Benedetta Jasmine Guetta’s Italian Passover Customs and Recipes

Benedetta Jasmine Guetta April 4, 2024

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Growing up, I juggled multiple identities as an Italian Jew of Libyan descent. My grandparents fled Libya, an Italian colony, to escape Arab pogroms in the fifties and settled in Milan, the second-largest Jewish community in Italy, where I spent my childhood. The beginning of spring, marking the arrival of Passover, has always been one of my favorite times of the year, a time when the diversity of my background would make life especially interesting and exciting.

Italians often convey love with food, and the people around me were no exception. I knew that a week of unusual and yummy food, as well as two special get-togethers filled with crazy shenanigans with my cousins, were just about to start, and I enjoyed every bit of that.

In preparation for the Seder, I’d first of all take from the shelves my battered haggadah, which carried the signs of many happy Passovers: dog ears on many pages, marking the passages I was assigned to learn by heart from grade 1 to 8 for our didactic Sedarim at the Jewish school in Milan, and stains of food from my grandma’s table, especially charoset fingerprints, clearly identifying me as the rightful owner of the book. Armed with the pictures inside my haggadah for reference, I would help my mother and my grandmother prepare the Seder table.

Much like every other Seder in the world, our Seder featured some symbolic foods found on the Seder plate. In our household, however, the Seder plate was not a plate but a huge and overflowing woven rattan basket. It also didn’t feature exactly the same foods that I see now in the States on an Ashkenazi table. Our basket would include three matzot shemuròt, a roasted leg of lamb, and boiled eggs, like the traditional plate does everywhere else, but it would also include two different types of greens for the maror (butter and romaine lettuce), celery for the karpas, to be dipped in vinegar (no salted water for us!), as well as homemade Italian-style charoset (see recipe below), which we would roll into balls and dilute with vinegar just before serving. Every family prepares charoset in its own special way. Ours is a smooth but dense mixture of dates, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, apples, raisins, orange juice, and a touch of nutmeg. The ingredient list is long, but the flavor is worth it!

In an Italian household, the meal after the Passover prayers is a sight to behold. At my grandma’s, we would always have a mix of dishes: from the Italian repertoire, pareve “mazzagna” (lasagna made with matzah instead of pasta sheets) and arrosto (a roast of veal) were essential, and from the Libyan tradition mafrum (fried and stewed vegetables stuffed with ground meat) as well as bestil (handheld fried meat and potato pies) were also staples. Beyond these classic dishes, there would be additional delicacies, which depended on the whim of my mum and my aunts. As I’ve grown up to prepare my own Passover dinners, I have added multiple dishes of the Jewish Italian tradition, such as stracciatella (egg drop) soup, spinach and ricotta matza pie, Piedmontese stuffed turkey neck, and others, recipes that I’ve collected through the years of researching Jewish Italian cuisine. 

Italians are known for having their own unique customs. Not only do Italkim, like Sephardi Jews, consume kitniyot over Passover, as rice pretty much replaces pasta for the week of Passover, but they also traditionally eat lamb on the first night of the Seder, which – as I learned the hard way when I first served my classic Italian lamb roast with artichokes and fava beans to my guests in California – is actually not allowed elsewhere. After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis wanted to emphasize that it was forbidden to offer the Passover sacrifice without a Temple (Mishnah Pesachim 4:4). Hence, they forbade people from eating a roasted lamb on Passover, a gesture reminiscent of the sacrifice, unless the custom had already been deeply established within the community before the time of the ruling. The Talmud (Pesachim 53a-b) explains that Rome in particular has had a special custom of consuming roasted lamb for Passover for thousands of years, so Italians got an official exception and continued to eat lamb on the night of the Seder, while everywhere else the prohibition still stands.

Another rule-breaking exception that makes Passover in Italy better than anywhere else is the tradition to hold a big community bake- along event and make kasher-le-Pesach pastries in the communities of Rome and Venice. Make no mistake, these kosher for Passover pastries are not your usual coconut macaroons or almond biscotti – they are real pastries, just like ones we eat for breakfast with our coffee year around. Thanks to an ancient minhag that has witheld the test of time, the Jewish communities of those cities are allowed to bake with regular all-purpose flour under rabbinical supervision before the holiday. There’s nothing inherently wrong with flour during Passover – the problem in fact is the start of the fermentation process. As long as the flour doesn’t come in contact with water and the cookies are whipped up quickly under the careful eye of a rabbi armed with a timer, Italian Jews can make their traditional cookies, thus getting to enjoy “normal” pastries (as opposed to almond or rice flour pastries) during the holiday. I eagerly waited for a relative of my cousins to arrive from Venice to our seder every year because he would bring a precious tray of delicious bisse (S shaped shortbread cookies), apere (sponge-like cookies), zuccherini (sugar rolled cookies), anicini (anise-flavored cookies), and other treats from the community bake-along of his town. Those scrumptious cookies (one a day because they were so special and hard to procure!) saw me through the entire week of Passover.

Editor’s Note:

Rama says this custom (Matzah Ashira) is not permissible for Ashkenazi Jews (Orach Chaim 462 1-2, 4). Although the Shulchan Aruch holds that it is not Chametz, Ashkenazim do not eat Matza Ashira (except for those with extenuating circumstances).

Furthermore, wheat nowadays is bleached, so it is already Chametz when you buy it from the store. This custom would only be allowed with non-bleached flour such as flour used in matzoh bakeries (Orach Chaim 453:4 Mishna Brurah 24).

My Italian Charoset Recipe


2 cups (200 g) walnuts 

1 and 1/2 cups (200 g) blanched whole almonds 

1 and 1/2 cups (200 g) hazelnuts 

3/4 cup (100 g) pine nuts 

1/2 cup (50 g) pistachios 

1 and 1/4 cups (300 g) pitted dried dates 

2/3 cup (100 g) golden raisins 

1 Golden Delicious apple, peeled, quartered, and cored 

Pinch of grated nutmeg 

Scant 1/2 cup (100 ml) orange juice 

1 teaspoon vegetable oil, if needed


1. Combine the walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, and pistachios in a food processor and grind to a coarse powder. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.

2. Put the dates and raisins in a bowl filled with hot water and let soften for 10 minutes, then drain.

3. In the meantime, puree the apple in the food processor.

4. Once the dates and raisins have softened, add them to the food processor with the apple puree and process to make a smooth paste. If the dates are too sticky, add a bit of vegetable oil to ease the processing.

5. Add the fruit puree to the ground nuts and mix together, then add the nutmeg and stir well. Stir in the orange juice a little at a time to make a thick paste; it should be thick enough to hold a shape.

6. The charoset can be transferred to a jar or rolled into small balls for serving. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. 


  • Some Italian families, especially in Piedmont, add boiled chestnuts as well as chopped hard-boiled eggs to their charoset. 
  • Some versions of charoset include pears in addition to apples. 
  • Common spice additions include cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.

Benedetta Jasmine Guetta is an Italian food writer and photographer. In 2009, she cofounded a website called Labna, the only Jewish/Kosher cooking blog in Italy, specializing in Italian and Jewish cuisine. Guetta has previously coauthored two cookbooks in Italian, and “Cooking Alla Giudia” is her first English-language cookbook, which can be purchased here.

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