Rome is a city of contrasts.
By day, you can eat on a sun-dappled, rooftop terrace, watching below as Smart cars (two-seater autos that don't guzzle up gas) and Vespas maneuver around Renaissance bathtub fountains at breakneck speed. At night, you can find yourself dancing in trendy nightclubs with off-beat disc jockeys.
And then, there's a part of Rome that for Jews is serious and somber; the old Jewish ghetto, where until the late 19th century more than 5,000 people were confined. Overlooking the ghetto, the square aluminum dome of the Great Synagogue, built in 1904, rises triumphantly as though in tribute to one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world.
In 161 BCE, Jews arrived from Jerusalem as envoys of Judah Maccabee. After the Romans invaded Judea in 63 BCE, Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves. Later, Jewish merchants who came to Rome on business stayed, and the Jewish population began to grow. Before World War II, a thriving community of 50,000 called the city home; today, some 12,000 Jews reside in Rome.
The ancient Roman ghetto is situated on the banks of the river Tiber. In 1555, it's documented that 1,750 Jews were forced to live in this area by order of Pope Paul IV. This was the beginning of three centuries of physical confinement and repression.
Living conditions were grim. Stagnant water from the river flooded the area, disease was rampant, and the homes were practically uninhabitable. Ironically, 21st-century ghetto property is now some of the most expensive in Rome.
I came to Rome to explore the ghetto. Wandering through the alleys and centuries-old monuments, I was thrilled to discover an ancient culinary tradition that's very much alive. Outside shop doorways, hot red peppers spill over from clay pots, and purple-tipped artichokes are heaped high in baskets. Chefs lug crates of zucchini and crusty loaves into restaurant kitchens, preparing for midday and evening meals, when every seat will be taken.
Although Roman Jewish cuisine has evolved over centuries, the most significant time was between the 1500s and 1800s, when the Jews were confined within the four gates of the ghetto from dawn to dusk. Isolated from the outside world, housewives were forced to be creative, cooking with limited amounts of humble ingredients while keeping the recipes kosher.
Artichokes, cheeses and salt cod were cheap and available inside the ghetto; spices and seasonings added tam. Vegetables and fish were fried in olive oil. Fish dishes are prominent in ancient Roman Jewish cooking, probably due to the fact that a fish market sat in the center of the ghetto – red mullet, bream and sea bass cooked in a sweet-and-sour sauce with pine nuts and raisins is a popular dish for all Romans, Jewish or not.
Beef was salted, peppered and dried, which Roman Jews still do at holiday time. The influence of different cultures and time periods is most obvious in dessert recipes. Bollo – a soft spongy cake studded with raisins and candied fruits – is known to have been brought to Rome by Jews expelled from Spain. A sweet pizza of almonds, raisins and pine nuts can be traced to the influence of Imperial Rome.
You can't leave Rome without dining at La Taverna del Ghetto, a superb kosher restaurant in the heart of the ghetto, where locals and dignitaries meet to eat and drink. We chatted with a Jewish delegation from California seated at the next table. The next day, they were going to the Vatican, where they had been granted an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
The restaurant's extensive menu offers authentic, mouth-watering dishes. Whole artichokes – stems and all – are fried in olive oil so that when served, they resemble crisp, golden chrysanthemums. Dried cod, vegetables and pine nuts are baked together to make an aromatic fish stew, and zucchini is marinated in herbed vinegar; both of these recipes are said to have originated in the old Jewish ghetto.
Dishes with homemade pasta abound – stuffed with porcini mushrooms, tossed with chick peas and roasted red peppers, as ravioli drenched in a zesty meat sauce. And desserts prepared in-house – such as Prune and Pistachio Torte and Grandmother's Cake (a rich pound cake) – are simply irresistible.
Tomato Broth With Chicken Matzah Balls
The recipe for Chicken Matzah Balls comes from The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin. In testing, I found it may be necessary to add a little more matzah meal. Chicken may be purchased pre-ground.
