The Marche region of Italy extends inland about 45 miles from the Adriatic Sea and it is home to soft, white sand beaches and medieval castles. Perhaps less well-known, however, is the melding of cultures that resulted in a unique cuisine not quite like anything else in the country. That cuisine, which has a heavy Jewish influence, is especially noteworthy right now as we go into Passover, a week which, as someone who has spent his fair share of weeks grudgingly eating out of a box of matzo, can leave something to be desired in the food department. And more than 4000 miles away in Washington D.C., one of Marche’s native sons is doing his best to address some of the shortcomings in Passover food by using ingredients and techniques from his homeland to vastly improve what we eat on the nights that are different from all other nights.
Fabio Trabocchi, chef and owner of Fiola comes from Ancona, the biggest port in Marche. And for three years in his restaurant he has put on Passover Seder meal that is probably unlike any you’ve attended before. Interestingly, Trabocchi himself isn’t Jewish. He prepares food for Passover as a way to honor the strong hand Jewish culture had over the food in his part of Italy.
Ancona drew in Jewish residents as they either fled or were expelled from areas like Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East. And when the refugees arrived, they brought their food with them. Items we think of so integral to Italian food today were originally imports. Trabocchi said, “Eggplant, artichokes, and spinach were considered ‘Jewish’ foods; and though it was the Arabs who introduced them in Sicily, it was Jews who introduced them to Northern Italy.” And because Italy didn’t exist as a united country until 1861, the cuisines of the different regions grew up fairly isolated from one another, according to Trabocchi, making the Jewish-influenced food from Marche rather unlike the food in other parts of Italy. And as Jews worked with more traditional Italian foods, they developed their own unique takes on them, like a kosher prosciutto made from goose.
At Fiola the menu is mix of dressed up versions of what many of consider traditional Passover dishes (matzo ball soup with morels and truffles) and distinctly Italian dishes like fried baby artichokes. And while it’s served throughout the week of Passover, Trabocchi noted that depending on your interpretation, it may or may not be kosher. “It’s a Seder in the Italian tradition, and most Italian Jews are either Italkim (from Italy) or Sephardim (from Spain), and their dishes do not always resemble the traditional Central and Eastern European ones to which American Jews are accustomed.”
Anyone looking for a respite from the typical Passover fare can find it at Fiola from April 23-April 29 and can make reservations here. Check out the entire menu below.
CARCIOFI ALLA GIUDIA
(Fried Baby Artichokes & Salad of Shaved Raw Artichokes & Arugula, Fresh Herbs, Squash Blossoms)
"This preparation dates back centuries to Imperial times, when the Jewish community in Rome numbered nearly 50,000. In our preparation, the baby artichokes are fried in oil until the flesh is tender and the leaves are crisp and golden. They are served with a salad of raw thin-sliced globe artichokes and fresh baby arugula tossed in a citronette dressing with chopped fresh herbs and edible squash blossoms."
CANEDERLI IN BRODO
(Italian Matzo Balls, Morel, Truffles, Grandma's Capon Consommé)
"Canederli have their roots in Central-Eastern Europe (aka knaidlach in Yiddish), they are soft dumplings made from matzo meal, eggs and shaped by hand, served in chicken broth. The dough is often enriched with schmaltz."
"Our canederli are made with capon, matzo meal, chopped preserved black truffle and bound with egg, salt, pepper, parsley. They are simmered in a capon consommé infused with morels, topped with sautéed morels and garnished with shaved black truffle (the fresh truffle crop has not been of the highest quality of late, so that might be omitted)."
(Lightly Grilled Spanish Branzino, Roasted San Marzano Tomatoes, Sicilian Olio Verde)
"Dairy-free risotto made with a light fish stock and slow cooked tomato confit, and finished with fresh chopped herbs and Sicilian Olio Verde. Topped with roasted tomatoes and a fillet of lightly grilled branzino."
(Shenandoah Kosher Rack of Lamb, Spring Casserole of Asparagus, Fava & Peas)
"Two kosher lamb chops, gently cooked in extra virgin olive oil, served with a red wine sauce and served with spring vegetables (fava beans, English peas, green chickpeas, etc.)"
MACEDONIA DI FRAGOLE
(Sweet, macerated strawberries from the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, served with strawberry sorbet and Tuscan almond ricciarelli* cookies.)
*A note on Ricciarelli: Before the use of chemical leavening, one of the ways to create light baked goods was to use beaten eggs, a technique that was probably developed in the Muslim world (some people think Moorish Spain). In medieval times in the Islamic world, cooks created sweets based on nuts and sugar. By the 13th and 14th century, these cookies made from a paste of almonds and sugar and beaten egg whites had spread to Italy via Sicily and Venice. It is thought that Jewish exiles from Spain brought their almond cookies to Italy. These cookies spread to various Jewish ghettos and areas throughout Italy where they took on different names.