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A Slice of Hebrew Pizza

Irwin Rosenthal writes from Woodstock, N.Y.:

“Recently, I was at a bar mitzvah in California where the bar-mitzvah boy delivered his address in Italian. In it he said that he had chosen to emphasize his Roman heritage by including pizza ebraica dolce as one of the foods served at the Kiddush. Unfortunately, I had to leave before then and never saw, let alone tasted, it. Can you provide any more information on its name?”

Mr. Rosenthal has also sent me an article from Saveur magazine’s website. From it I learned that “pizza ebraica (Jewish pizza) isn’t a pizza at all, but rather a bar cookie studded with almonds, raisins, pine nuts, and candied citron. While pizza ebraica’s origins are murky… it was [supposedly] brought to Rome from Spanish-ruled Sicily in the 16th century by Jews fleeing the Inquisition. Its name was likely coined thereafter: Pizza was [once] a catchall term for sweet or savory pies, and ebraica, or ‘Hebraic,’ referred to the dish’s Jewish roots.”

Like Mr. Rosenthal, I have never seen or tasted pizza ebraica. Yet, a bit of research leads to the conclusion that its past is indeed murky.

Pizza ebraica, it seems, goes by two other names in Italy, as well. One, tronchetti, the literal meaning of which is “little logs,” is used especially in Rome and is certainly not Jewish in origin. The other, sfratti, literally “evictions,” almost surely is. The website At Home in Tuscany, for example, in an article on “Typical Tuscan Christmas Sweets,” relates that the Tuscan town of Pitigliano, once the home of a large Jewish community, “celebrates Christmas with sfratti. They are shaped like a stick and consist of a layer of pastry filled with a mix made of honey, candied orange, walnuts, and nutmeg…. Sfratto means eviction, and the shape of these sweets recalls the batons used by the grand-ducal soldiers to knock on the doors of the homes of the Jews living in Pitigliano to serve eviction notices.”

Yet, according to Pitigliano-born Edda Servi Machlin in her cookbook “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews,” sfratti did not start out as a Christmas food; rather, the town’s Christians took sfratti from its Jews, who traditionally served them on Rosh Hashanah. Ms. Machlin’s explanation for the pastry’s name is that “much of Jewish food lore is based on reproducing, in a sweet form, some symbolic item of the unhappy events of the past,” and, just as “when landlords could not collect from poor tenants, they would evict them with the persuasive aid of a stick, the same treatment was applied to the Jews when they were no longer wanted in a community.” Indeed, she observes, 16th-century Tuscan Jews underwent many expulsions and often found refuge in Pitigliano, so that there is no need to look as far as Sicily, from which the Jews were expelled in 1493, for an explanation.

Perhaps. But this brings us to the third Italian word for pizza ebraica: tronchetti. Tronchetto can apply in Italy to different cylindrical foods: a tronchetto di porchetta, for instance, is a rolled tenderloin of pork, and a tronchetto can also be a rolled pizza stuffed with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. More pertinently, a tronchetto di natale, a “Christmas tronchetto,” is a traditional pastry roll with a chocolate filling and icing. Called a buche de Noel in French, it is known in English as a “chocolate yule log.” (A yule log was a log that once, especially in France and Italy, was burned for good luck in the family fireplace on Christmas Eve after being sprinkled with a libation. Replaced by the Christmas tree, the last yule logs disappeared from Europe in the 19th century.)

A tronchetto di natale shares with a sfratto only its loglike shape. But in Rome, as we have said, a tronchetto actually is a sfratto. Which suggests a different way of looking at things.

Is it not possible, that is, that it happened the other way around, and that it was the Jews of Tuscany who borrowed the tronchetto di natale and turned it into the Rosh Hashanah sfratto? (Christmas, after all, goes with New Year’s, and the Jews had a New Year’s Day of their own.) The change of name could then be attributed to a wry Jewish sense of humor. No Jew would want to call a Rosh Hashanah pastry by a name with “Christmas” in it; why not, in that case, sarcastically re-imagine it as a truncheon (a word closely related to tronchetto, both coming from the Latin truncus, tree trunk) with which Christians evicted Jews from their homes? In time, this truncheon’s association with the expulsions of Jews would have led to its nickname of sfratto, which eventually came to be adopted by Christians, too.

It also may be that the original tranchetto di natale was more like the pizza ebraica than like the chocolate éclair it resembles today. Chocolate, after all, was a rare and expensive commodity in the days in which yule logs were still burned. The last word on the pizza ebraica’s history has yet to be spoken.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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