Rome, a city where tourists flock to see historic sites, has been home to a Jewish community for thousands of years. In fact, it’s the oldest Jewish community in Europe. Jews were brought to Rome as slaves way back during the Roman Empire.
But it’s the more modern Jewish history, if you can call it that – from centuries ago – that has left its mark on Rome, and, as is so often the case when it comes to Jews, it’s all about food. Rome’s most popular, and unique, culinary specialties originated in the city’s Jewish ghetto, a place where Jews were forced to live under a decree from Pope Paul IV in 1555. The ghetto, Portico d’Ottavia, – a four-block area between the Tiber River, the Turtle Fountain, the Theatre of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci – once again became a place where Jews were detained during the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943.
Over the past few decades, though, the central piazza has seemed to be almost deserted except for the nearby Great Synagogue of Rome which also houses a museum of Jewish history and a few eateries, serving traditional Jewish Rome cuisine.
But during the past few years, the ghetto has seen an incredible resurgence. Numerous new kosher restaurants, both fine dining and fast food, are packed with locals and tourists alike. The piazza is filled with diners, large tables with local families of a few generations, and small ones with tourists at both the dairy and meat establishments.
Centuries ago, the ghetto was a place of poverty but from it came Roman Jewish culinary specialties that have become synonymous with the food of Rome. While many of these dishes can be found throughout the city, the ghetto is the place to sample them.
Even if you’re not an artichoke lover, you can’t visit without experiencing carciofi alla giudia – fried artichokes in the Jewish style. They are simply exquisite: a chrysanthemum shaped crispy golden exterior and a tender heart. Take your time and savour each crunchy petal one at a time. While they’re now a delicacy, back in the 16th century when they were first made, artichokes were abundant and cheap.
Fiore di zucca ripieno – zucchini blossoms battered, filled with fresh mozzarella cheese and anchovies and then deep fried – are another must Roman Jewish specialty to sample. They’re crispy with a mild-zucchini-like flavoured blossom and a slight salty tasting melted cheese interior. It’s simply heavenly.
The presence of anchovies hints at a Jewish origin. Many Italian dishes use cured pork products to impart saltiness, but here, salted anchovies are used instead.
In the ghetto, filetti di baccala – salt cod – was highly valued. Battered and fried in plentiful amounts of olive oil, it was an economical, not to mention, delectable way to fill your belly as were other fritti – fried options. Selling fritti from friggitoria (portable street carts that sold fried foods) was a common occupation as Jews in the ghetto were excluded from other jobs.
A relatively newcomer to the ghetto, La Taverna del Ghetto, is one of its oldest kosher establishments. Most of the ghetto’s specialties are served here along with a range of pastas such as tagliatelle artichokes with bottarga (dried tuna eggs) but because it’s a meat restaurant, the zucchini blossoms are stuffed with sea bass. The meat offerings include those of Italian origin but as with so many kosher restaurants both here and abroad there are some Middle Eastern and American items.
Ba Ghetto Milky is the dairy eatery down the street from its meat counterpart. Sample the buffalo milk mozzarella and ricotta along with another Roman specialty tonnarelli a cacao e pepe ( a long pasta with sheep’s cheese and pepper). Mains include a variety of fish and vegetable offerings including my husband’s favourite – eggplant parmigiana.
The latest offering, Bellacarne, serves traditional fried dishes and plenty of pastas and vegetable-based combos but also cured and dried meats from the Italian kitchen. Rather than North African kebabs, here you can sample those seasoned with rosemary or meatballs like Mama would make. So skip the hot dogs and burgers that may appeal to the locals and enjoy that which you won’t find in a kosher eatery on this side of the Atlantic.
If you’re wandering through the ghetto during the day, you’ll likely notice the long lines outside Pasticceria il Boccione, a tiny 200-year old bakery. Everyone is waiting to get their pizza ebraica – not really pizza at all but a dense cake filled with almonds, pine nuts and dried fruit. Don’t be put off by its appearance. It looks burnt and extremely unappetizing but this specialty, which is said to originate from Sicilian Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, is simply spectacular tasting.