The Marche region (also known as the Marches in English) forms the eastern seaboard of central Italy with the regions of Emilia-Romagna to the north and Abruzzo to the south. From the narrow coastal plains the land rises sharply to the peaks of the Appennines, which form a natural boundary with Umbria and Tuscany to the west. While the coastal areas are heavily populated, the beautiful inland countryside is sparsely inhabited . The inland mountainous zones are mostly limestone and are noted for bare peaks, rushing torrents, dramatic gorges and many caves. In contrast, the areas nearer the coastal plain are known for their fertile rounded hills topped by ancient fortified towns. The highest point is Monte Vettore in the Sibillini mountains. The coast itself boasts long sandy areas and, apart from the limestone Conero peninsula, the land is virtually all flat. Economically, the region is mostly reliant on medium and small scale industries, often family run. Shoes, clothing and furniture manufacturing are some of the most successful businesses. The relatively poor soil and the general movement away from the land has meant that agriculture now plays a minor role, apart from the production of Verdicchio, the Marche’s famous white wine. By the coast, fishing remains an important activity.
Ancona is on the top of a cliff and has a city center rich in history, monuments and well preserved semi-urban parks. The historical districts overlook the port arch, as if they were surrounding a stage. From its port every year, about one million travelers sail to Greece and Croatia. The weather in Ancona is typically mild throughout the year, with summer temperatures in the high seventies and winters that rarely dip below thirty-five. The city of Ancona stands on an elbow shaped promontory, protecting the widest natural port of the middle Adriatic Sea. The name of the town means its geographical position: Αγκων, in Greek means “elbow”, and this is what the Greek people called it when they settled in the area in 387 B.C.
In Roman times it kept its own coinage and continued the use of the Greek language. When it became a Roman colony is not exactly known but Ancona was occupied as a naval station during the Illyrian War. Julius Caesar took possession of it immediately after crossing the Rubicon and the harbor was considered an important defensive location for the Romans. After the fall of the Roman empire, Ancona was attacked by the Goths, Lombards and Saracens. In 1532 it lost its freedom and came under the control of Pope Clement VII. After the French took over in 1797, Ancona’s harbor frequently appears in history as an important fortress.
The Italian Jewish Community
The Jewish community of Ancona dates back to around 1300. In 1427 the Franciscan friars tried to force the Jews of Ancona to wear a badge and live on a single street, but apparently this attempt was unsuccessful. After the expulsion of the Jews from the Spanish dominions in 1492, refugees began to arrive in Ancona, to be joined later by others from the Kingdom of Naples.
As Ancona was about to be declared a free port, Pope Paul III invited merchants from the Levant to settle in Ancona regardless of their religion. (The Levant includes most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Turkey’s Hatay Province and some regions of Iraq or the Sinai Peninsula.) Promising protection against the Inquisition, he encouraged the settlement of Jews. Many Jewish merchants took advantage of the harbor facilities and settled in town to trade with the Levant. The size of the community and its widespread connections attracted many noted rabbis and scholars throughout the centuries, including Judah Messer Leon (15th century), Amatus Lusitanus, Moses Basola (16th century), Mahalalel Hallelyja of Civitanova, Hezekiah Manoach Provenzal, Joseph Fermi (17th century), Samson Morpurgo, Joseph Fiammetta (18th century), Jacob Shabbetai Sinigaglia, Isaiah Raphael Azulai, David Abraham Vivanti, Isaac Raphael Tedeschi (19th century), and H. Rosenberg who published several monographs on local history.
During World War II, the Germans and the Italian Fascists demanded tributes to allow the Jews to live there. After the war, 400 Jews were left in town, and by 1969 the number dropped to 300. There are two synagogues, a Mikveh and two Jewish cemeteries: Monte Cardeto, the old one, and Tavernelle, the new cemetery.
In his book, La Cucina Veneziana, Giuseppe Maffioli writes that Jewish cooking had a great impact on the local cuisine and, despite their forbidden foods, the Jews had a more varied diet than the Christians. He cites that among the Jewish dishes adopted in Italy there were many vegetables ‘alla giudia’, meaning Jewish style, salt cod dishes, almond pastries, and puff pastry.
