Welcome to Pitigliano. An enclave of a Tuscan town, it was built up on a hill, like the rest of them, as protection not only from medieval warlords, but also from medieval malaria. Mosquitoes don’t like altitude as much as they like moisture, and hence the peasants who tended to the farmland below offered their blood and bodies to these little suckers, while the folk of more merchant wealth lived in the raised stone town above that exemplifies the magnificence of Tuscany. And there you have a curious fact that has absolutely nothing to do with this recipe.
But here are a few other curious facts that do have to do with this recipe, and I hope that with every bite of these delicious sfratti you will feel, or at least acknowledge, that you are taking part in a very unique piece of Italian history and cultural relevance. Pitigliano is nicknamed “La Piccola Gerusalemme – Little Jerusalem” not only for its golden landscape which recalls the signature of the holy city, but because this small town boasted an uncommonly thriving Jewish Community.
Let me make this short and to the point:
Rome, not too far away, was run by the Pope. However, the Pope was not just a religious leader. He was a monarch of a large territory known as the Papal States that included most all of Central Italy, except Tuscany. Living in the Papal States meant following papal law, which is akin to Communist Russian Rule or Fascist Anywhere.
In 1555, all of the Jews of the Papal States were ordered to live in ghettos, adhere to strict curfews, pursue only professions selected for them by the papacy, and were forced to give up rights to own land. They also had to regularly attend Catholic mass, for which the Jews rebelliously wore earplugs to stop the “light of Jesus” from entering their brains. (Fyi, in Rome, they remained ghetto-ized until 1870, far after the rest of Europe had liberated their Jews. Hello Pope, I hope you’re reading!) To escape the confinement, a number of Jews made their way into southern Tuscany where they settled in Pitigliano, which was run by the rather lenient Orsini family.
In Pitigliano, Jews thrived. There weren’t that many of them, only 200, but life was good. Many were moneylenders, a profession that the Church forbid Christians to practice but encouraged for the Jews.
(“Turn them into sinners,” was the reasoning. And sinners they were. But some became rich sinners and therein lies one of the most famous foundations of modern day anti-semitism. And in my opinion, one of the dumbest moves ever by the Church. Want to make a population weak? Don’t make them in charge of their finances! Make them destitute, not bankers. The Church learned a lesson from its mistake with European Jews and so that’s why they made all of their subjects on the rest of the planet dirt poor and uneducated.)
Pitigliano Jews built a synagogue, a mikvah (a ceremonial bath house), a kosher bakery for matzah and challah, and a school. Even after the famous Medici family took over southern Tuscany and instituted ghettos for all Tuscan Jews, the Pitigliano community was granted a sort of unspoken immunity from certain legal implications because they were so integral to the well being and financial survival of the entire city.
Today there are only a few Jews left in Pitigliano, as modern jobs enticed Jews to larger cities. But the synagogue remains, as do historic remnants of the mikvah and bakery. However, the true living legacy of the Jews of Pitigliano is the Sfratto: this delicious nut and honey filled dessert typical of Rosh Hashanah. There is a bakery run by non-Jews inside of the old ghetto and they sell sfratti to all of the tourists. The famous Jewess Chef of Pitigliano, Edda Servi Machlin, makes her own. This recipe is a gluten-free, much less sugary version of hers.
Sfratto, the singular of sfratti, means “stick” and refers to the stick that was used in Renaissance Italy to beat tenants who defaulted on rent out of their homes. The same sfratto was used to kick Jews out of town and send them roaming for a new safe haven. Centuries ago, the Jews of Pitigliano “repatriated” the sfratto by making a dessert in its honor. Before they are cut up, they look like sticks, kind of. Not sure you can beat anyone out of a city with a pastry, but you sure as hell can beat the best out of them with these.