Giuliano Hazan melds Jewish, Italian heritage

Giuliano Hazan

BY JUDITH EVANS, Special to the Jewish Light

“Hazan Family Favorites” isn’t a Jewish cookbook, and many of its recipes can’t be made in a kosher kitchen. Yet the book itself – like its author, Giuliano Hazan – boasts a strong Jewish heritage.

Hazan will speak at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival at 1 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex. His previous cookbooks include “The Classic Pasta Cookbook” and “How to Cook Italian.” He also is a cooking teacher and owns a cooking school in Italy, where he conducts classes in the spring and in the fall.

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“This book is really about family and cooking together,” Hazan said in a telephone interview from his home in Sarasota, Fla. His mother, Marcella, is a renowned Italian cooking teacher and cookbook author who grew up Roman Catholic in Italy. His father, Victor, was born in Italy and grew up Jewish in New York.

Hazan’s wife, Lael, is Jewish. They have two daughters, Michela, 9, and Gabriella, 13, whose bat mitzvah is in November.

Hazan, 55, grew up as neither a Jew nor a Roman Catholic. “My parents didn’t raise me religious any way,” he said. “We didn’t go to church or to temple.”

He was born in New York and moved to Italy as a toddler. “My youngest years were spent growing up in Italy,” he said. “My first language was Italian.”  His family returned to New York when Giuliano was about 8. “My grandparents on my father’s side, my Jewish grandparents, were living in New York,” he said. “That is why we were there.” Those grandparents, Nonna Giulia and Nonno David, were born in Turkey. They lived in Italy for many years, then fled to the United States before World War II. 

“They came to the States with practically nothing, like most cases,” Hazan said.

His grandfather was a furrier with an international clientele. “He knew lots and lots of languages,” Hazan said: Italian, English, Turkish, Spanish, French, Ladino and Greek, and he “probably got along in Hebrew as well.”

“I know English and Italian probably equally well,” Hazan said. He speaks French and understands some Spanish. “My grandparents would often speak Ladino at home, and sometimes Spanish,” he said.

His Nonna Giulia’s cooking was flavored by her Sephardic heritage. “We went Friday nights for Shabbat dinner at their apartment; we would spend Jewish holidays with them as well,” Hazan said.

His paternal grandparents didn’t eat pork or seafood, and they didn’t mix milk and meat. One of young Giuliano’s favorite Shabbat foods was a savory small pie called a borekita. Nonna Giulia made two types of borekitas, he said, and served them as appetizers. “One was made with phyllo dough, and the other one was kind of a crumbly dough,” he said. “She would fill them with spinach or a mix of cheeses, and she would do eggplant fillings, which were really good. They were really great, took the edge off your hunger when you were a boy.”

He included a recipe for spinach borekitas in his new book, along with recipes for his Nonna Giulia’s green beans stewed with tomatoes, her spinach and chickpeas with lemon juice and her browned okra with tomatoes. The okra — which the family knew by its Turkish name, bamya — was a particular favorite. “My father loved that, and so did my grandfather,” Hazan said.  

Both grandparents enjoyed dried figs and dates. “Those were often at the dinner table at the end of the meal,” Hazan said. “When we went to visit Istanbul a couple of years ago, in the market I found a lot of the similar dried fruits to those that my grandparents liked.”

Surprisingly, his recipe for Italian latkes came not from his Jewish grandmother but from a 56-year-old notebook that his mother had used to record her mother’s recipes. As Hazan recounts in the new book, he and his wife had begun their own tradition of making Hanukkah latkes from a recipe in one of Joan Nathan’s Jewish cookbooks.  “I couldn’t believe it when, leafing through my mother’s notebook, I came across the following description: ‘One to three potatoes and one onion grated raw,’” he wrote in “Hazan Family Favorites. “I discovered that a dish that I thought was a recent family tradition is also one that my grandmother used to make before I was born!”

One recipe that proved elusive was his Nonna Giulia’s baklava. Instead, he shares his wife’s version, made with a combination of blanched almonds and salted pistachios. “I couldn’t find any written recipe from my grandmother,” he said. “My mother said that my wife’s baklava is very much like hers.”