Celebrating Passover in Italy
If this is starting to sound like a game of Supermarket Sweep, you’re sort of on the right track. This grocery list did in fact exist at one time and, while only comprised of a few items, evokes fond memories of a very impromptu, very resourceful, and very delectable Passover Seder thrown together by a friend and myself while studying abroad in Florence, Italy two years ago.
Before delving into the mishegas surrounding this particular Seder, I must preface with the fact that Passover and I have had a love/hate relationship for pretty much my entire life. Growing up in a reform Jewish household just outside of Chicago, my family upheld a unique but lax set of Passover traditions come springtime. While we always either hosted or attended a Seder, it typically consisted of 90% eating and conversation and only about 10% prayer or religious ritual (my kind of holiday indeed). So it came as quite the shock to me that one of the most salient and dare I say heartwarming memories from the five months I spent in Florence was the aforementioned Passover Seder.
After arriving to Italy in late-January 2012 and spending three lengthy months navigating the ins and outs of Italian life, I found myself slipping into a bit of a homesickness rut. As romantic as my perceptions of Italy were while still at home, nothing prepared me for the culture shock of living in a new country. Granted, the copious amounts of pasta, gelato, and brick oven pizza definitely helped ease the stress, but nailing down a new routine and finding my groove in a place so drastically different from home turned out to be an emotional roller coaster.
Fortunately, one of my best friends Emma G. was scheduled to pay me a visit in Florence right around said time. As a study abroad student in Spain and a general detester of shellfish, cured meats, and excessive use of olive oil (pretty much the primary food groups of Spain), she had grown rather weary of the culinary landscape of her host country. Italy proved a haven of her personal food loves, so we both knew it would be a carb and dairy heavy weekend from the get-go. Coincidentally, her visit also fell right around the start of Passover and as two study abroad kids longing for a taste of home, we took it upon ourselves to recreate our very own Passover Seder in the heart of Florence.
Right off the bat, we had a set of foods in mind we knew we would have to include in order to make it a both an authentic Jewish and Italian Passover Seder. After deliberating and narrowing down options, we eventually settled on a menu of charoset (a traditional salad comprised of finely chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and wine traditionally piled on matzo), an arugula salad with grated Parmesan cheese, caprese salad, and risotto. For any fellow Passover celebrator, I a fully aware that risotto is probably the most inappropriate dish for a Passover Seder, but given it was Emma’s first time in Italy, grains were a very necessary component of our culinary lineup for the weekend.
While optimistic about our plan, the execution of the meal proved challenging to say the least, presenting a whole slew of roadblocks, the most challenging of which include:
- Lack of matzo. As shocking as it may seem, Florence is not home to too many Jewish holiday foods, outside of the offerings from one shoebox size Jewish grocery store near the Florence synagogue. Unfortunately for us, as it was the first night of Passover, the store was closed on this particular day leading us on a mad hunt around town for an unleavened bread in any form. I think we tallied in at five different grocery stores before finally stumbling on a box of French matzo crackers, which are round rather than square in shape and have a slightly puffier and chewier texture. No it was not the matzo we had in mind, but it more than did the trick.
- Lack of any and all Manischewitz products, particular their sweet cooking wine. In addition to being probably the most infamous and popular libation at Passover tables, this super sugary Kosher red wine is a crucial addition in charoset, giving it a distinct sweet/acidic tang that rounds out the fruity flavor of the apples. Scrambling for alternatives, Emma’s culinary creativity suddenly kicked into hyperdrive and lead to an ingenious creation that blew me away—Chianti wine (the king of Florentine wines) reduced down on the stove with a bit of sugar until becoming a syrup created nearly the same texture and flavor you would get from a traditional Passover sweet wine. Ten points to Emma. Charoset accomplished.
- Lack of prayer books and minimal memory of Passover Seder songs. Fortunately, this was the easiest fix of the bunch given Emma and I’s collective love of all things music. We figured a hefty Motown playlist would suffice just fine.
In light of all the kinks, the Seder surpassed all of our expectations. Emma got her long-desired pasta/tomato/cheese/veggie-filled Italian meal. We both got to indulge in our favorite Passover foods. And, most importantly, we caught up on much needed friend time—and about four hours of post-meal Mad Men on iTunes. Despite being in a foreign place with a language and customs different from our own, we found solace in each other’s company, in my cozy apartment on Via Ricasoli, in old and new traditions, and, most importantly, in matzo—even if it was French. To this day, it remains the best Seder I’ve ever attended.