Roman Jewish Cuisine

Rome is a city of stark contrasts. Dine on a sun-dappled, roof top terrace overlooking Barberini Piazza where Smart cars (2-seater autos that don’t guzzle up gas) and Vespas drive around Renaissance bathtub fountains at breakneck speed. At night, stroll around Testaccio to dance in trendy nightclubs with off-beat DJ’s.

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 B.C.E. 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, there was a thriving community of 50,000. Today, there are about 12,000 Jews in Rome.

The ancient Roman ghetto is situated on the banks of the river Tiber. In 1555, it’s documented that 1750 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 for Roman Jews. Living conditions were grim. Stagnant waters from the river flooded the area, disease was rampant and the homes practically uninhabitable. Ironically, 21st century ghetto property is some of the most expensive in Rome.

I came to Rome to explore the ghetto. Wandering through the winding alleys and centuries old monuments, I was thrilled to discover an ancient culinary tradition that is very much alive. Outside shop doorways , brilliant hot red peppers spill over from clay pots and purple-tipped artichokes are heaped high in baskets. Chefs lug crates of zucchini and warm crusty loaves into restaurant kitchens preparing for mid-day and evening meals when every seat will be taken.

Although Roman-Jewish cuisine has evolved over centuries, the most significant time was between 1500’s and 1800’s when the Jews were confined within the four gates of the ghetto from dawn to dusk. Isolated from the outside world, Jewish housewives were forced to be creative, cooking with limited amounts of humble ingredients while keeping the recipes kosher. Artichokes, cheeses, salt cod were cheap and available inside the ghetto and 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 there was a fish market 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, an ingredient which Roman Jews still prepare for the Holidays. 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.

La Taverna del Ghetto’s extensive menu offers authentic, mouthwatering 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 recipes said to have originated in the old Jewish ghetto. Dishes with home made pasta abound — stuffed with porcini mushrooms, tossed with chick peas and roasted red peppers, and as ravioli drenched in a zesty meat sauce. Desserts prepared in-house such as Prune and Pistachio Torte and Grandmother’s cake ( a rich pound cake) are irresistible.

Recipes have been handed down through generations helping to preserve a Roman Jewish culture. Many of the dishes have been absorbed into Roman cuisine and you’ll find some served in restaurants outside the ghetto. But the dishes remain unique — very Roman, very Jewish and especially steeped in precious tradition.

The recipe for Chicken Matza Balls is from The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin, published by Dodd, Mead and Company, 1981. In testing, I found it may be necessary to add a little more matzo meal. Chicken may be purchased already ground.

Serves 6-8
Chicken matza balls:
* 3/4 pound chicken breast, boned and skinned
* 3 eggs
* 1/4 cup chicken broth
* 3 tablespoons olive oil
* 1 teaspoon salt
* Large pinch each of white pepper and nutmeg
* 3/4 cup unsalted matza meal

Tomato broth
* 8 cups chicken broth
* 1 cup tomato sauce
* 2 cups tiny broccoli florets

Cut the chicken into chunks and grind in the food processor. Set aside. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, broth, olive oil, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the ground chicken and matzo meal. Mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
In a large pot, mix the chicken broth and tomato sauce. Bring to a boil over 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.
Approx. nutrients per serving: calories – 236 protein – 16g carbohydrates – 14g fat – 13g cholesterol – 111mg sodium – 637mg

Serves 4-6

Before use, salt cod must be soaked for 12 – 24 hours in several changes of cold water. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels.

* 1 1/2 pounds 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 teaspoons chopped garlic
* 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
* 1/2 cup dry white wine (preferably Italian)
* 3 tablespoons water
* 2 tablespoons vinegar
* 1 tablespoon sugar
* 1/3 cup raisins
* 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
* 1/8th teaspoon red pepper flakes
* 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

In a shallow dish, dredge the cod in the flour. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium high heat. (350F 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, 3-4 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Set aside.
Reduce heat to medium. