On our last night on a family holiday in Rome in February, we had signed up for a food tour that took us through the Jewish ghetto. Also called Roman Ghetto or Ghetto of Rome, this once-avoided area is now a sought-after neighbourhood. Under a light drizzle, Georgio, our guide regaled us with stories about the area, while we tasted our way through it.
Considered to be home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, today, a small number of Jews are found here, unlike in 1555 when thousands lived in the walled, seven-acre neighbourhood. The first Jewish residents came here in the second century B.C. as businessmen, and later, in the first century A.D. many came as slaves and eventually were confined to live within the walled ghetto. Built on low lying land in the Sant’Angelo district, the area was often flooded when the river Tiber broke its banks. Condemned to a tough life, residents remained together, fiercely guarding their customs and traditions.
Our first stop was Ba’ghetto Milky, a restaurant that focuses on Jewish-Roman cuisine (www.baghetto.com). Inside the warm restaurant, we sampled Jewish classics—zucchini flowers filled with ricotta cheese and smoked salmon, and carcio fialla giudia or fried artichokes. The seasonal vegetable takes centre stage towards the end of winter in Italy; markets and our restaurant menus are flooded with them. For the carcio fialla giudia, artichokes are double fried: first to cook the bulb until tender, and a second time to crisp the petals, turning them golden brown. Much like the Jewish staple, the history of the ghetto is simple on the surface but layered if you dig deeper.
The unification of Italy in 1870 led to the demolition of the ghetto’s walls and residents were granted full rights and citizenship. The Great Synagogue of Rome, with its striking square shaped aluminium dome, was built as a beacon of hope for a better future. However, the struggles of the people were far from over. On October 16, 1943, Nazi soldiers marched into the ghetto and deported over 1,000 people to Auschwitz. As we followed Georgio down the streets, skirting the Great Synagogue, he pointed out plaques embedded outside buildings, commemorating those who were taken away. Only 16 returned.
To change the sombre mood and take shelter from the rain, Georgio took us to the bright and cheery Antico Forno Roscioli (www.anticofornoroscioli.it). The aroma of freshly baked bread was immensely welcome on the cold, rainy night. Active since 1972, the bakery has been making fresh bread, pizza and other Italian favourites. We sampled three kinds of pizza—rossa alla Romana, also called Roman or red pizza, with a generous slathering of tomato sauce and no cheese, a red pizza with cheese, and one with roasted peppers, toasted pine nuts and gooey buffalo mozzarella.
With bellies full we followed Georgio—there was more eating to do and history to marvel at. Our next stop Da Pancrazio, built on the site of the magnificent Theatre of Pompey, is no ordinary restaurant (www.dapancrazio.it). It was a few yards from here, that Julius Caesar is believed to have been murdered in 44 B.C. In a corner of the basement, that resembled a dimly lit vault, with exposed brick walls, was the ruin of an original pillar from the Theatre of Pompey. We ran our hands over the cold marble pillar both in awe and shock at discovering such a significant piece of history in the basement of a restaurant. The food, mostly Roman specialities, matched up to Pancrazio’s legendary setting. We tried a classic, vignarola—a stew made with fresh vegetables including peas and broad beans, and topped with crunchy bacon—and their signature spaghetti carbonara.
By the time we left Da Pancrazio at around 10.30 p.m., streets shone in all their glory with very few people around. We walked through Piazza Navona, past Lorenzo Bernini’s masterpiece, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or the Fountain of Four Rivers and to a small hole-in-the-wall shop, called Two Sizes, serving tiramisu in two sizes. No surprise, we had the small cups and sampled the flavours on offer such as the pistachio, strawberry, peanut butter, caramel and the classic coffee (Via del Governo Vecchio, 88; +39 06 64761191).
The night, however, did not end with dessert but coffee. I suspect that everything in Sant ‘Eustachio Il Caffè (www.santeustachioilcaffe.it), including the staff, smells of their heavenly coffee. The perfect cup of coffee—the fuel that keeps Rome going—was a fitting end to the night.
Pizza ebraica or Jewish pizza was Pope Benedict XVI’s favourite dessert. The dish is, in fact, a sort of cookie filled with nuts, raisins and candied citrus fruit. Today, only one kosher bakery, the family run Pasticceriail Boccione, makes it.
Simple but bursting with flavour, concia is actually a method of cooking that involves frying, followed by marination in white wine vinegar. In Rome, concia most often refers to a dish of thinly sliced zucchini marinated in white wine vinegar with fresh mint leaves.
Similar to the Sicilian dish aracini, a suppli is essentially a deep fried ball of rice mixed with tomato sauce and stuffed with mozarella. To test if the suppli is authentic, pull one apart, and check if the two pieces stay connected by a string of gooey cheese.
Chaitali Patel is the former Associate Editor, Special Projects at National Geographic Traveller India. She's partial to nature, history and the arts. She believes that every trip is as much a journey within as it is one outside.