Cooking With Nonna

Jews love eating and Italians are particularly good cooks, so being an Italian-Jew can be very convenient at times. Read More

By / June 28, 2011

Jews love eating and Italians are particularly good cooks, so being an Italian-Jew can be very convenient at times.  We’re designed to be able to please ourselves, at least culinarily. My nonna, Giorgina de Leon Vitale, was a fabulous cook and like many Jewish, Italian and Jewish-Italian grandmothers she enjoyed gathering people around a table of delicious home cooked food.  When she passed away in 2009 one of the many difficult parts of accepting her death was knowing that her unique culinary repertoire would be lost as well.

After her passing, dividing her earthly belongings went about as smoothly as these things can go, except there was the matter of her recipe box. Several of us had submitted that as an item that we were interested in inheriting.  I had been granted some pots and pans but no instructions on how to make magic happen within them.  So I proposed to my Aunt Jeannie, who had also requested the recipe box, that we collaborate on publishing a cookbook of her recipes for the whole family to enjoy.  She agreed and got to work narrowing down the recipes to the ones she remembered my nonna cooking the most often.

I timed this project to last me the whole first year after her death.  It was a meaningful way for me to continue to interact with her memory and help me through my grieving process.  Sifting through old family photographs and reading her handwritten notes on her dozens of food stained index cards proved to be cathartic.  It made her feel less far away.  Even though I could no longer have her in person, I now had the means to keep the flavors she created alive in my own home.  I can fill my kitchen with the aromas of her food anytime I want.

One of my favorite recipes from the cookbook is for “Ciambelle di Pesach or “Matzah Nasirot”, a simple donut shaped cookie (recipe below). I know Passover isn’t exactly around the corner, but this is a cookie you should know about year round. They are the best I’ve eaten.  Every year just before Passover my nonna would send a box of these to everyone in the family.  I would have to fend off Jews and goyim alike in my college dorm to make sure the stash would last at least until Passover began.

My nonna described them growing up in Italy in the book:

The holiday I remember the most is Pesach (Passover).  Weeks in advance, all families would order from the synagogue two kinds of matzoh, one for eating and the other for cooking and shmurah flour to make the traditional sweets that we called matzoh nasirot.  All the women of the community would go to the synagogue’s kitchen to prepare and bake those wonderful cookies.  They would fill up sacks with them and share them with all the relatives, friends, schoolteachers, and Christian neighbors.

These are to be shared, so be sure to make a lot.


20 eggs
5 lbs, 12 ounces flour
3 1/2 cups olive oil
3 cups sugar
2 tsp ammonium carbonate (can substitue baking soda)
2 tsp vanilla
3 tsp star anise crushed or liquid anise
1 tsp salt

Makes 226 “ciambelle” – ring shaped cookies.


Put flour on pastry board, make large well in the middle. Break eggs and start beating them with a fork incorporating flour in them and adding all of the other ingredients as you incorporate the eggs and flour. Keep on beating with the fork until you have a soft dough that will not stick to the board. Roll the “ciambelle” – it helps to keep your hands oily. Bake at 350° to 400° for about 30 minutes.

The cookbook Cooking With Nonna is for sale HERE.  All profits go towards ALS research, the disease that took my grandfather Luciano’s life before I had a chance to meet him.

Daniel Saks is the front-man of DeLeon.  Their new album Casata out now on JDUB Records, is a re-imagining of ancient Sephardic melodies as indie rock.  Casata is also available for sale on Amazon, iTunes, and in the Jewcy Store for the special price of $8.99!