Inspired Cuisine: An Italian (Jewish) Kitchen

By Joshua Yaffa

Published November 27, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As a kid growing up in Queens, Mark Strausman would often walk down the hall of his family’s apartment building to trade his mother’s stuffed cabbage for some of his neighbor’s eggplant parmesan. The flavors might have been a little different, the ingredients not quite the same, but there was something familiar in how the two families approached cooking.

TOP CHEF: Mark Strausman says of Jewish and Italian cooking: \'They are both peasant cuisines.\'
TOP CHEF: Mark Strausman says of Jewish and Italian cooking: \'They are both peasant cuisines.\'TOP CHEF: Mark Strausman says of Jewish and Italian cooking: \'They are both peasant cuisines.\'

“It was two immigrant cultures, Jewish and Italian, and I saw very little difference between the two,” he said the other day in the kitchen of Fred’s, a restaurant located in the upscale New York department store Barney’s. “Both have backgrounds centered on food, and to me, that’s where the beauty is.”

At Fred’s, Strausman is the consulting chef. These days, in addition to overseeing the kitchen at Fred’s, he is the head chef at Coco Pazzo, a storied, well-reviewed trattoria in midtown Manhattan that he runs with his longtime partner, the Florence-born Pino Luongo. The restaurant serves smart, updated versions of Italian American classics that, with some close examination, can look a little, well, Jewish.

“I bread the Milanese in matzo meal,” he said, waiting on a bowl of mushroom barley soup during lunch service at Fred’s. “It’s crunchy; it makes better breading.” Then there is the Arrosto Toscano, or Tuscan Pot Roast, which he makes with plum tomatoes, rosemary and red wine. It’s all very Italian, except that Strausman makes the dish with brisket and not with an eye round of beef. He thinks of the one-pot meal as a reinvention of an old Jewish favorite he remembers from childhood.

“They are both peasant cuisines,” he said, comparing the Jewish and Italian cooking traditions. “And what’s the essence of a peasant cook? To use your brain and ingenuity to satisfy your palate.” Both traditions, after all, are heavily reliant on stewing and braising — no Escoffier-style sautéing here — and share what Strausman sees as “the ideology of the meal,” the reverence of a long dinner well enjoyed.

It was in cooking school and then on travels through Europe that Strausman’s interest in food became what he calls “anthropological.” Why, for example, do Jewish and Italian cooks make a very similar almond-and-sugar pastry — macaroons in Jewish cuisine, and brutti ma buoni, or “ugly but good,” in Italian — he wondered. “After a while, I realized that no one invented it,” Strausman said. “People just created it with their own ingenuity.”

One of Strausman’s own creations that has attracted a good measure of attention is a special Hanukkah dish that, at least in certain circles around New York, has become known as “the power latke.” It’s a crisp mound of potato and onion cooked in grape seed oil, covered with shavings of white truffle and finished with an artful splash of truffle oil. (With prices for truffles approaching $4,000 a pound this season, the “power latke” finds itself temporarily off the menu.)

As a chef, Strausman rediscovered the latke rather late in life. His second child had just been born, and he wanted to give his son a taste of the cultural trappings of religion. He dusted off the old Jewish recipes for dishes he first ate in Queens. “I knew that I wanted him to experience lighting the candles and eating potato latkes,” he said. “And of course, I also wanted him to know that his dad’s were the best.”

Joshua Yaffa writes about food for the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.