After Years Under the Radar, Jewish Food Is Becoming All the Rage in Italy

How did Jewish food become so trendy in a country where 20 percent of citizens reportedly harbor some hostility toward Jews?

Concia, a traditional Italian Jewish marinated zucchini dish.
Francesco Cerra

MILAN - Until a few years ago, when Cinzia Leone used to tell her friends about how she spent her childhood snacking on bread and concia, a traditional Italian Jewish marinated zucchini recipe, few of them understood what she was talking about. Nowadays, most of Leone’s non-Jewish friend not only know what concia is, but are often asking her to cook it for them.

“Jewish cuisine and kosher food are all the rage in Italy,” says Leone, a novelist and illustrator in Rome. “It started about five years ago. Until recently most people didn’t even know that there was such thing as Jewish food. Now they’re coming from all over the city to eat in the [Jewish] Ghetto’s restaurants. Recipes such as concia or carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes) have become hip”, Leone tells Haaretz in a telephone interview.

The global kosher food market has been growing at an annual rate of 15% for the past several years, according to The BC Kosher, a kosher certification agency. And though there are no specific figures for Italy, anecdotal evidence though suggests that Jewish cuisine is gaining popularity: In Rome, for instance, there’s now always a big line in front of Boccione, the city’s most famous Jewish bakery, best known for it’s pizza ebraica — “Jewish Pizza,” a sweat bread with candied fruits — and getting a seat at Jewish restaurants, such as Gigetto and Ba’Ghetto, can be problematic.

This was not the case in the past. “In the Ghetto, there used to be only a handful of Jewish restaurants. Now there are at least seven and they’re almost always full”, notes Laura Ravaioli, a Roman chef. “People are getting more interested in Jewish food, and I can see it a lot in my work.”

Earlier this year, Ravaioli headed a weekly show about Italian Jewish cuisine on Gambero Rosso, the country’s major TV cooking channel — quite an unprecedented case for mainstream television in Italy. Now the chef is running a cooking school focusing on kosher cuisine, which she describes as “the first of its kind in Italy.” The school, located in Rome, is organized with the help of a local Jewish center.

In a country where food and beverages account for 20% of all exports (amounting to 34 billion euros per year), the government also sees a potential for business expansion in the kosher sector. In 2013, the Ministry of Economic Development started a program to promote Italian kosher food abroad. The ministry has announced that it will launch an app to help buyers across the world locate Italian kosher produce. The Kosher Italian Guide app will be available at the end of this month.

For the first time, this year's Parma-based Cibus, Italy’s largest food fair, hosted a special kosher section. Around 350 Italian food firms are currently producing certified kosher food, but under the ministry’s program, as many as 500 will likely get a kosher certificate within the year, reported Ansa news agency.

“An interesting trend is that some Jewish foods have gone mainstream [in Italy]," says Carla Reschia, a journalist at La Stampa. "You see this especially in cities that have or used to have a strong Jewish presence, such as Venice and Rome. For instance bisse, the renowned S-shaped, lemon-scented Passover cookies of Venetian Jews, nowadays can be found in most bakeries in Venice.” Based in Trieste, Reschia recently authored a book on Jewish cuisine, In Viaggio con la Cucina Ebraica (Traveling with Jewish Cuisine).

Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes).
Francesco Cerra

Traditionally Italian Jewish foods like aliciotte con l’invidia (anchovies with endive) are getting popular among gentiles as well, says Ravaioli. But this spillover from Italian Jewish cuisine to Italian mainstream cooking might be an older tradition than many think, she says. “According to some scholars, one of Venice’s most typical dishes, sarde in saor (sardines cooked with a sour souce of vinegar, onions and raisins), was originally a Jewish one. Which would make sense, because it’s parve.”

Reschia, however, argues that this trend is much more visible today: “Regular people are selling and buying Jewish food precisely because it’s Jewish. Though the truth of the matter is that Italy appears to have a problem with anti-Semitism — about 20 percent of Italian harbor some hostility toward Jews, according to a Pew survey — those Italians that are not hostile toward Jews seem often curious toward Jewish culture. Food is an example, but you can see it also in literature: In a country where Jews number less than 0.1 percent, Jewish authors are disproportionately popular."

"In a way, it’s part of the Italian public's broader fascination with exotic cuisine," she adds. "Jewish dishes are popular in the same way that sushi is. But when it comes to kosher food, there’s something else as well: Italians are appreciating the idea of knowing what they’re eating. To some, buying kosher is the new buying organic. They want to know their food has been monitored step by step.” In fact, halal food production is also on the rise. Alongside its kosher program, the Ministry of Economic Development launched one to promote Italian halal food abroad as well.

But Cinzia Leone, the writer from Rome, says the craving for exoticism and for healthy food are only part of the story. “Especially in Rome, typical Jewish dishes are the ultimate comfort food. You get a lot of fried vegetables, for instance, or really simple and tasty snacks, such as baked pumpkin seeds. Because Jews used to be so poor here, they came up with smart ways to cook with cheap and basic ingredients. So people like Jewish cuisine because it has that simple good-old-days vibe that it’s getting back into fashion.”

Finally, argues Leone, if Jewish and kosher food is getting increasingly popular in Italy, this is partially because, for the first time, Italian Jews are actually promoting it. “The younger generations, the people in their thirties and forties, are much more openly proud about their Judaism than baby boomers like me. The young folks have done a great job at getting [non Jewish] people interested in Jewish culture. The Ghetto is now going through a renaissance. It has become a place where tourists and Romans hang out at night. Most often than not, they’re attracted to the food.”