Today, most Italian Jews live in the large cities of Rome, Milan, and Turin. Many of the old historic communities that were once scattered throughout Italy have disappeared or have lost their identity, but the old Jewish recipes remain as a testimony to their existence. Looking at the alphabetical index of recipes in a book entitled, La Cucina Nella Tradizione Ebraica, a collection of recipes from members of the Jewish women’s ADEI WIZO organization: there are arancini canditi di Padova, baccald e spinaci all’uso fiorentino, biscotti di Ancona, biscotti senza burro; brassadel di Purim; buricchi di pasta frolla, budino di zucca gialla Veneto; cacciucco alla livornese and cuscusszi livornese; cefali in umido di Modena. Such recipes are a witness to once famous and thriving Jewish communities in Italy.
What was it that made a dish Jewish?
Adaptations of local produce and recipes to comply with religious dietary laws meant that oil or goose fat were used instead of butter or pork fat for cooking. For the same reason, many dairy and vegetable dishes were developed to provide substantial meatless meals. The need to find substitutes for forbidden foods like pork and seafood resulted in the creation of such specialties as, goose prosciutto and salami and a white-fish soup. In the days when cooking revolved around the Sabbath and religious holidays, dishes that were chosen to celebrate these occasions acquired embellishments, such as coloring with saffron or sprinkling with raisins and pine nuts. The laws of the Sabbath, which prohibit any work on that day, gave rise to complex meals in one-pot to be prepared on Friday afternoon and left to cook overnight for Saturday. An example is the hamin toscano or polpettone difagioli—a veal loaf cooked with white beans, beef sausages, hard boiled eggs, and tomatoes. Centuries before Americans popularized pasta salads, Jews were the only Italians to eat cold pasta.
For Passover, ground almonds, potato flour, matzo meal, and matzos were used to make all kinds of pizzas, cakes, pies, dumplings, pancakes, and fritters. Numerous desserts are found in the Jewish Italian cuisine, like amaretti, marzapane, moscardini, mucchietti, scodelline, zuccherini, ciambellette, mustaccioni—to name a few. Certain foods became symbolic dishes to celebrate festivals, like Pollo Fritto, chicken dipped in batter and fried in oil, for Hanukkah.
Some of the Sites in Ancona
The marble Arch of Trajan, at the entrance to the causeway atop the harbor wall, in honor of the emperor who had built the harbor, is one of the finest Roman historical monuments in the Marche. However, most of its original bronze decorations have disappeared. It stands on a high podium with wide, steep steps and is flanked by pairs of fluted Corinthian columns on pedestals. It is a replica of the Arch of Titus in Rome, but taller, so that the bronze figures, Trajan, his wife Plotina and his sister Marciana, stand out as a landmark for ships approaching this Adriatic port.
The Lazzaretto (Laemocomium or “Mole Vanvitelliana”), planned by architect Luigi Vanvitelli in 1732, is a pentagonal building, built to protect the military defensive authorities from the risk of contagious diseases by incoming ships. Later it was used as a military hospital, then as a barracks. It is currently used for cultural exhibits.
The Food of Ancona
lts style of cooking is defined by fish and seafood along the coast, and vegetables, chicken, rabbit, snails, and truffles and other wild fungi in the hills and mountains. The coastal brodetto, or seafood stew, is seasoned with saffron and traditionally made with thirteen kinds of fish.
Ancona is one of the biggest stockfish (dried salt cod) importers and Stoccafisso all’ Anconetana has a special place in the heart of Ancona people and in the history and tradition of this town.
This traditional Le Marche recipe involves soaking the fish for at least 24 hours and cooking it over bamboo canes to prevent the fish from sticking to the pan.
Creamy sauces made from chicken giblets are used liberally in Marche cooking. Pork recipes rely on generous chunks instead of the traditional thin prosciutto style servings. Since pork is so readily available, there are many types of sausages made in the Marche region. A hearty favorite local smoked sausage is ciauscolo, made with half pork, half pork fat and well seasoned with salt, pepper, orange peel and fennel seed. Olives grow well in this region and are served both on their own or stuffed with savory meat fillings. Grapes, grains, mushrooms and a wide variety of vegetables are found throughout the region.
