Italy’s Top Chefs Join to Spice Up Wedding

Famous chefs gathered from all over Italy to cook for the wedding of Max Willinger, son of Faith Willinger, a well-known wine and food journalist who has lived in Florence for almost 40 years. She was overwhelmed by the culinary community who volunteered to cook the wedding feast.

We attended the wedding, probably the first such event ever to take place in Italy, because it was conducted by a woman rabbi, Barbara Aiello, and a Catholic priest, Don Enrico. It was held in a 17th century church in the small village of Panzano, between Florence and Sienna.

We have known Max for more than 25 years, and it has been a joy to watch him grow into an adult. He was born in New Jersey but moved to Florence with his mother when he was 2 years old, and they never returned.

Max graduated from the University of Florence, and he has been working in the television industry and living in Milan for the past 10 years. That is where he met his bride, Giada, an attorney. After dating for several years, they decided to marry.

When it came to planning the wedding, they mutually agreed that they would have an interfaith wedding. Max is Jewish; Giada is Catholic, and they began their quest to find a rabbi and priest who would marry them.

They spoke to several rabbis in Milan, but when they met Rabbi Aiello, who heads Lev Chadash, the first and only Progressive synagogue in Italy, they knew that she would be perfect for the responsibility to conduct the service.

Progressive Judaism in Italy combines halacha with the modern world. Italian Jews who once described themselves as “secular,” because there was no alternative to ultratraditional Orthodoxy, now have a choice. Progressive congregations welcome interfaith families and recognize the children of Jewish mothers or Jewish fathers as Jews.

Lev Chadash is the first and only Progressive synagogue in Italy, and Aiello is its first woman rabbi. She believes that by conducting interfaith marriages, these couples are more likely to embrace their Jewish heritage.

The couple spoke to the young priest who leads the Catholic church in Panzano, and he also agreed to participate in their interfaith wedding.

With this major decision accomplished, the couple knew that planning the festivities would not be a problem. They just gave that responsibility to the “food maven,” Max’s mother, to help supervise and plan the event.

The festivities began on Friday night with a prewedding party for both families to meet. They were all staying in a small hotel in Radda, a village close by, but the festa took place in a 12th century castle in Panzano. The invitation was for 8 p.m., but it wasn’t until 9:30 that everyone finally arrived, and then the bride and groom made their grand entrance.

The buffet dinner was fantastic — a large U-shaped table took over one room. It was filled with enormous platters of the most delicious food. Fresh mozzarella was delivered that afternoon from a farm just outside of Naples, and Dario Cecchini, the Tuscan butcher well known throughout Italy, served his famous Polpetoni With Red Pepper Mostarda. There were several salads, one with green beans, tuna and arugula and another made with fresh farm greens, tomatoes, mozzarella and Tuscan bread.

A Sicilian gelato maker arrived from Florence and brought his freezer filled with lemon sorbetto and gelato that he served in the traditional cones. The owner of the famous Antonio Mattei Biscotti di Prato came with platters full of biscotti, and, of course, he shared the recipe with everyone.

The festivities went on until early morning with singing, dancing, speeches and lots of music. The wedding ceremony took place the next day at sundown in the lovely, small church located in the center of Chianti. Many of Max’s relatives from the United States attended the wedding, and Giada’s family arrived from Milan, along with lots of their college friends.

The rabbi and the priest met weeks before to organize the ceremony and agreed on how to conduct the interfaith ceremony. The young priest, who has been with the local church for two years and was raised in the same village, wore his traditional brocaded robe, while the rabbi was covered with a large tallit and had a kippah over her short hair, as did all the male guests.

During the ceremony, the priest spoke in Italian, while the rabbi spoke in both Italian and English, each explaining to the bride and groom, as well as the guests, the significance of all the rituals that they performed.

The rabbi spoke about the traditions associated with a Jewish wedding. Then the chuppah, a canopy consisting of a large wool tallit held together with wooden polls at each corner, was carried in by Max’s stepfather, Massimo; his uncle, and Giada’s father and sister. The seven blessings were recited, the traditional wine glass was broken and these two young people were wed.

After the wedding ceremony, the bride, groom and the guests drove through the hills in a wedding procession of cars to Castello Di Ama, an important winery in Tuscany, for the outdoor reception and the formal sit-down dinner

Again, Faith had gathered together her chef friends, and Dario, the Tuscan butcher, took charge of organizing the wedding feast. Although it had rained earlier, it was a lovely, warm evening. The guests were greeted in the contemporary sculpture garden of the winery, where they were served Italian sparkling wine and were invited to enjoy the antipasti. Served on a long table, they consisted of platters with sliced smoked meats, grilled veggies and an assortment of cheese.

