Passover seems like an unlikely holiday to celebrate in a restaurant. In addition to being the kind of family holiday that finds celebrants gathered around their own tables, it also has a strict and ritualized set of dining rules and traditions. But that hasn’t slowed down enterprising area chefs, and this time of year, restaurants across town present special menus that not only embrace specific Passover traditions, but Jewish culinary heritage in general.
Take Casa Nonna, where Chef Amy Brandwein is offering a special Passover dish of matzo meal pasta served with a vegetable and beef ragu and fava beans. Inspiration for the dish came from a trip through Rome last year, where Brandwein discovered the rich history of Italian Jews. “Not a lot of people realize there is such a strong Italian Jewish culinary tradition,” Brandwein says, “I like to celebrate it, and I think it’s an important story to tell.” As for how the dish that she calls “Sfogliatelle per Pesach” fits into the Passover tradition, the chef has a simple explanation: “Passover is a rebirth, so to speak, so it’s a good time to examine these unique traditions. And no one should have to go without pasta. Ever.”
Over at Perry’s, Mark Furstenberg is helping the restaurant put together its first Passover menu. The chef’s four-course menu includes traditional Passover foods like gefilte fish, matzo balls and bitter greens, as well as classics like chicken liver. Furstenberg is also serving some lesser known treats, such as a tsimmis preparation he had at the home of a fellow chef in Israel. The preparation uses sweet potato, turnip and rutabaga and adds in brisket that has been cooked for hours and cut into chunks.
“All of these dishes are rooted in traditional Jewish cooking,” the chef says, before going on to explain the reasoning behind his menu’s small twists on the traditional preparations: “They are an effort to make the food delicious.”
The chef used bitter greens as an example of a traditional component he seeks to elevate. “Bitter greens are a very important part of the ceremony of Passover. They signify the bitterness of the Jewish experience throughout much of history. And they are dipped in salt water to represent the tears. Often the bitter greens that are served are just parsley. It works fine, but it’s just a piece of parsley. I’m using broccoli raab and dandelion greens and cooking them down till they are soft.”
Furstenberg did admit that there might be a theological limit on his cooking. “I shouldn’t make them too good,” he said with a laugh, “because they won’t have the proper symbolic value.”
Casa Nonna’s Sfogliatelle per Pesach is available this week for $24.
Perry’s four-course menu is available through April 25 for 30.
Dino is offering a four-course Passover dinner for $55 ($25 for children) through April 24.
Mon Ami Gabi is offering a seder dinner for $34.95 April 18-19.