Cheese-wise, Marche holds its own in the steep competition for great Italian dairy products. Casciotta d’Urbino is a sheep and cow milk cheese, hand-pressed into rounds that are then salted and cured in a moist environment, producing a velvety texture. Ambra di Talamello is made from goat or sheep or cow’s milk and is cured in a pit lined with straw, resulting in an earthy flavor. Cacio La Forma di Limone is a sheep’s milk cheese made with lemons, then formed into small balls (that look a bit like lemons). It is rubbed with a salt and lemon mixture and has a light lemon tang. Some excellent Pecorino cheeses can be found in the region as well.
Pasta in the Marche region is rich with eggs, with wide noodles being the most popular, such as, lasagna and pappardelle. The region’s signature dish, a pasta casserole with meat sauce, showcases flat pastas and savory meats. Other pastas like spaghetti alla chitarra, spaghettini, tagliatelle and maccheroncini have also found their way into Marche dishes.
Olive all’ascolana, green olives stuffed with ground meat, breaded, and fried until golden and crisp.
Ciauscolo, a rich, soft smoked salami, meant to be spread, not sliced.
Vincisgrassi, lasagna layered with prosciutto, chicken livers, sweetbreads, and white sauce.
Rabbit, cooked porchetta style (roasted in the style of porchetta) with fennel and salt.
Frustingolo, a dense fruit cake made with nuts and dried figs.
Make Some Ancona Inspired Recipes At Home
Tagliatelle with Shrimp
- 3/4 lb fresh tagliatelle
- 1/2 onion, finely choped
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup marinara sauce
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
- 1 lb. medium shrimp
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Soften the onion over low heat in the olive oil and then add the finely chopped garlic without letting it brown.
Pour in the white wine and allow to evaporate. Blend in the marinara sauce.
Add the shrimp and cook until pink, about 3 minutes.
Cook the tagliatelle al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water. Drain pasta and add to the shrimp mixture. Stir in pasta water and combine. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Wine & Tomato Braised Italian Chicken
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 – 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut into 4 pieces
- 2 cups diced white onion
- Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 6 cups peeled, seeded, diced plum tomatoes or equivalent canned
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
In a heavy ovenproof pan with a lid, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat until hot.
Pat the chicken dry and add 2 pieces to the pan. Do not crowd the chicken. Cook until the chicken has browned on all sides, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Repeat with another tablespoon of olive oil and the remainder of the chicken.
Add the onions to the same pan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, marjoram, and sage and stir. Add the wine and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste, stir to combine, and cook for 2 minutes.
Return the chicken to the pan and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. When tender, transfer the chicken to a warm platter, cover with foil, and set aside.
Skim off the excess fat from the braising liquid and reduce the sauce over high heat to a sauce-like consistency.
Taste and correct the seasoning, if necessary. Serve the sauce over the chicken and garnish with the parsley.
Orange Cake, Ancona Style
Ouzo is an anise-flavored aperitif that is widely consumed in Greece and Cyprus, and a symbol of Greek culture.
- 2 cups and 2 tablespoons flour, plus flour for dusting the pan
- 3 eggs
- 3 oranges and the peels, grated (no pith)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 cup sugar or sugar alternative
- 2 tablespoons ouzo
- 1 tablespoon whole milk
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 cups orange juice, mixed with 3 tablespoons sugar
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a tube pan with cooking spray and dust with flour.
Put flour, eggs, grated orange peel, butter, sugar and ouzo in a food processor and process until all ingredients are incorporated.
Add milk and baking powder and process again to incorporate.
Pour mixture into prepared pan and place in upper, middle level of the preheated oven.
Bake for at least 45 minutes and the top of cake is golden.
Place pan over a wine bottle or other receptacle to cool slightly.
Loosen the edges of the cake with a sharp knife.
Invert onto a plate.
While cake is still warm, poke holes into it, using the end of a wooden spoon or similar implement.
Pour the sweetened orange juice into the holes, filling them to the brim.
Within an hour, the cake will have absorbed the juice.
Serve at room temperature.
Note: The cake will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, fully covered by plastic wrap.