“Jews settled in Pitigliano, the medieval Tuscan village where I was born, in the 14th century, and perhaps as early as 1100,” says Edda Servi Machlin, the author of “Classic Italian Jewish Cooking,” a recipe collection culled from her three previous books on the subject. Italian Jewish cooking has existed for more than 2,000 years–or for as long as Jews have lived in Italy. It began as the intermingling of ancient fare with pasta, local produce and herbs. After the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic seasonings added new dimensions.
“But sadly many dishes that are traditionally and uniquely Italian Jewish are seldom, if ever, found in Italian cookbooks,” says Machlin, explaining that this is what inspired her to publish these recipes. “When they are included in collections, usually no mention is made of their Jewish origin.”
Known as Little Jerusalem, Pitigliano was once home to a thriving Italian Jewish community that accounted for 10 percent to 25 percent of the town’s several thousand people.
Born in 1926, Machlin has vivid memories of Jewish life in Pitigliano, where the community coexisted peacefully with its Christian neighbors. “My father, like his father and grandfather before him, acted as the rabbi.” During the High Holidays an ordained rabbi arrived, but his role was inevitably that of helper, since Machlin’s father better understood the local congregation’s traditions.
Machlin recalls that the temple, which was open every day, was specially decorated all in white for Yom Kippur. “There was one oil lamp flickering for each member of the community who had passed to a better life in recent decades,” she says. A shelf on the western wall was crowded with the memorial lamps. During the Kol Nidre service, the names of the departed were mentioned in Hebrew and the person’s relationship to members of the congregation was noted.
“On Yom Kippur, my father left home early and we children climbed into bed with Mamma, because it was the only day when she didn’t have to start her work at daybreak,” says Machlin. “When the competition for being closest to her became too rough, she got dressed and went to temple.” She remained there until the last blasts of the shofar were sounded.
“When we were young a neighbor cared for us because our housekeeper, though Christian, wasn’t allowed to work or cook that day,” says Machlin. “But when she heard the shofar, she knew to set the table and heat the foods that Mamma had prepared the previous day.”
During the High Holidays, people who had moved away from Pitigliano returned to participate in the temple’s familiar services. Machlin recalls that her parents hosted one such family and two unmarried brothers who had become outspoken anti-fascists.
In 1936, after Mussolini allied with Hitler, Jewish life in Pitigliano began to change. The Italian media initiated an anti-Semitic campaign.
Machlin recalls how the venom poisoning the rest of Europe seeped into Pitigliano’s hillsides. While Jewish students left to seek higher education, entire families moved to Milan, Florence, Rome or Israel.
Many Jews almost completely assimilated, living as Christians. The situation declined further after the passage of the first round of anti-Semitic legislation, late in the summer of 1938.
“Right before the opening of school when I was supposed to enter seventh grade, Jewish children were banned from attending public schools and universities,” says Machlin. “We heard the news when my mother returned stone faced from shopping, holding a newspaper. My siblings and I reacted the way most children would — with jumps and cheers. But our euphoria was soon dashed.”
In time, the Servi family lost most of their Christian friends. In the street, people lowered their eyes, making them feeling like pariahs.
Eventually Jews were barred from holding most jobs and from owning radios. The Pitigliano temple, which had been home to so many joyous gatherings, was closed except for the High Holidays.
On Sept. 8, 1943, following additional anti-Semitic legislation, local fascists helped Germans confiscate Jewish property. “Then in a human hunt, hard to imagine, they drove us from our homes and rounded us up for transfer to extermination camps.”
Along with two brothers and a sister, Machlin escaped. Her parents and a younger brother were taken to a concentration camp but managed to circumvent death.
“Returning to Pitigliano after the war, we counted our missing relatives and friends — often with survivors’ guilt — but with a commitment to Judaism that was stronger than ever,” recalls Machlin.
Bombs had severely damaged the temple. “Despite the risk, my father opened the temple once a year for Yom Kippur services. As in better days, Jews who’d left Pitigliano returned for the Day of Atonement.”
In 1952, after the Servis settled in Florence, Machlin’s father brought his family home to Pitigliano for Yom Kippur. But it became difficult to assemble a congregation because the building was unsafe. As attendance fell, a child was accepted as the tenth man in a minyan.
After that, the family stopped returning to Pitigliano. Eventually the damaged temple collapsed, and the few remaining Jews packed up and left the village.
“Today there’s only one Jew left in Pitigliano. But she married a Catholic, and her grandchildren are Catholic.” Machlin shakes her head. “I wouldn’t have married anyone but a Jew — even if I was alone for the rest of my life.”
