The Tuscan town where history really does take the biscuit

By Dany Mitzman, May 3, 2012
Follow The JC on Twitter

It might seem strange to visit a picturesque Tuscan hill town to sample its Jewish food. Stranger still considering only one Jewish family still lives there.

Pitigliano was once home to one of Italy's most thriving and integrated Jewish communities. It earned itself the nickname the Little Jerusalem for the warm welcome locals gave the Jews. None of the town's Jewish inhabitants was deported during the Second World War, as their neighbours hid them in surrounding forests. This Jewish influence is particularly obvious in the town's culinary traditions.

"Even though we no longer have a Jewish community, they've left an extraordinary mark on our cuisine, which sets it apart from the rest of Tuscany," says Domenico Pichini, chef and owner of Il Tufo Allegro, a restaurant in Pitigliano's historic ghetto.

Pichini has always been interested in the roots of Pitiglianese cuisine. "A lot of our dishes are the fruits of five centuries of co-existence with the Jews. Spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, were introduced to us by the Jewish community, and they still distinguish local recipes today. We eat ricotta-filled tortelli with cinnamon and sugar or cinnamon and pecorino cheese while the rest of the region would eat them with meat ragu. Tuscan crostini are traditionally made with chicken livers, but ours are made with beef spleen, the way the Jews made theirs."

Pitiglians hid their Jewish neighbours from the Nazis during World War Two

Pichini offers diners at his restaurant a set menu of la cucina dei goym (goyim cuisine), comprising local specialities which all testify to the Jewish culinary influence. As well as tortelli and crostini, Domenico's menu includes a traditional Tuscan dish of pasta and chickpeas but with the distinctive flavour of fish. "Jews added salted anchovies when they fried the onions and they'd soak the chickpeas overnight with a piece of dried cod." For dessert, Pichini serves Pitigliano's most symbolic testimony to this culinary cross-fertilisation: lo sfratto dei goym.

Literally translated as "the eviction by the goyim", this local pastry, is a speciality of the Panificio del Ghetto, a bakery in the narrow streets of the old ghetto, close to the synagogue and the former slaughterhouse, mikvah and Pesach ovens.

"The sfratto is shaped like a stick," explains owner Giovanni Bianchini "because it symbolises the one used to bang on the Jews' doors in medieval times to tell them they had to leave their houses and move into the ghetto. When the Jews were finally liberated from the ghetto, they made this pastry as a reminder to ward off repetition of the unfortunate events of the past."

The simple, unleavened pastry roll is stuffed with a mixture of walnuts, honey, nutmeg and orange peel. Bianchini's sfratto are popular with visitors but he says locals never buy them. "We all traditionally make them at home. Every family has their own recipe." Bianchini's recipe is a traditional Jewish one which he has occasionally baked kosher. "The last time we did it was three years ago but it's a huge amount of work to have the rabbis come in and get the whole place kosher under supervision. Five of us baked 2000 in two days but there isn't enough demand to do it regularly."

Pichini and Bianchini are proud that their sfratto is now included in Slow Food's list of Italian "presidium foods". The international organisation, which works to protect food traditions, communities and production methods, considers the sfratto dei goym an important testimony to a cultural blending of tradition and cuisine. Pichini wholeheartedly agrees: "Nowadays you can eat it all year but, when I was a child, sfratto was our Christmas cake. I didn't even know panettone existed until I was much older. Everyone here ate sfratto at Christmas and still does today, yet it was a food and tradition we inherited from the Jews.

"We absorbed this symbolic sweet and some other Jewish cakes and biscuits, and they've become traditional to Pitigliano itself. Their community has all but disappeared, we can still pay homage to them through our food."

Pichini may be one of the goyim but that is a sentiment that would make any Jewish mother proud.

    Last updated: 5:36pm, May 3 2012