Our Italy — Celebrating Chanukah in Italy

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Since 2020, I have been posting the series of blogs called, “Our Italy.” In this series, I share bloggers’ experiences of Italy, a country whose culture has captivated the world for thousands of years. I think now is the time to share these memories, especially since now some of us have started to return, inspired anew by the Italian people and their land.

Today I am happy to share a blog of my own about how Italians celebrate Chanukah. Read on for a bit of history about how the Jewish community was established in Rome and the special way they celebrate Chanukah today.

Afterwards, please enjoy a recipe for how to make fried chicken courtesy of the Italian Jewish community in Rome, Pollo Fritto alla Giudia, a delicious main dish that is traditional for Chanukah and can be enjoyed any time of the year.  Watch me make this special fried chicken on a short Instagram video if you like at Conversationalitalian.french!


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Chanukah in Italy

The Jewish holiday Chanukah, also known as the festival of lights (le feste delle luci), is celebrated for a period of 8 days, and on today’s calendar falls sometime in the month of December. On the Hebrew calendar, (based on the phases of the moon), Chanukah begins on the evening of the 25th day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev.  This holiday is also commonly spelled Hanukkah when translated into English from the Hebrew (l’ebraico) characters.  During Chanukkah, those of Jewish faith set aside eight days to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. It is said that a miracle occurred at that time, when only a small amount of Holy oil found in the temple, enough for only one day, burned for instead for eight days.

The date of the Chanukah celebration will change each year on the Gregorian calendar we use today (which is based on the sun).  In 2021, Chanukah will begin the evening of November 28 and end on the evening of December 6. It should be no surprise that Chanukah is celebrated in Italy, since the first Jewish settlers arrived in Rome from their homeland in Israel as far back as 160 BCE, after fleeing from the rule of the Syrian King Antiochus. The Jewish settlement in Rome is probably the oldest outside of the Middle East in the world. In 1555, by decree of Pope Paul IV, the Jewish people of Rome (gli ebrei) were enclosed within the walls of  a portion of Rome situated across the Tiber River. This area (quartiere ebraico) came to be called the Jewish ghetto (ghetto) in reference to the poor living conditions at the time, but it was, and still is, the center of Jewish life in Rome today. Other ancient Jewish settlements can be found in Venice, Milan, Florence,  Palermo and in many other cities in Sicily.


Images of all the things for a traditional Chanukah celebration are presented with "Happy Hanukkah" in the center of the image.
The Hanukkah or Chanukah celebration includes a religious ceremony with the lighting of Menorah each night, traditional fried foods for dinner and sweet foods for dessert, games played with a dreidel (spinning top) and presents. 

Image by kristyna_pixel from Pixabay


To celebrate Chanukah, those of the Jewish faith gather with the family each evening before dinner to say prayers and light a special candelabra with nine arms, called a Menorah (candelabro ebraico a nove bracci).  The ninth candle, from the tallest arm in the center of the Menorah, is lit first and then used to light the other eight. One additional candle is lit each night, until the entire Menorah is glowing on the last night. In Rome, there is a grand, 20 foot tall Menorah in the Jewish section at Piazza Barberini that is lit every year and followed by a street party with dancing. At home, children are typically given one present (un regalo) each evening and play with a Driedel, which is a type of spinning top (una trottola) with Hebrew letters on each side. To wish someone a Happy Chanukah in Italian simply say, “Auguri!” (Best wishes!), “Buon Chanukah!” or Felice Chanukah!” 



The Italian Chanukah Dinner 

As with all holidays celebrated in Italy, there are traditional Italian foods served at  Chanukah dinners each night, with an emphasis on fried foods, including Italian fried chicken (Pollo Fritto). This fried chicken is first marinated in olive oil with garlic and lemon,  then rolled in flour and dipped in beaten egg to create a light coating before  frying. See below for the recipe and a link to conversationalitalian.french to watch a video as I fry up this simple but delicious way to make fried chicken. 

Brisket (la punta di petto) is also popular. Simple accompaniments include applesauce, bread, and dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and sour cream.

Special Italian side dishes (contorni) popular for Chanukah have existed for centuries in the Roman Jewish culinary history and include artichokes and eggplants fried in olive oil and garlic (Carciofi alla Giudia and Melanzane alla Giudia). Unfortunately for those of us who live outside of Italy, the variety of Italian artichoke that is necessary to make Carciofi alla Giudia is not usually available. This particular variety of artichoke is small, and all leaves are tender, so it can be flattened and then fried whole.  

Traditional dishes served throughout the world for Chanukah are also served in Italy, and include latkes, or potato fritters (Frittelle di Patate) and blintzes, or fried crepes filled with cheese. (Crepes al Formaggio Fritte).

A typically Italian Chanukah dessert is a pie with ricotta and cherry or chocolate chip filling (Torta di Rocotta). Other popular Italian desserts include fried donuts, poppy seed cookies shaped like stars, or fried bread shaped like a diamond and flavored with anise and raisins (Fritelle de Chanuka)



Pollo Fritto alla Giudia

(Roman Style Fried Chicken)

Bowl of crispy, golden brown fried chicken made Roman style.
Fried Chicken Roman Style for Chanukah — crispy, golden brown and ready to serve.

(Serves 4)

One frying chicken, cut into serving pieces
Olive oil for frying

For the marinade:
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, chopped finely
1 lemon, juiced
1 bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

For the coating:

flour to coat the chicken
2  large eggs



Rinse the frying chicken and pat dry. (Note: make sure to use a frying chicken, which will have a breast that is small enough to finish cooking at the same time as the rest of the chicken pieces.)

Cut the frying chicken into serving pieces as follows: (1) separate the legs from the thighs, (2) Cut each breast along the breast bone lengthwise and then in half crosswise to make 4 pieces of breast meat total, (3) cut the tips off the wings and discard the tips. 

Make the marinade by combining all ingredients and pour over the chicken pieces. Roll each piece of chicken so it is coated with the marinade and then let rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Remove the chicken, rinse off the marinade and pat dry.

Set two shallow dishes next to each other, one with flour and the second with 2 eggs. Lightly beat the eggs with a fork. 

Heat oil halfway up a large (10-12″), deep frying pan. (A deep fryer works as well, of course, if you have one.) Check that the oil is hot enough for frying by sprinkling with a tiny drop of water. When the water fizzles, the oil is ready. Do not over heat the oil or it will start to smoke.

Salt and pepper the chicken lightly. Then dredge in flour. Shake off excess flour and then roll in egg mixture.

Immediately put into the hot oil and fry, turning every 5 – 10 minutes to make sure the chicken cooks evenly. 

Cooking time will vary between 30 and 40 minutes, depending on the temperature of the oil and piece of meat. Generally, wings will cook the most quickly, then drumsticks, thighs, and breasts. I always pierce thicker pieces with a thin knife to make sure juices run clear and are safe to eat. 

Cook until chicken coating is a dark, golden brown. 

Remove from heat, pat with  paper towels and then  drain on more paper towels or on a baking rack if you have one.

Sprinkle with a pinch of salt if desired.

Serve your fried chicken while hot with applesauce and potatoes of your choice!


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Visit www.learntravelitalian.com for more of my Italian and Italian-American recipes, cultural notes and  advanced Italian language blog posts updated monthly. Click on the link “our blog” in the upper right hand corner to reach blog.Learn Travel Italian.com.

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