After emigrating to America later in the 1950s, she fell in love with a Jewish man and got married. Now living in Manhattan, Machlin dotes on her children and grandchildren.
She has no desire to visit Pitigliano, which she says has become overrun with tourists. “Once a quiet quaint place, the town has lost its face and charm.”
As Yom Kippur approaches, Machlin cherishes her memories of a lost world and the tastes and smells of her mother’s home cooking.
Every year the Servi family invited Pitigliano’s Jews to break the fast at their house with sweet vermouth and loaves of bollo, a sweet bread scented with anise. After the guests left, her mother served fish baked in a sweet and sour sauce, chicken breast patties with celery, and fennel steeped in olive oil and garlic, among other exquisite dishes. The meal ended with cinnamon turnovers and fresh fruit.
“My mother was an excellent, imaginative cook who spoiled us with delicious foods,” recalls Machlin. “If the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were days of penance, they were more than compensated for by the meal that followed the great fasting.”
YOM KIPPUR BREAK-FAST MENU
IL BOLLO, YOM KIPPUR BREAD
(Usually served in the living room, this bread is the first food consumed after fasting, before partaking in a full meal at the table.)
51/2 cups unbleached flour, divided
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup warm water
11/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. anise seeds
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. grated lemon rind (optional)
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. water
1) Have all ingredients at room temperature. Combine 11/2 cups flour with dry yeast, 1 tsp. sugar and the warm water in a large bowl. Beat until you have a very smooth, soft dough. Lightly sprinkle the top with flour, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and set aside in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until more than doubled in bulk.
2) In a small pan, heat olive oil. Add anise seeds and stir until lightly toasted. Reserve. To the flour mixture, add eggs and 1 1/4 cups sugar and beat. Add oil and seeds and beat again. Add the vanilla extract, salt and grated lemon rind. Gradually add enough flour to make a soft dough.
3) Spread the remaining flour on a working surface. Turn the contents of the bowl over it and knead, gathering the flour, until you have a dough that is stiff enough to hold its shape. Divide into two equal parts, knead for 2 minutes, and let rest for 5 minutes. Shape each part into a 12-inch oval loaf, and place on a lightly oiled and generously floured baking sheet.
4) Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours or until doubled in size. Brush tops with the egg yolk beaten with 1 tsp. water, and place in a preheated 450-degree oven. Immediately lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake 30 minutes or until dark brown.
Yield: two 1-lb. loaves
Serving suggestion: Serve with small glasses of sweet vermouth
TRIGLIE ALL’EBRAICA, RED SNAPPER JEWISH STYLE
4 lbs. small red snapper (about 3 to 4 whole fish)
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra to grease pan
1 cup dark, seedless raisins
1/2 cup pine nuts
1) Wash the fish thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. Lightly sprinkle all over with salt, and arrange in an oiled baking dish in a single layer.
2) Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar and pour over the fish. Pour on the oil, then sprinkle with raisins and pine nuts.
3) Cover with aluminum foil, and bake in a 400-degree oven for approximately 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 1/2 hour, or until all the liquid is gone and the snapper is golden.
Yield: 6 servings
FINOCCHI ALLA GIUDIA, FENNEL JEWISH STYLE
12 medium round fennel knobs
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt to taste
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
3/4 cup water
1) Remove and discard all the bruised and tough parts of the fennel, and cut into 4 to 6 wedges each. Wash thoroughly and blot dry with paper towels.
2) Place the garlic and oil in a large skillet, and saute until the garlic is browned. Discard the garlic and add the fennel. Season with small amounts of salt and pepper, and saute for approximately 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
3) Add the water and cook over moderate heat, tightly covered, for 10 to 15 minutes or until tender. Uncover the skillet and continue cooking, letting the liquid evaporate and the fennel acquire a nice golden tone. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Yield: 6 servings
PIZZETTE DI PETTO DI POLLO COI SEDANI,
CHICKEN BREAST PATTIES WITH CELERY FINGERS
3 pounds of chopped chicken breasts
1/2 cup coarse breadcrumbs
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 Tbsp. freshly chopped Italian parsley
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
6 stalks celery
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cold water
1) In a medium bowl, combine breadcrumbs, chicken broth, eggs and parsley. Add the ground chicken, salt and pepper and mix well.
2) In a large skillet, place the celery pieces, oil, garlic and cold water. Add small amounts of salt and pepper. Simmer covered until the celery is soft, 15 to 20 minutes.
3) With wet hands, make 18 patties from the ground chicken mixture and gently add to the celery skillet. Cover tightly and simmer for 15 minutes longer. Uncover and boil down the excess liquid.
Yield: 6 servings
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.