When Holly Rizzuto Palker, an Italian American, married her Jewish husband, holiday cooking became more of a challenge than a fun celebration. Then an old family recipe helped bridge the gap between her interfaith family.

Erev Marinara and Rigatoni 2
Courtesy of Holly Rizzuto Palker
| Credit: Courtesy of Holly Rizzuto Palker

Although I'm an Italian-Catholic, I'm very aware that Passover is just around the corner.

Since I married my husband and we decided to raise our children in his religion, I've embraced celebrating the Jewish holidays. However, preparing for a week (or even a few days) of flourless fare can be daunting, especially when the festivity coincides with Easter, a holiday that's the complete opposite when it comes to food.

For my family, Easter means the end of abstinence, and its arrival ushers in a large spring celebration where we gorge on carb-laden delicacies.

As a kid, Good Friday marked the start of the delectable food preparation in my grandma's kitchen. The aroma of sautéed garlic and oil for the sauces she prepared in advance for Easter Sunday filled her house and made my taste buds pulse in anticipation. 

"You get the mad-in-ad," (slang for the way Italian-American New Yorkers pronounce marinara) Grandma always said to me with a grandiose hand gesture as she poured her delicious sauce over a heaping bowl of rigatoni. 

On the other hand, Passover is about giving up any sort of grain that has been allowed to ferment and rise. Don't get me wrong—my husband's family did its fair share of feasting. They gathered lovingly, participated in a symbolic ritual, and gobbled up multiple courses of rich dishes, such as tender brisket with gravy, chopped liver, and gefilte fish during the Seder. Just, no bread.

And it's the grainless part that got me. How could they laugh and celebrate over crispy matzo wafers instead of warm semolina bread doused in olive oil? I struggled to connect with Passover because it didn't feel joyful to me. The food is not what I associated with a good time. Although it was a meaningful weeklong observance that I was happy to honor because the holiday commemorated Jews' freedom from slavery in Egypt, when it fell during Easter, the two menus didn't blend well.

When I first encountered this conundrum, the idea of choosing matzo ball soup over spaghetti and meatballs seemed wrong. I was raised to show my love through comfort food, but to me, comfort food was all about pasta.

Then one day my husband commented that his late mother traditionally prepared a tantalizing meal the night before Passover as a kick-off to the restrictive week ahead. She did the same thing the night before Yom Kippur, whipping up delicious steaks to prepare them for the fast. For my husband, those erev (or night before) meals had become part of his holiday tradition.

That's when I figured out my place. Why not usher in the carbless week with my Grandma's traditional Sunday sauce as an evening-before-Passover meal? After all, I had the warmest memories from my childhood of aunts, uncles, and cousins gathering around the dining room table in her small Staten Island house on Easter Sunday. We could still have that—just as a pre-holiday celebration.

Since the meatless sauce was my favorite, I chose that version. I sautéed garlic and olive oil in a stockpot until it was golden brown and fragrant. The aroma transported me to my youth, where I sat helping Grandma chop cloves for the sauce in her old-fashioned, 1960s-style, baby-blue kitchen. Then, I stirred in tomato paste and sprinkled in salt and pepper. Once the base was cooked to the point of deliciousness—which I usually got into trouble by tasting too much of—I willed myself not to finish it by the spoonful. Instead, I poured in some cans of Grandma's trusted brand of whole peeled plum tomatoes and mashed them to the preferred lumpy consistency with my schiacciapatate (potato masher). Rigatoni was cooked al dente, smothered in marinara, and garnished with fresh basil from my windowsill garden and plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

"Pasta's ready! Hurry before it gets musciad!" I called to my clan, awaiting their reactions. (Musciad means mushy, a sin to Italians.) Once they had their first tastes, their smiles brought me the holiday happiness I was missing. Bonding through sharing familiar food is such a strong part of my Italian-American heritage that this was all I needed to bring my traditions into the mix. My husband and kids relished the dish even more than normal given the matzo-filled week that approached. A new tradition was born. 

My idea was so well-received that I cooked an erev marinara sauce before Yom Kippur this past year, knowing my husband and daughter were about to fast. It took a little while to figure it out, but in the end, I discovered there are very few problems that can't be solved with pasta.