13/4 lbs. chicken breast, boned and skinned
1/4 cup kosher chicken broth
3 Tbsps. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
large pinch each of white pepper and nutmeg
3/4 cup unsalted matzah meal
8 cups kosher chicken broth
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cup tiny broccoli florets
Cut the chicken into chunks and grind in the food processor. Set aside.
In a bowl, whisk together eggs, broth, olive oil, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the ground chicken and matzah meal.
Mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
In a large pot, mix together the chicken broth and tomato sauce. Bring to a boil over a medium-high heat.
Shape the chicken mixture into 12 balls and drop into the boiling broth. Return to a boil, reduce heat to simmer.
Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add the broccoli. Cover and return to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes longer.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 236; protein, 16 g; carbohydrates, 14 g; fat, 13 g; cholesterol, 111 mg; sodium, 637 mg.
Baked Cod With Raisins, Pine nuts and Cherry Tomatoes
Before use, salt cod must be soaked for 12 to 24 hours in several changes of cold water. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels.
11/2 lbs. salt cod, soaked and cut in 2-inch pieces
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 tsps. chopped garlic
2 Tbsps. chopped parsley
1/2 cup kosher dry white wine (preferably Italian)
3 Tbsps. water
2 Tbsps. vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/3 cup raisins
2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/8 tsp. red-pepper flakes
2 Tbsps. pine nuts, toasted
In a shallow dish, dredge the cod in the flour. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over a medium-high heat (350 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer or a bread cube tossed in should brown in 60 seconds). Add the cod and fry until golden-brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes.
Drain on paper towels. Set aside.
Reduce heat to medium.
Add the onion, garlic and parsley. Sauté until onion is translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in the wine, water, vinegar and sugar. Reduce heat to low and bring to simmer. Continue cooking for 5 minutes to reduce liquids slightly.
Add the raisins, tomatoes, red-pepper flakes and cod. Partially cover. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often. If the sauce is too thick, add a little vegetable broth.
Sprinkle pine nuts over top before serving.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 419; protein, 32 g; carbohydrates, 23 g; fat, 21 g; cholesterol, 87 mg; sodium, 873 mg.
Marinated Zucchini ('Concia')
4-6 small zucchini
1/2 cup good olive oil
2 tsps. minced garlic
1/2 cup shredded fresh basil leaves
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup wine vinegar
Trim off the ends of each zucchini. Cut each in half and slice thinly lengthwise.
Place on several thicknesses of paper towel. Let dry for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat to 350 degrees (oil should not be smoking hot).
Add the zucchini. Fry until golden-brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes.
Arrange in layers in a glass dish. Season each layer with a sprinkling of garlic, basil leaves, salt and pepper, and vinegar.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 183; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 5 g; fat, 18 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 7 mg.
Prune & Pistachio Torte
Other dessert fillings, such as almond, poppyseed or strawberry, may be used instead of almond for this no-roll pastry dessert. But do NOT use pie filling; it's simply not firm enough. For a dairy meal and a much richer taste, replace the margarine with butter.
3/4 cup prune-plum dessert filling
3 Tbsps. coarsely chopped pistachios
1 stick (4 oz.) pareve margarine, melted
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
2 Tbsps. sugar
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Spray a 9-inch pie pan with nonstick vegetable spray.
In a small bowl, mix together the prune-plum filling and pistachios. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, stir together the butter, vinegar, sugar and flour. Mixture should form a ball.
Press about three-quarters of the mixture into the bottom of prepared pie pan.
Prick all over with a fork.
Bake for 10 minutes.
Spread the prune-plum mixture over top. Crumble remaining dough and scatter on top.
Return to oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden-brown at the edges. Cool.
Dust with confectioners' sugar before cutting into wedges.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 264; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 35 g; fat, 13 g; cholesterol, 31 mg; sodium, 2 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman is a cookbook author and a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Reach her at: www.kosherfoodconsultants.com.