Sicily beckons. Not just because it’s a picturesque Mediterranean island, though that certainly helps. And not just because it was the home to my dad’s grandparents before they emigrated to the United States as young adults, though I very much look forward to exploring their Sicilian surrounds when I go. It’s also because it served as a vibrant outpost of Jewish life for centuries. While few physical remnants remain of the community that may have reached 100,000 at its peak, one fascinating marker of their Jewish-Italian experience endures: their influence on Italy’s cuisine.
The story begins with the Jewish exiles, slaves, traders and merchants who started arriving in southern Italy in significant numbers after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. The community slowly grew and lived relatively well until the late 1400s. Adapting local, seasonal ingredients and regional cooking methods to Jewish dietary rules made Jewish-Italian cooks quite imaginative—and flexible when they could be. Notably, they were more willing to try new fruits and vegetables.
Take the eggplant. Some historians believe that Jewish exiles or traders introduced eggplant to Sicily from other parts of the Mediterranean, though it is possible the nightshade fruit arrived with the Arab conquerors in the ninth century. Either way, the Italians perceived eggplant to be poisonous. That left more for Sicilian Jews, who found gastronomic treasure in its meaty flesh that took well to roasting and frying.
The Jews also sought dishes that could be prepared before Shabbat and would still be good to eat the next day. The eggplant proved remarkable for this purpose as well, once they stewed it with a little vinegar and other vegetables, sometimes adding pine nuts and currants, too, a combination they adopted from Arabs. That dish, eggplant caponata, became popular throughout Sicily (it’s also known today as Sicilian caponata), and eggplant remained a staple of Jewish-Italian cooking.
Sicilian Jews were also among the first people in Italy to adopt foods brought to Europe by Spanish explorers returning from the New World—like tomatoes and peppers. When Spanish rule of Sicily in the late 1400s forced Jews north into central and northern Italy, they carried their food traditions and preparations with them. Many Italians regarded these new foods with suspicion or disdain, calling eggplants “vile” and dismissing peppers as “poor man’s food.” But, of course, eventually they came around.
Peppers became welcome in many recipes, but one prized by Sephardic Jews was stuffed peppers. That hollow core and box-like structure just called out for a filling. Meat and grains were common fillings, and in Italy, cheese fillings were especially prized. Interestingly, even after peppers became popular across Europe, Ashkenazic Jews didn’t wholeheartedly adopt peppers into their cooking—except for stuffed peppers. Jewish families prepared them for everyday meals and also the fall festival of Sukkot, because stuffed foods symbolize abundance and a good harvest.
One Jewish-Italian version, featured in Joyce Goldstein’s Cucina Ebraica, calls for stuffing peppers with eggplant. The dish not only captures summer’s bounty at its best, but also celebrates in one beautiful package the culinary contributions of Italy’s Jews. The traditional filling is fried, but I prefer the texture and flavor of char-roasting the eggplant and pureeing it with roasted garlic and a squeeze of lemon. This method recalls the beloved Middle Eastern eggplant dip baba ghanoush, sometimes called “poor man’s caviar”—fitting in this recipe that showcases foods that were once scorned by many. Here the mixture gets a strong herbal boost from basil, salty depth from Parmigiano-Reggiano and body from panko or breadcrumbs.
Although not traditional, I top my stuffed peppers with a slice of Roma tomato, another symbolic nod to Italy’s Jews, but also just a delicious burst of sweet juicy flavor. It’s nestled alongside a slice of soft fresh cheese such as burrata or mozzarella that becomes lusciously creamy and completes the pretty presentation. With a garnish of freshly snipped basil, you get a feast for your eyes of the colors of Italy—red, white and green.
What some people in the past have considered foods to be shunned we now consider the jewels of the summer harvest and beloved basics of Italian cooking. I love that these foods traveled part of their journey with Italy’s Jews and that today our dinner plates are all the better for it.