Lorenzo Guidi, who had arrived earlier from his restaurant, Nanamuta, in Florence, had a big pot filled with boiling olive oil and was deep frying small pieces of pizza dough, known as coccoli. As soon as they were brown and crisp, he placed them in paper cones for the guests to enjoy.

Inside the villa there were two large dining rooms set for dinner. We began with two pasta dishes. Chef Antonello Colonna of Ristorante Antonello Colonna just outside Rome prepared Strozzapretti con Pepperoni Rossi, Funghi, and Pecorino Romano (pasta with red peppers, mushrooms and cheese), and another pasta course of tagliatelli with a sauce of fresh-stewed cherry tomatoes. The main dish was bistecca.

Dario Cecchini prepared Bistecche Fiorintina (rib steak) on a big wood-burning grill outside the dining room. Between courses, while the meat was browning, everyone visited Dario, who stood on a table top next to the grill and recited poetry that he had written for the bride and groom.

At about 2 a.m., the dancing began, and then the wedding cake arrived, consisting of layers of puff pastry filled with fresh fruit. It was placed on a formal table in the garden, where Giada and Max invited guests to help celebrate their marriage with a glass of sparkling wine while they cut the cake. It was a wonderful wedding that will be remembered by all the guests for many years to come.

Dario’s Polpetone (meatloaf rounds) with Red Pepper Jelly

2 pounds ground beef
1 small red onion, finely diced
2 eggs
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4-cup bread crumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Red Pepper Jelly (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

In a large bowl, mix the beef, onion, eggs, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Knead and shape into one very large, almost volleyball-size, meat ball.

Line a deep roasting pan with foil and brush with olive oil. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Then lower the heat to 375 F and cook for one hour. Serve hot or cold.

Dario’s Red Pepper Jelly

1-2 pounds sweet red peppers (about 4 large) (4 pounds: 7 large)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder or 1 small red chili
Pinch crushed chili
5 cups sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
6 ounces liquid pectin

Wash and cut up peppers, discarding seeds and stems. Place few at a time in food processor and chop fine. In a large pot, combine chopped peppers, vinegar, salt, chilis. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and slow boil for 10 minutes. Add sugar and lemon juice, mixing until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil. Stir in pectin and bring to a boil, stirring constantly for exactly one minute.

Remove from fire and skim off foam with metal spoon. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars and seal immediately.

Makes about six (eight-ounce) jars of Red Pepper Jelly.

Spaghetti with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
3 cups cherry tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup grated parmigiano
1 pound spaghetti
Olive oil for finishing

Preheat the oven to 250 F.

In a large roasting pan, heat olive oil and add onion, tomatoes and garlic. Bake, uncovered for 45 minutes. The tomatoes should keep their shape and become caramelized. Shake the pan every 15 minutes so they do not stick.

After 30 minutes, sprinkle with rosemary, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. After another 20 minutes, sprinkle half of the grated parmesan and toss gently.

Cook the spaghetti in boiling water and drain in a colander. Add to the tomato mixture and toss. Pour olive oil on top and serve with grated parmigian cheese.

Serve immediately.
Serves six to eight.

Biscotti (Twice-Baked Almond Cookies)

Known as cantucci in parts of Italy, these almond cookies are baked twice, resulting in a crisp, flavorful biscuit.

This recipe is versatile; try replacing hazelnuts for the almonds or add chocolate chips, poppy seeds or even dried fruit. You can also substitute some whole wheat flour for the white.

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3/4 cup toasted, ground unpeeled almonds
1/2 cup toasted, whole unpeeled almonds
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon anise or almond extract
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
1 egg white

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and fennel seeds in a mound on a floured board. Surround the outside of the mound with the ground and whole almonds. Make a well in the center. Place the eggs, anise and vanilla in the well. Beat the sugar into the eggs, blending well. Quickly beat the egg mixture with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour and almonds to make a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into three to four portions. With lightly oiled hands, shape each portion into an oval loaf shape. Place the loaves two inches apart on greased and floured baking sheets. Brush with the egg white and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Remove the loaves from the oven and use a spatula to transfer them to a cutting board and cut into half-inch thick slices. Place them cut side down on the same baking sheet and return them to the oven. Leave the biscotti in the oven for five to 10 minutes per side or until golden brown. Transfer to racks and cool.

Makes about six dozen.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is