Hamos Guetta’s YouTube channel is guaranteed to tickle your taste buds. A charismatic Libya-born grandfather, Guetta creates and uploads dozens of videos on cucina ebraica romana – Roman Jewish cuisine – with one common thread: heritage told through traditional Jewish recipes.
Guetta, who lives between Rome and Tel Aviv, agreed to host me in his “camping kitchen,” as he refers to the cucina in his Tel Aviv home. He has a clear agenda: to teach Israelis the fine details of basic Italian dishes.
“I thought of three fun things about Italian cuisine that, despite their simplicity, aren’t properly prepared in Israel,” he says. “It’s important to me to teach the classic method of making bruschetta, supplì and the secrets of making pasta, from cooking with a mantecatura, the stage where the ingredients mix into a creamy texture that rounds off the dish, to table presentation.”
At first it all sounded pretty simple, but I trusted him and realized that I was mistaken. I asked if we could also make the fresh ricotta and Nutella roulade that I saw in one of his YouTube videos.
Italian food has always played a central role in his life, even in his childhood home in Tripoli, Libya. “The Italians ruled Libya long enough to make pasta a staple. To keep kosher, the Jews stayed away from dairy products,” he says.
“I was 12 when we arrived in Rome, desperately poor. We went for a walk in Piazza Vittorio, a huge square with a colorful market that rocked my world. I had never seen such produce. It stimulates all your senses at the same time. The colorful abundance of fruit and vegetables, the fresh herbs, the smells, the hustle and bustle of the market. It’s important to stop here and note that we arrived as refugees fleeing Libya after a month of hiding in different houses.
“I was totally shocked by the freedom with which people went about their affairs. In one spot, chickens were being slaughtered right there, and in another, there were stalls of Parmesan cheese that the vendors let me taste. Everyone was drinking wine and enjoying life. That evening, I returned to the square and was enchanted by a beautiful musical performance. I realized that this was la dolce vita Italiana.”
- In Tel Aviv, a culinary center tackles the age-old question: What is Israeli cuisine?
- How shakshuka and other Middle Eastern dishes turned into iconic 'Jewish food'
- The 10 best places to eat and drink in Jaffa's flea market
How did you keep kosher?
“Even though I came from a traditional kosher home, I tasted everything. Curiosity and interest came first. My father always said that in the belly of every Jew hides a pig.”
“You can’t verify if all the ingredients of any dish are kosher, and it never crossed my mind. For example, there was a soft and wonderful folk bread called chiriola. They would sell it in a shop near our house, and when we were kids, we only ate sandwiches at first. We couldn’t keep kosher at home because we shared a kitchen with gentile families, so my mother never cooked.
“We bought chiriola in commercial quantities and the shop owner was convinced that my father ran a hotel. That’s what we ate morning, noon and night. I was addicted to the bread until one day my father discovered that it contained lard. From that day, we stopped eating it. The original was incomparable to any kosher substitute that lacked the forbidden ingredient.”
Guetta grew up in his mother’s kitchen and displayed a passion for everything that happened there. As the youngest of five, his mother recruited him at the end of the week for hours of frying and preparations for Shabbat. From a young age he could recreate dishes based only on his sensitive sense of smell, so his mother gave him free rein in the kitchen. Everyone was excited by the results, and in Italy, this gained momentum.
Guetta believes that cooking expresses the culture and identity of the person. In a culinary event called “Pots from the Desert” that he hosts once a month in Rome, Guetta generates a nostalgic atmosphere that includes flavors and aromas from his Jewish roots, accompanied by suitable music and a raft of images he has collected along the way. He feels that this is his mission: to preserve recipes and stories before they disappear from the world.
You could chat with him on his Tel Aviv balcony for hours, but preparing ricotta takes time. So Guetta fills the pot with goat’s milk and knows exactly when to take it off the stove; no thermometer. He adds some vinegar, mixes lightly and now we wait patiently for the solids to separate from the whey and float. In the meantime, he cooks the zucchini sauce at low heat while boiling the pasta. He uses the wait for a meticulous bruschetta demonstration.
He lightly toasts carefully selected delicious bread slices and spreads them with a clove of fresh garlic. He drowns them in aromatic olive oil and salt, and finishes with round slices of tomato and fresh basil. Then comes the order to drop everything and sit down to eat. How simple, how delicious.
We devour the bruschetta in two bites and Guetta strains the half-cooked pasta and dunks it in the sauce, adding basil, mint and grated Parmesan. The right temperature is crucial, so the plates are heated before serving. We enjoy a fresh and surprisingly light dish topped off with a glass of chilled wine.
