Both Italian and Jewish, my husband wanted to show me the Roman Jewish ghetto. In May 1984, we strolled through this sliver of a neighborhood near the Roman Arch and saw hardly a soul. Perusing dusty Judaic shops, several of them closed, I found the surroundings depressing.
But last May, retracing our steps, I was amazed to see that the Jewish ghetto had sprung to life with one kosher restaurant after another. Bustling eateries offered outdoor tables, crowded with families. The Judaic shops were sparkling and open for business. Even the architecture, a jumble of ancient, medieval and Renaissance styles with a bank of old ghetto facades shined through, now that the neighborhood had energy. The diners seemed mostly Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe, at home eating pasta beside the backdrop of Italian Jewish history.
Living in the Eternal City since the third century BCE, the Jews of Rome are Europe's longest surviving Jewish community.
Established in 1555, the ghetto became a walled quarter confined to four blocks. The site was close to the Tiber River, which often flooded into the ghetto. But the area hosted a fish market, giving Jews opportunities as fish mongers. Chronically poor, they were permitted only unskilled jobs.
Along with fish, Jews subsisted on anything fried in olive oil. Frying was the fare of the poor. This gave rise to the signature dish of Roman Jews, fried artichokes, the closest thing to ecstasy on a plate.
Last May, I marveled at the ghetto's main thoroughfare Via del Portico d'Ottavia named for Octavia, the sister of Emperor Augustus. I passed several restaurant menu boards advertising Jewish artichokes. Sniffing garlic in the air, I vied for a table, happy to be part of this scene.
'Carciofi alla Guidia'
(Artichokes of the Jews)
All of Rome has adopted this tantalizing recipe credited to the Jews.
4 baby artichokes or 2 medium-sized artichokes, if baby artichokes aren't available
1 lemon, cut into wedges
1 quart of olive oil, or more, if needed (extra-virgin olive oil is unnecessary)
kosher salt to taste
Using scissors, cut off the sharp point of artichoke leaves. Rinse artichokes under cold water.
In a medium-sized bowl, place artichokes side by side. Squeeze the juice from lemon wedges over the artichokes.
Fill the bowl with cold water. If the artichokes bob to the surface, place a plate over the bowl and weigh it down with a can of food or something of comparable weight.
Soak artichokes in the refrigerator for 18 to 24 hours.
Remove the artichokes from the soaking liquid. Bang them together two at a time to shake out most of the water. Turn upside down; drain onto paper towels.
Pour the olive oil into a deep, medium-sized pot. Oil should not be higher than the pot's midway point.
On a medium-high flame, heat oil to a slow boil, which may only take a couple of minutes. Remove the pot momentarily from the flame.
Using tongs, carefully place the artichokes in the oil. They should be submerged in oil about halfway. The artichokes will steam as much as fry in the oil.
Warning: Watch artichokes constantly while frying to avoid oil spillovers or flare-ups!
Cover the pot and return it to the flame. Reduce heat to medium or medium-low. If artichokes fry too vigorously or if oil snaps, remove the pot from the heat temporarily and lower the flame.
Using tongs, turn the artichokes about every 5 minutes.
Fry baby artichokes for about 20 to 30, or medium artichokes for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until they feel softened when pierced with a knife.
Remove the pot from the flame. Using tongs, lift the artichokes from the oil, turning them upside-down to let excess oil drain back into the pot.
Place artichokes on a platter. Sprinkle with kosher salt on all sides.
For baby artichokes, use a spoon to crush them slightly. For larger artichokes, use a sharp knife to cut them in half vertically. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 appetizer portions.
'Orata ala Griglia'
At the famed Piperno restaurant inside the Roman Jewish ghetto, I ordered grilled "orata" (seabream), which was so delicious I insisted that my husband, who speaks Italian, ask the chef how he prepared it, and he proudly gave him the instructions.
Note: This can be grilled or broiled. If grilling outdoors, use a slotted grill pan suited for vegetables or fish.
4 whole seabream: ask the fishmonger to clean them, leaving the skin, heads and tails attached
olive oil for greasing the grill and drizzling
kosher salt to taste
Preheat a grill or broiler.
Spread olive oil on the grill pan or a broiling pan.
Rinse the seabream under cold water inside and out. Pat dry with paper towels.
Move the seabream to a plate and score both sides of each fish a couple of times with a knife.
Drizzle with oil until skin is lubricated, but not dripping with oil. Sprinkle skin with kosher salt.
Arrange the seabream on the grill pan or broiler pan. Grill (or broil on a medium rung) until the skin starts to sizzle and pucker, about 2 minutes. Turn the fish and repeat.
Then grill or broil both sides again until skin is nicely browned (about 8 minutes).
Seabream is done when the insides are no longer pink and a knife inserted and twisted next to the spine causes the fish to flake.
Table Preparation: Slice off each head and tail. Open the fish like a book. If you insert a knife under the spine and jiggle it, the bones should lift out easily, almost in one piece.
'Penne con Quattro Formaggi'
(Penne With Four Cheeses)
This recipe came from my husband's aunt, who lived in Rome as a teenager. She serves it as an appetizer.
1 lb. penne
1/2 lb. mozzarella cheese, diced
1 cup part-skim ricotta
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup romano cheese
11/4 cups milk (whole or low-fat)
Preheat oven to 350°.
Coat soufflé dish with butter.
Prepare penne according to package instructions. Drain in a colander and move to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients until well-blended. Spoon the cheese mixture into the penne and stir until well-incorporated.
Move the penne to the prepared pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the casserole bubbles and mozzarella is fully melted.
'Pomodori in Insalata'
(Pareve) The essence of Italian cuisine is fresh foods simply prepared.
3 ripe tomatoes
1/4-inch piece of red onion, cut into paper-thin circles
kosher salt to taste
2 Tbsps. basil chopped
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
Rinse tomatoes under water and pat dry with paper towels. With a sharp knife, remove the core and discard. Cut the tomatoes into about 6 wedges a piece. Using the point of a knife, gently remove seeds and discard.
Move the tomato wedges to a bowl. Separate each circle of onion into rings and place them on top of the tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and basil.
Drizzle lemon juice and olive oil over the salad. Toss ingredients until well-incorporated.
Cover in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature for a couple of hours before serving.
'Lamponi alla Panna'
(Raspberries and Cream)
This recipe is one of my husband's favorite summer desserts.
1 small container (about 1 cup) raspberries
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. sugar, or more if additional sweetness is desired
Rinse raspberries under cold water and drain on paper towels. Roll them around and let them air until thoroughly dry.
Place cream in a mixing bowl and beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and beat a little more. Gently stir in the raspberries with a wooden or silicone spoon.
Serve in a large, pretty bowl or in individual bowls.
Linda Morel is a writer based in New York City. Email her at: [email protected].