FOOD CULTURE – A Tour Of Pitigliano

29 Oct 2001

Pitigliano, situated in the Tuscan Maremma on the border with Lazio, about 40 miles inland from the Argentario peninsula, looks as if it had been carved out of what the locals call the scoglio, a huge outcrop of tufa rock. By day, when its walls turn golden in the sunshine, the town conjures up visions of how one of the late nineteenth-century Italian Orientalists (Pasini, say, or Morelli) might have painted biblical Babylon – hanging gardens included. By night, especially when the moon is full, it takes on a spooky, spectral aspect appearance, perfect inspiration for a set designer working on Macbeth.
On the last bend of state highway 74, the ‘Maremmana’, before entering the town proper, stands an old Jewish cemetery. At one time, a great many Jews lived in Pitigliano, and it is by no means a coincidence that the town is nicknamed the ‘Little Jerusalem’.
The Jewish presence in Pitigliano dates from the end of the fourteenth century. 200 hundred years later, following the expulsion of the Marranos from Spain and the persecutions ordered by Pope Sixtus V, the community swelled, and its social and religious customs, such as the observation of holidays, the ritual slaughtering of animals and baking in a kosher oven, became common elements in the life of Pitigliano.
For just over 50 years, the Jews of Pitigliano lived relatively freely under the protection of the Orsini, but in 1608, when the city was taken over by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, they were closed in a ghetto. In 1765, the whole area passed under the regency of Pietro Leopoldo of Habsburg, the ‘enlightened’ tyrant’ and equality between the town’s Christians and Jews was restored. In the mid-nineteenth century, out of a population of about 2,200 inhabitants as many as 400 were Jews. In his History of the Jews in Italy (1946), the historian Cecil Roth wrote that the Jews, ‘in Pitigliano on the border of the Papal State, where a number of refugees from the rigors of Jewish life in Rome settled, had created a community out of all proportion to the natural importance of the town’.
In the 1880s,10 per cent of the population (which, in the meantime, had increased to 3,000) were of Jewish origin against a national figure of 0.1 per cent. Following the Unification of Italy, many Jews abandoned Pitigliano to seek fortune elsewhere. In the early 1930s, only 70 were still living in the town, and between 1938, when the anti-Semitic ‘Racial Laws’ entered into force, and 1943, when deportations began, the local Jewish population was decimated.
Little is left today of the old ghetto, though thanks to painstaking restoration work, the kosher oven and the synagogue can still be visited. According to Signora Gastini, who came to Pitigliano from her native Arezzo over 50 years ago to run the town’s central hotel, only three Jews now live in the town.
In Pitigliano, typical Maremma cooking was enhanced by the ancient Jewish population. The repertoire thus comprises Jewish staples such as carne secca(corn beef), chopped liver with onions, lingua salmistrata (cured ox-tongue), carciofi alla giudia(artichokes in the style of Roman ghetto), baccalà mantecato(stewed salt cod), la concia (pickled courgettes), pancrocino (a sort of bruschetta) and crostiniwith chicken livers. The methods used to prepare these and other dishes were of course dictated by the fundamental rules set out in the holy scriptures, which forbade, among other things, the consumption of foodstuffs deemed to be impure, such as certain meats and seafood, and the eating of meat and dairy products together in the same meal. In his The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux objects that, ‘Dietary laws fascinate me for the way they mingle good sense with utter foolishness’. I wouldn’t go that far; in social history, modes and mores always have a reason behind them
In her priceless chronicle of life in Pitigliano in the Thirties, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (1981), Edda Servi Machlin tells how her father worked as the shochet, or official slaughterer, for the Jewish community and how the meat he slaughtered – with a single knife-stroke over the animal’s main veins – was sold at a special kosher butcher’s shop. In one sonnet in Pitiglianese dialect, a Jewish butcher rebukes a Gentile customer,

Ahh nnegro cristianaccio, villanzone!
Vedi che ccarni fini, bbadonai!

You poor Christian wretch
Look what fine meats I have, by God!

Moving on to fish, practicing Jews can only eat those with both scales and fins. The excellent eels of the nearby Lagoon of Orbetello are thus non-Kosher (every fish that has scales also has fins, but not every fish that has fins has scales). .
In the kosher oven, they baked – and bake – not only unleavened bread (matzo), but also sfratti, cakes made of flour, honey and walnuts, and shaped like the truncheons used to bang on the doors of Jewish houses to announce the sfratto, or eviction in times of persecution. When I bought a sfratto, in Pitigliano last December, it was described to me as the ‘Jewish Christmas cake’, an evident contradiction in terms which nonetheless suggests a certain culinary syncretism. In her book, Servi Machlin recalls that during their respective religious holidays, the Christians and Jews of Pitigliano used to swap recipes:

At Passover, for example, it was customary to present our Christian friends with matzòt and unleavened sweets, which they considered marvelous treats. When Passover was over, the Gentiles reciprocated our gesture of friendship by offering their Easter specialities.The exchanging of recipes was the main topic of conversation at the public ovens among cooks and housekeepers as they waited for the baked goods to be ready. A love of good food and dedication to the culinary arts were common grounds upon which the Jews and Gentiles of Pitigliano met, mingled, and made friends.

During the Jewish holidays (mo’adim), some local shops also stocked up with and sold kosher food products.
One final note about wine; to this day under the supervision of the head Rabbi of Livorno, besides the famous Bianco di Pitigliano, the local Cantina Cooperativa continues to produce and bottle kosher wine (a red and a white) under – you guessed! – the ‘La piccola Gerusalemme’.label.

photo: a view of Pitigliano

John Irving is the editor of

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