How did you become a YouTube star with 17,000 followers?
“It all started when my daughter moved to Israel and missed home cooking. Out of a desire to cook with her and teach her, I started filming cooking videos and uploading them to YouTube so that her friends could also learn. I got lots of views and realized that the younger generation values this. It’s not like following a recipe in a book.
“I started with dishes from Tripolitian and Roman Jewish cuisine, but as a researcher of cuisines and cultures, I encountered all kinds of rural cooks across Italy and here in Israel and sought out old ladies from different ethnicities to teach me and the world something about food and tradition. I got lots of views, comments and requests for Arabic, Hebrew and English translations, and it became a regular thing. I go into the kitchen, turn the camera on, and off we go.”
To prepare supplì, Guetta uses three types of tomatoes for pasata, an uncooked tomato puree. He cooks rice in the creamy liquid, and when it’s ready, he lets it cool and moves on to the roulade. A supplì prepared that morning is on the table, but most of it has been seen to by the grandchildren. I myself scoff a few slices to go with the fine espresso he made for me. “You’ll soon see how easy and fast it is,” he says and demonstrates.
It’s basically a tart mixed and set in a cooking tray. To roll it easily without it splitting, he places it on a kitchen towel while hot, rolls it up and leaves it as is, wrapped in a towel for a few minutes so that it rolls up smoothly with the filling.
On the counter is a huge jar of Nutella, a must-have in every home, he says. He spreads a generous layer, rolls the treat again, cuts it in half and serves me a beautiful two-color slice. I love how he serves each dish as soon as it’s ready so that it can be eaten immediately standing up; forget about setting the table or officially starting the meal.
Some recipes by Grandpa Hamos Guetta:
The ricotta is made with recycled water from the preparation of hard cheeses. Add milk and vinegar or lemon. When we filtered the solids that floated up, a soft and delicate cheese was obtained. The ricotta is made from delicious whole milk and eaten warm the same day or stored in a straw basket in the refrigerator and eaten when cooler and stiffer the next day.
2 liters of full fat milk (cow or goat)
6 tablespoons vinegar
Have on hand:1 straw proofing basket
Method: Pour the milk into the pot and heat until it reaches about 80 degrees Celsius. Do not bring to a boil.
Remove the pot from the heat, add the vinegar and lightly mix with a spoon slowly and gently (about 10 turns and stop). Wait until the milk cools slightly, about 15 to 30 minutes. When the solids separate from the whey and the cottage-cheese-like chunks float above the whey, collect with a slotted spoon and transfer to a clean straw proofing basket.
Smooth the surface of the dough with a spatula and refrigerate for at least five hours. Flip the basket onto a flat plate and get a beautiful basket shaped ricotta. It’s best served spread on toast with a generous layer of homemade marmalade.
Supplì al telefono
This Italian dish is made from last night’s leftover rice. “Supplì” comes from the Italian word for surprise. The melted mozzarella strands that stretch between broken halves of the supplì remind you of old telephone cords; hence, al telefono.
Supplì are usually eaten while you stand in a pizzeria, a starter until the pizza comes out of the oven. You can use any kind of rice, but it works best with short-grain rice, which is softer and juicer and thus easier to mold.
1 cup of short-grain rice
1 diced ripe red tomato
1/2 cup pureed tomato sauce (pasata)
1 heaping tablespoon of tomato paste (I recommend Mutti)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon chopped garlic clove
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 glass of water (add a little more if required)
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
A ball of fresh mozzarella cut into long pieces
2 cups breadcrumbs
Method: In a small saucepan, heat the oil slightly and add the three types of tomatoes, spices, garlic and rice. Stir until all the rice grains are coated in oil and tomatoes, and add the water. Stir and bring to a boil, lower the heat and cover with a lid.
Cook until the rice is tender but a little liquid is left (about 25 to 30 minutes), like making risotto. Stir occasionally and add water if the rice is still hard after the liquid evaporates.
Once the rice is soft and creamy, add the Parmesan and stir. Set aside to cool so you can shape the supplì with your hands.
Using your hands, form a ball the size of a ping pong ball, flatten it on your palm, place a piece of mozzarella in the center and close it in an oval shape, like kibbe. Repeat this for the whole batch.
In a small, deep pan, heat oil for shallow frying, up to half the height of the supplì.
