The Jewish “Ghetto” of Rome is not often on tourists’ list of places to visit in Rome, but it is well worth an exploration for those who have the time.
From Sept. 25-27, Jews around the world – including Jews in Rome and across Italy – will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
While Americans of Jewish faith are most often associated with Eastern Europe, some of our readers might not be aware that Rome’s Jewish ghetto is among the world’s oldest. The oldest is the Venetian ghetto, ghetto deriving from the Venetian word gèto, which means metal castings.
The Venetian ghetto, 40 years older than the Roman one, and built near a foundry, resulted in the name. In 1555, as the Reformation and the ensuing Catholic Counter-Reformation swept Europe in the 16th century, Pope Paulus IV issued a papal bull, Cum Nimis Absurdum. This decree stated that Jews of the Papal States were required to live in a specific quarter, known as the Jewish Ghetto, alongside the Tiber River in Rome. Rome began walling up the neighborhood, leaving space for only one entrance and one exit.
Through the years the city’s Jews continued to believe they would get the same privileges as Christians only to have the Catholic Church object. The ghetto as decreed, closed in 1870, when Rome was annexed into the Kingdom of Italy and Jews became full-fledged Italian citizens.
Italian unification spurred the neighborhood’s remodeling. In 1888, the ghetto’s sinuous streets were demolished in favor of three wider thoroughfares: Via del Portico d’Ottavia, which replaced Via della Pescheria, the site of the old fish market, Via Catalan, and Via del Tempio. Wide-open spaces and four building complexes replaced the network of blocks and alleyways that had once characterized the area. Order replaced the quaintness of the ghetto, as the buildings along Via del Portico d’Ottavia, which dated to the flurry of construction in the Augustan age, were renovated.
In 1904, the city opened its art deco-style Tempio Maggiore synagogue or Great Synagogue, among the largest in Europe and built on the site of the neighborhood’s original synagogue. The site had once contained five so-called scole, Italian for synagogue.
Jewish citizens faced more difficulties as fascism began its rise in the country. The Jews in the ghetto suffered greatly during World War II. On Oct. 16, 1943, over 1,000 people in the ghetto were ordered to leave their home with less than a half-hour’s notice. The Nazis then shipped them to concentration camps. Only 16 people returned to the ghetto after the war. While the church remained silent during this time, many Catholics in Rome did try to help. Today copper bricks on the streets around the ghetto indicate the houses where people were taken.
When today’s Romans talk about the ghetto, they imagine an area that extends from Lungotevere dei Cenci along the Tiber to Via del Portico d’Ottavia. The area includes Via della Tribuna di Campitelli, Via dei Funari, Via dei Falegnami, and Via Arenula.
As with all Italians, people in the ghetto “live to eat.” As one journeys through the maze of streets and alleys, you’ll find an assortment of eateries. The local forno, or bakery, is a wonderful place to snack on crunchy pizza bianca, white pizza. Other bakery spots in the ghetto include Antico Forno del Ghetto which opened in 1927 and offers all kinds of kosher products as well as bread and pizza. Of course, all kosher restaurants are closed on Saturday and Jewish holidays.
Another well-known bakery is “Boccione” Limentani. This is the only fully certified kosher bakery in Rome and among the city’s best, an institution for the city’s Jewish population. Boccione’s bakery goods are simple and delicious and follow traditional recipes. Most have been handed down orally over generations. Legend has it that even the pope shows up occasionally to savor their goods.
Some favorite specialties include ginetti, or lemon-flavored biscuits. Others come to order pizza di beriddle and mostaccioli ebriaici, sweet cakes with candied fruit, almonds, pine nuts and raisins. The washer-shaped biscottini are made from almonds, cocoa, and cinnamon. Morning dishes up cornetti giganti or giant croissants and veneziane, which is a brioche with cream. Sour cherry pie, baked from a carefully guarded secret recipe, is a must-try.
Holidays offer more delicious specialties. During Purim, the Jewish carnival, Boccione offers tortolicchio, hard dough made with honey, almonds, and candied anise. On Pesach or Passover, which bars leavened foods, one can enjoy doughnuts made from eggs, sugar, flour and oil, macaroons with almond paste, and the renowned honey pizzarelle. One can also order unleavened meatballs mixed with chopped chocolate, pine nuts, and raisins, dipped in hot boiling oil. Pies, which come in all shapes and sizes are stuffed with ricotta, while others are filled with sour cherry jam and chocolate.
For a reasonably priced lunch, a favorite spot is La Sora Margherita on Piazza delle Cinque Scole, It’s hard to find better authentic Roman cuisine: fettuccine al sugo, cacio e pepe, gnocchi alla romana served on Thursdays, pasta e ceci, baccalà served on Fridays, abbacchio alla cacciatora, polpette al sugo, salsicce, carciofi alla giudia, cicoria ripassata, and arancio condito. All the pasta (fettuccine, agnolotti, gnocchi, maltagliati) is handmade.
The “Ba” Ghetto serves kosher Middle Eastern cuisine as well as its Roman fare. The classic artichoke dish, carciofi alla Judea, is available year round. They also serve tonnarelli with wild mushrooms and sausages, osso buco, and fried brain. The Middle Eastern fare includes couscous, hummus, falafel, and Shawarma Kebab. Featured desserts are baklava, knave, and homemade cakes and Jewish pastries.
Al Pompiere has a great assortment of kosher style food. A house special is Pecorara, a stir-fried mix of brain, ricotta, breaded lamb chops and artichokes. Al Pompiere translates to “at the fireman’s house”) and is so named for the father of the current owner. His nickname “the fireman” was given to him as he used a great amount of pepper to season his penne all’arrabbiata. The restaurant is located on the first floor of the Beatrice Cenci palazzo where you can also enjoy splendid 16th-century ceiling frescoes.
In addition to great restaurants, the area has a number of specialty boutiques to browse. It is well worth the time to stroll the cobble-stoned streets as you discover hidden corners and wander through ancient ruins.