I had the good fortune to spend a week in Italy recently. I also had the good fortune to tour Il Ghetto, as it is still called.
This refers to the historically Jewish section of town established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, who confined Jews to a small, low-lying, flood-prone area on the banks of the Tiber River. Pope Paul also built a church in the middle of Il Ghetto and held weekly conversion events every Saturday. According to my tour guide, Claudia, he never got any takers.
Prior to 1555, Jews participated fully in Italian life. Encouraged by the Medici and other influential groups to settle in Italy after the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s, Jews brought their skills in financial services and other fields to the peninsula, and became respected patrons of the arts and sciences.
Following the Pope’s declaration, however, they were forbidden to hold jobs, and men were required to wear yellow caps when they left Il Ghetto. Even worse, Jewish women were forced to wear blue scarves, which were the symbol of prostitutes, so following that ruling, few women ever left the ghetto.
Despite the oppression they suffered for centuries, Jews developed a unique cuisine using indigenous ingredients and flavors, and adapted local dishes to kosher laws. Creative Jewish cooks had a significant impact on Italian cooking, and this resulted in the development of several iconic dishes, which are commonly served in Italian kitchens the world over.
The Restaurant Il Piperno, nestled in a small piazza at Monte de Cenci 9 in the middle of Il Ghetto, dates to 1860. It features a number of Roman-Jewish dishes, as well as more typical Italian fare.
While there are a good number of typical Jewish dishes featured, this is by no means a kosher restaurant; we were greeted at the door with a large slab of prosciutto. I mentioned this to my companion, a native Roman, and she said, with a smile, “Well, it’s Italian Jewish.” But pork and shellfish are easily avoided, and there are plenty of delicious dishes prepared alla Giudia (in the Jewish style) on the menu.
We started with the carciofi alla Giudia (literally translated as “Jewish artichokes”), which were stunning. Crisply fried to perfection, crunchy on the outside and tender and flavorful inside, these flower-like gems were almost too beautiful to eat. But not quite. Because April is artichoke season in Rome, we doubled down and also had carciofi trifolati (artichokes sliced and sautéed with garlic and parsley). They were flavorful and delicious.
Our waiter also recommended bresaola della casa, which he said was a typically Jewish dish. The air-dried beef was the perfect way to experience the Italian obsession with cold cured meats while avoiding foods that are inherently non-kosher (pork/prosciutto).
For our main course, I enjoyed the agnolotti di videloo pomodoro e basilica — pan-fried veal-filled pasta topped with tomato and basil sauce. The veal was subtly spiced with nutmeg, and the pasta was thick, toothsome and tasted oh-so-homemade. My companion had the sogliola, which was four filets of sole, simply cooked in a white wine sauce.
Dessert brought some laughs.
The specialita della casa was hilariously (and grotesquely) called le palle di nonno fritte —literally translated as “fried grandpa’s balls.” And, yes, we tried them. They were light, cake-style doughnuts, fried with the most delicately crisp coating. Inside they were laced with chocolate, ricotta and a touch of anise seed.
We also enjoyed the fragoline di bosco con gelato — local tiny wild strawberries no larger than your fingernail, topped with vanilla ice cream. Add an espresso and arrivederci.
Pasta with Artichokes
This is a cheater recipe for the home cook using frozen artichoke hearts. I find fresh artichokes difficult to work with, expensive and, therefore, best ordered in restaurants. But in a pinch, the frozen hearts will do the trick on this simple, typically Roman dish.
I enjoyed it for lunch at a restaurant called Da Giggi at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Roma, and I was able using “Itanglish” to get a basic recipe from the waiter. They, of course, used fresh, local artichokes, but this is the next best thing.
- 1 package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed, drained and sliced
- 4 tablespoons salted butter
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ½ cup chopped onion
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 1 pound fresh pasta (fettuccini or linguine recommended)
- Grated Parmesan cheese for serving
In a large skillet, melt the butter with olive oil and sauté onions with salt, pepper and artichokes. When cooked, approximately five minutes, add the lemon juice.
Meanwhile, heat the large pot of salted water to a boil and cook al dente, according to package directions. Reserve ½ cup cooking water.
Drain the pasta and pour it into a skillet with the artichoke mixture. Toss to blend and add the cooking water slowly as needed to distribute ingredients. (You may not need the full amount reserved.) Serve with Parmesan cheese.