Roll each ball in breadcrumbs until well coated. Transfer to the hot oil and fry on both sides until the coating is crisp and golden. Transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper towels and serve.
Rotolo alla Nutella
A classic Italian homemade dessert loved by both children and adults. It’s a thin and elastic sponge cake smeared with Nutella, rolled like a roulade and sliced.
3 eggs separated into whites and yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 jar of Nutella
Have on hand:
1 clean kitchen towel
Method: Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
In the mixer bowl, whisk the egg whites to a firm foam. Transfer to a separate bowl.
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until you get a light frothy foam. Add the flour, baking powder, oil and orange juice and mix lightly until they blend together. Add the whipped egg whites and mix gently with folding motions until the egg whites are well absorbed into the mixture.
Pour the batter into an oven pan lined with baking paper using a spatula to form a rectangle.
Bake for about 10 minutes until lightly golden. The cake will slightly shrink, which is fine.
Lightly moisten and then squeeze a clean kitchen towel. Spread it on the work surface, lift the cake with the baking paper and flip onto the towel. Remove the baking paper and roll the towel with the cake on it into a tight scroll. Leave as is for five minutes to stabilize the shape.
Open the roll and spread the cake with a nice layer of Nutella. Roll again into a scroll (without the towel) and place with the opening facing down. Slice and eat.
This word comes bruciatura – scorching – which is done to the bread during preparation. In Italy it’s customary to burn the bread on a hot frying pan over an open fire or on a charcoal grill. Otherwise, a generic toaster will do.
Guetta says the following may sound silly but there is a recipe, or rather, there are strict guidelines, for making bruschetta. The Israeli interpretation of bruschetta may be creative and tasty, but if you don’t follow the rules it’s not bruschetta but a crostini or something else.
Oil plays a critical role; it must be delicious and used very generously. Guetta highly recommends cortina, an instantly flavored olive oil. He says he really likes the one pressed on Kibbutz Magal in the north because it tastes similar to the olive oil he makes in Italy.
Slices of airy and light sourdough bread as the number of diners
Fresh garlic cloves
High-quality olive oil
Solid red tomato cut into round slices 1/2 cm thick
Method: Halve the slices of bread and toast well. While hot, rub each slice with a clove of fresh garlic.
Place each half slice of toasted bread on a saucer and cover with a lot of olive oil, enough to seep in until a small puddle forms under the slice.
Salt the slices and top them with a slice of tomato and fresh basil leaf. Eat immediately.
Pasta con zucchine e latte
A light and refreshing summer dish that goes great with a glass of chilled wine. Everybody thinks they know how to make pasta, but actually the term “al dente” has been misunderstood.
First, the word “dente” should be pronounced “dente,” not “dante” – literally, to the tooth. The intention is to cook the pasta halfway and finish cooking it in the boiling sauce until it hits the sweet spot. Therefore, always make the sauce first and cook the pasta only once the sauce is almost done.
Guetta replaced squash with Israeli zucchini, which he thinks is just as sweet and delicious. What’s great about the sauce, he says, is that you can throw in any leftover cheese that might even be out of date. In Italy, you keep old cheese rinds left forgotten in the refrigerator. Remove the mold with a knife and use the inside of the rind to add great flavor.
500 g dry pasta (fettuccine or penne)
5 liters of water
1 tablespoon of salt
For the sauce:
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound of solid and beautiful zucchini, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 glass of water
3 cups milk (or less, depending on desired consistency)
100 to 150 g coarsely grated hard cheese (optional)
1 handful of fresh basil leaves
1 handful of fresh mint leaves
5 tablespoons grated Parmesan
Method: Pour the oil, garlic and zucchini into a large pot and fry for two minutes. Add a glass of water so as not to scorch the garlic and zucchini. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and cook for a few minutes until the zucchini softens slightly.
Once the sauce starts to bubble, add the milk; then add the cheese and stir until it melts. Taste, season with salt and pepper, cover and continue to cook over a low flame.
At the same time, boil a large pot of salted water. Add the pasta, stir and cook halfway through (half the amount of time indicated on the package). Strain the pasta when chewable but still firm.
Add the Parmesan, mint and basil leaves, as well as the desired amount of pasta to the sauce. (If you don’t use the entire amount, transfer to a bowl, add oil, mix well and keep in the fridge for next time.) Stir and cook everything together for a few more minutes. The pasta will continue to cook in the hot sauce so that even if it doesn’t feel soft enough, it’s fine.
Taste and add salt as needed. Serve immediately (it’s recommended to heat the plates in a microwave before serving).