tangled interface of Jewish and Italian food culture, which Santa Monica, California-based Benedetta has explored in the blog Labna for well over a decade.
Hence her book offers 100 tried and tested recipes with a host of useful hints. In Italy the carciofi, to be at its best, is made with the softer and larger Romanesco artichokes harvested between February and April along the coastal strip north of Rome. Unusually, instead of the normal, cheaper sunflower or peanut they are double-fried in extra virgin olive oil.
Thrift, though, was born of necessity in the Ghetto. Take Zuppa di Pesce, another perennial favourite of the Eternal City. Once it was a speciality only of the fishing villages but the Jews turned it into a delicacy by making the best of scraps from the local market. Often eked out into a full meal with pasta or bread added to the broth. Note: the book’s version is more elevated, employing red snapper, tuna and sardines with dry white wine.
Fish features a lot. In Venice I combined visiting the ghetto/synagogue cluster in the Cannreggio quarter with a classic cicchetto, Sarde in Saor. Everything about it sings of the migratory influence of Spain’s Sephardic Jews. Sardine fillets are fried and then marinated in vinegar with soft onions before pine nuts and raisins are sprinkled on top. Virtually the same dishes features for Shabbat and Rosh Hashannah in the Jewish Calendar, the author points out.
This is not such a far remove in its flavourings from another dish with obvious Levantine/Jewish credentials, aubergine-led caponata half-stew, half-salad from that ultimate culinary melting pot, Sicily.
Ultimately, these are the connections the book traces, wearing its scholarship lightly and accessible to home cooks. I might cook recipes from Claudia Roden’s monumental masterpiece, The Book of Jewish Food, but I’m more likely to consult it for historical background. The last cookbook to attempt what Guetta is doing is the out of print Edda Servi Machlin’s Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews from 40 years ago.
It is startling to discover pasta dishes and puddings you considered essentially Italian have, at least partially, in a very different culture. It works both ways, too, as strict Jews devise ways to adapt Italian staples to their own kosher dietary laws. Take the Lasagne Kasher, where beef replaces pork and the bechamel is made with olive oil and broth rather than butter and milk. Or you could swap for a Tuscan alternative, Scacchi, a matzo, meat and veg casserole. Expect, in season artichokes to be included! In truth, I think her honey matzo fritters are a better use of these unleavened flatbreads.
Cooking alla Giudia: a celebration of the Jewish food of Italy by Benedetta Jasmine Guetta (Artisan Books, £30). The main picture is of Sarde in Saor from the book © Ray Kachatorian.