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Judy Zeidler, passionate purveyor of Jewish and Italian cooking, dies at 92

The best way to remember Judy Zeidler is through her recipes

Many years ago I was searching the aisles of a restaurant supply store in Los Angeles when I ran into Dario Cecchini, the world-famous Tuscan butcher, who was visiting his friends Judy and Marvin Zeidler.

I introduced myself and reminded him that I was also a friend of Judy’s.

Cecchini instantly reached out and hugged me.

“So we are family!” he said.

Judy Zeidler, who died Oct. 31 at age 92, was a food writer, restaurateur and philanthropist whose passion for Jewish and Italian cooking was utterly contagious. She turned all who ate at her table into family.

Some cookbook authors you read because they expand your tastes, others you love because they share your cravings.

Judy was that second kind: She loved biscotti as much as you, but she would spend hours tracking down an expert baker near Siena for the recipe.

In 2010 I came back from a food conference in Turin eager to recreate the single best thing I ate there: focaccia di Recco, a pool of melted fresh cheese between two thin, crisp layers of dough.

I couldn’t find the recipe anywhere. Then Judy sent me the manuscript of her new book, “Italy Cooks,” which featured a recipe for which she had traveled to Recco to learn to make directly from the bakers there.

Judy, who was born in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles in 1930, began cooking professionally after moving with her husband Marvin and their three children to a ranch in Topanga in 1963. A local restaurant asked her to supply it with her homemade apple strudel.

That turned into a career. Judy published “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” and eight other cookbooks. In the 1980s and 1990s she hosted “Judy’s Kitchen” on the Jewish Television Network, and began writing food columns for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal, where I became her editor, and her friend.

It was easy to see why an Italian butcher would think of her as family: Judy was joyful, curious and generous. Before I took a trip to any part of Italy, she’d give me a  list of her restaurant recommendations, along with the instructions to tell the owners I knew Judy and Marv. Judy appreciated chefs and restaurateurs and they returned the affection.

The couple, who were married 72 years, would eventually own or co-own some well-known  restaurants themselves: Citrus (with Michel Richard), Capo and the much-missed Broadway Deli. They created Zeidler’s Cafe at the Skirball Cultural Center in LA and its takeout spot, Judy’s Counter.

When her son emailed me that Judy had died, I was on vacation in Sicily, and in a flash I remembered a conversation I had with Judy when she and Marv returned from a trip there. A restaurant had served her a dinner of conserved fish, right out of the tin, and she said I had to try it. I did, and as usual, her enthusiasm was exactly right.

The best tribute I could think of for Judy is to post one of my favorite recipes from “Italy Cooks,” which she wrote after 35 years of travel and part-time living in the country. It’s an olive oil cake from Cecchini himself. Make it and share it so you can spread some love through food — it’s what Judy Zeidler spent a lifetime doing.

Judy is survived by her husband Marvin, her children  Susan Zeidler (Leo Frishberg), Kathy Mezzanatto (Steve); Paul Zeidler (Amber); and D. Zeke Zeidler (Jay Kohorn); predeceased last year by son Marc Zeidler (Amy), by seven  grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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