On a recent trip to Italy, I uncovered some culinary gems that say grazie to both the past and present Jewish communities.
But first, some history: Jews migrated to Italy in the 1400s, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. They were welcomed by the Medici and other influential Italian leaders and were respected as skilled artisans, bankers and patrons of the arts and sciences. A century later, Pope Paul IV began a campaign of persecution, but despite this Jews remained in Italy and brought many culinary traditions to Italian cuisine.
One such dish is “fritto misto,” or mixed fried, a heavenly, crunchy indulgence of assorted batter-fried vegetables. Artichokes are generally the star of this dish, but broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, zucchini, string beans, etc., are all fair game.
We had an amazing version at a kosher dairy restaurant called Ba’Ghetto Milky. The restaurant is located in “Il Ghetto,” the historically Jewish section of Rome, so delineated by the aforementioned Paul IV, who required that all Jews live in the neighborhood starting around 1555.
We had fritto misto, a green salad and a margarita pizza, which was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. It embodied the perfect nexus of crispy, chewy, flavorful, tomato-cheese-y pizza perfection. I would not even begin to attempt the pizza — clearly the magic resulted from the local ingredients and the type of brick oven used to cook it, but I managed to replicate a respectable version of fried zucchini in homage to the fritto misto I enjoyed in Rome. This would be a great Chanukah dish!
This can be made with water or nondairy milk if a pareve dish is desired.
2 unpeeled zucchini, cut in lengthwise strips about ¼ inch wide and 2 inches long
¼ cup milk or water
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Sprinkle of cayenne pepper, if desired
Canola or vegetable oil for frying
In a shallow bowl or pie plate, beat the eggs with the milk or water. In another shallow bowl or pie plate, mix the flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder and cayenne.
Dredge the zucchini pieces in the egg, then the flour, and place them on a rack.
Pour the oil into a skillet; it should be about ¾-inch deep. Heat the oil to 375 degrees F and carefully place several pieces of the coated zucchini into the oil. Do not crowd the pan.
Let the underside of the zucchini turn brown and crisp, about 45 seconds. Do not attempt to flip until this occurs or the batter will fall off. Flip the zucchini, make sure all sides are crisp and browned and, when done, place them on a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. Repeat until done, and serve immediately.
“Bra Sausage” Ragu
This covers 1 pound of pasta, and serves 6
Bra sausage was developed for the Jewish community in Cherasco in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy in the mid-19th century. Bra is a city in the region — it does not refer to the lingerie.
In 1847, a royal decree allowed local butchers to produce all-beef sausage to meet the needs of the Jewish community, which eschewed pork. In the rest of Italy, this was prohibited — pork sausage was regulated as the norm. Traditionally, Bra sausage was eaten raw, and nowadays is no longer produced with all beef; the demand for it decreased, and most Italian sausage now contains at least 30% pork.
I took a cooking class with a Piedemontese chef who demonstrated a sausage ragu and explained the history of the Bra sausage and, in homage to the 19th-century butchers who came up with a way to cater to the Jewish customers, I have adapted the recipe to meet a kosher diet. Any type of sausage can be used here — turkey, veal, beef, even vegan — and it is a wonderfully hearty winter pasta dish.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound bulk sausage or links removed from casing
1 carrot, minced
1 celery, minced
1 onion, minced
Salt/pepper to taste
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup red wine
Water/broth as needed
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil, and add the sausage, seasonings and vegetables. Sauté until the sausage begins to brown and the vegetables
Add the wine, and bring it to a simmer. Add broth/water as needed; there should be some liquid in the pan during the cooking process. Add the tomato. Simmer for about 40 minutes until the sausage is cooked and tender and the vegetables are soft and almost disintegrated. Serve over pasta.