Rome’s Jewish Quarter
Today, Rome’s Jewish quarter is one of the more colourful spots in the city. Walk down the Via del Portico d’Octavia at night, and you’ll witness the waiters competing with each other to attract clients into their restaurant because it’s the oldest, the most authentic, the only one where the chef is a real Roman Jew, the one run by a nonna or the only one that Anthony Bourdain ate at. The atmosphere and the food are unlike those anywhere else in the city. The truth is that all the restaurants offering Cucina Giudaico Romanesca (Roman Jewish Cuisine) are pretty good. It’s why the area is popular with locals, Romans, and tourists.
The origins of the Jewish quarter are much darker. In 1555 Pope Paul IV decreed that all 2,000 jews in Rome had to live in a small area in the Rione of Sant’Angelo, pressed up to the river Tiber. The area in fact often became part of the river Tiber so frequent were the floods. The Pope commissioned Giovanni Sallustio Peruzzi to design and build a wall around the area with only one gate. He sent the bill of 300 soldi to the Jews themselves.
‘Since it is absurd …’
Pope Paul began his decree, or Papal Bull, with the proposition that it was absurd and inappropriate for Christians to allow Jews to live freely among. He went on to remove the Jews civil rights, restrict their working opportunities, and to make them wear yellow hats in public so they could be recognized. The gate to the area was to be locked from dusk till dawn.
The claustro degli Ebrei
At first, the area was known as the claustro degli Ebrei (the enclosure of the Jews). Paul got the idea from a similar area which had been set up in Venice in 1516 and soon the claustro took on the Venetian name. A name which subsequently entered the English language: ghetto.
The end of the ghetto
The requirement for Jews to live in the ghetto continued, apart from a brief interruption following the French occupation of Rome at the end of the 18th Century, until the city’s incorporation into the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. In 1888 the walls were finally torn down. Many of the buildings, which were no better than slums, were also demolished and replaced with elegant palazzi, housing schools and a brand new synagogue. Although they were no longer required to live there, many jews stayed in the area which had been their home for centuries.
World War II
In the 1930s the treatment of Jews in Italy came full circle with many of the ghetto’s inhabitants being deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz and other death camps. This is commemorated today with the presence of pietre d’inciampo (which translates as ‘stumbling blocks’), brass plaques set into the street outside the last home of deported Jews giving their name, date of birth, and where and when they were killed.
After the war many Jews returned to the area and the vibrant community that still exists today was born.
Cucina Giudaico Romanesca
Most Roman jews belong to the sephardic tradition since many of their ancestors arrived in the city after being expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. This influence can be seen in many of the traditional dishes that developed in the ghetto and are still served in the restaurants of the Via del Portico d’Ottavia today.
Artichokes are at the centre of Roman Jewish Cuisine and they adorn many a sign outside restaurants. They are often piled high in baskets in the street to entice customers in. They are usually the carciofo romanesco (Roman artichoke) variety which is cultivated in Lazio and has IGP protection. The signature artichoke dish is Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-style artichokes) which are peeled, boiled, flattened, and then deep fried, garnished with lemon juice and salted. You start by munching on the small outer leaves which have practically turned in to artichoke crisps, before consuming the remarkably buttery interior. There is a reason why classic dishes become classic dishes and Carciofi alla Giudia is a prime example. I defy you to eat one without wanting more.
Most Italian salume is made from pork and so is completely off the menu. Meat is predominantly beef or lamb with offal playing a leading role, as in ordinary Roman cuisine.
Stracotto (literally ‘overcooked’) is dish consisting of chuck steak cooked slowly in tomato passata and red wine. It’s sometimes eaten on its own or with potatoes but for holidays it’s served as a sauce for fettuccine. It’s also sometimes served in supplì, the Roman version of arancini di riso, which were also invented in the ghetto. Due to the kosher dietary laws—where meat and dairy cannot be mixed—parmesan cheese is not used on pasta with meat sauces and cheese is not included in supplì.
Abbacchio is Roman dialect for lamb and is the centrepiece of abbacchio alla Giudia, where it’s roasted with garlic, rosemary, and oil.
Baccalà, dried salt cod, features heavily in Roman Jewish Cuisine. This is probably due to the fact that many Roman Jews are Sephardic Jews who came to Italy from Spain and Portugal, where baccalà is highly popular. It’s worth noting that although the name is the same, Roman baccalà is not the same as Venetian baccalà. The former is cod, preserved by salting, whereas the latter is air-dried Norwegian stockfish.
Many other kinds of fish are eaten, but not shellfish which is banned under kosher dietary laws.
The Roman ghetto also has its own tradition of sweets and cakes. One of the best places to try these is the Forno Boccione a bakery on the corner of Via del Portico di Octavia. This tiny shop has been serving the Roman Jewish community for more than a century. There’s no sign, but you’ll recognize it by the line outside and the cakes in the small window.Remember that it’s closed on Saturdays for the Jewish sabbath but open bright and early on Sunday morning. Forno Boccione is famous for two things, pizza dolce ebraica and crostata ricotta ricotta e visciole.
The pizza dolce ebraica is a cake, not a pizza. Its crunchy exterior conceals a soft almost marzipan-like centre, packed full of nuts, candied peel, and glace cherries. Vanda, one of the shop assistants, who I wish was my nonna, assured me that it’s made to one of the oldest recipes in the ghetto dating back to the 16th Century. It’s particularly associated with the celebrations surrounding the brit milah ceremony (known in English as the bris) and is sometimes called pizza da berride.
Crostata ricotta e visciole is basically the best cherry cheesecake you’ve ever eaten. It consists of sweet pastry, encasing a layer of visciole (a type of sharp tasting cherry) topped with ricotta cheese.
When you are next in Rome, if you haven’t already, you should definitely visit the Via del Portico d’Ottavia for a completely different cultural and culinary experience than you find in the rest of the city. There are many good places to eat there. The photos in this article were taken at the Taverna del Ghetto. Here, fresh pasta is a speciality and there is a pasta chef working in full view producing the fettuccine and other things on the menu, which only adds to the spectacle.
NOTE: If you are a Jewish visitor to Rome it’s worth noting that many of the restaurants in the Via del Portico d’Ottavia provide kiddush and shabbat dinner. It’s worth making enquiries beforehand because most restaurants require prior booking for this.
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