For years, my mother raved to me about Edda Servi Machlin’s The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews. “It’s the best of Jewish and Italian cooking”; “everything is so easy”; “there’s not a bad recipe in the book.” One day, convinced I shouldn’t live another minute without this culinary marvel, she mailed me a copy.
Mom was right. This slim, teal bound volume, originally published in 1981, changed not only what I eat and how I entertain but my fundamental appreciation of Jewish cooking. The recipes of my Eastern European immigrant grandmothers died with them: Even if we had recorded them, their best dishes (kreplach, kugel, blintzes, chopped liver) were too heavy and demanding to be popular today. But the culinary culture of Italian Jewry — ancient, hybrid, delicately exotic, and yes, Mom, incredibly easy — lives at my table every time I crack open Edda Servi Machlin’s book.
The village of Pitigliano — the self-styled “Little Jerusalem” of Tuscany — had been home to Jews for some 500 years when Machlin was born there in 1926. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews accounted for between 10 and 20 percent of the town’s population, the highest proportion in Italy. Machlin’s recipes, drawn from the cuisine of Jewish communities all over Italy, are all the more precious because Jewish Pitigliano essentially ceased to exist after the war.
I am not a foodie. I’ve never watched a cooking show or subscribed to a food blog. The notion of the celebrity chef strikes me as an oxymoron. But when I open The Classic Cuisine, I feel myself transported to a higher realm, like reading poetry or contemplating the Talmud. “I work with original, ancient recipes the way one works with antique art objects,” Machlin writes in the introduction. “I restore them, using modern devices, but try not to change or modernize them.”
Maybe it’s the antiquity that gives these recipes their tantalizing tang of the strange. I’ve been cooking from this book for decades now, but I still marvel that such basic ingredients and unfussy processes yield such sumptuous food. Lamb stew assembled in five minutes with no preliminary sauté? Perfect risotto that you cover and forget about instead of laboriously minding and stirring? Stuffed cabbage far more divine than the sum of its humble parts? And all of it kosher? I find it inconceivable that this classic is no longer in print (though it’s readily available used online).
I’ve cooked from this book for so many people and given away so many copies to local friends and relatives that it’s safe to say that a little Machlinite cult has taken root on the shores of Puget Sound. Our signature dish — the one my fellow cultists demand most often and love most dearly — is hidden away toward the end of the book under the deceptively bland title of “sugo di carne” (meat sauce). There is nothing in the ingredients (oil, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, ground beef, wine, tomato paste, stock) or the preparation (chop, brown, dilute, reduce, cover, cook) to suggest that this would be anything more elevated than a hurried-up spaghetti Bolognese.
But trust me, it is. When you follow all of Machlin’s directions to the T (including the preliminary infusion of olive oil with garlic and herbs to replicate what she calls “olio di arrosto” — oil from a roast) some chemical reaction transforms these plain Jane ingredients into a dense seductive nectar. This sauce is as warm and comforting as baby food, yet as silken and sophisticated as the hautest of haute cuisine. It dresses any kind of pasta in a glistening dark orange coat that clings snugly to every strand. On the rare occasions when there are leftovers, we spoon them up the next day sans pasta — or ladle them on toast for a sublime sloppy Joe. Food snobs who roll their eyes at the idea of a “spaghetti feed” beg for the recipe after one bite.
A few years ago, I traveled to Lithuania on a “roots trip” with my eldest daughter and four Israeli cousins. We stayed in a rambling apartment with a big kitchen near the former Vilnius ghetto — the final home of a young family of relatives murdered by the Nazis — and on the last night I decided to make sugo di carne. Assembling the ingredients took some ingenuity. We spent about an hour scouring the shelves of a big modern supermarket. I had no recipe except what adhered to my unreliable memory, the rental’s pots were warped and lidless, the knives bounced off onions and carrots, the water tasted weird, and the ground beef looked suspiciously gray. But the sauce turned out as marvelous as ever. My cousins still talk about it.
Machlin, who moved from Italy to New York in 1958 and is still living, though ailing, prefaces the book with a charming memoir of her childhood in Pitigliano and vignettes of her family’s observances of the major Jewish holidays.
Machlin’s recollection of the High Holidays in Pitigliano has an almost Proustian savor. On Rosh Hashanah, she writes, “the table was set with our most magnificent hand-embroidered tablecloth, the best crystals, the gold-rimmed porcelain dishes, and the baroque silverware of my mother’s dowry.” One side of the table was arranged with a semicircle of dishes displaying such delicacies as a boiled rooster head (comb and all), salted anchovies with olive oil, sliced beets, figs, and pomegranate. The feast that graced this sumptuous setting typically included calzonicchi (stuffed half-moon pasta) in broth, jellied striped bass, tricolor (green beans, red beets, white potato) salad, chicken galantine, zucchini pudding, taiglach, sfratti (baked honey and nut sticks), apples, and dates. (The recipes for all of these dishes, except the rooster head, are in the book.)
Machlin’s Pitigliano Pesach was also elaborately delicious. I love her description of the dark, creepy underground kosher oven to which the village women descended every Pesach to bake matzo, cookies, and cakes: “Mountains of eggshells would pile up in a few seconds, as everyone went to work with precision and dexterity, knowing exactly what to do without the aid of a cookbook.” Though I’ve never tackled her whole menu, which features baby goat, we always begin our seder with Machlin’s chicken-matzo ball soup, which in my family is second only to sugo di carne as our all-time favorite.
Machlin notes that she invented this recipe herself, blending a traditional Italian rice soup with Ashkenazi matzo balls. “As often happens,” she writes, “the hybrid offspring is better than either parent.” The same might be said for her cookbook as a whole. Everything we think of as distinctively Italian is here — pizza, pasta, hearty soups, crusty breads, salty salads, olive oily vegetables, nutty sweets — but with a Jewish twist that renders the dishes at once thrifty, ingenious, piquant, forgiving, and kosher.
Machlin published a second volume of The Classic Cuisine in 1992 and a cookbook devoted entirely to dolci (desserts) in 1999, but to my mind the original remains unsurpassed. The book opens with a quaint old Italian adage: “Vesti da Turco e mangia da Ebreo.” Dress like a Turk and eat like a Jew. I would emend this to read “mangia da Ebreo-Italiano” — eat like an Italian Jew. With Machlin’s cookbook and Seattle’s bounty of fresh fish and produce at hand, I follow this golden rule every chance I get.
The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews is out of print but can be purchased on Amazon.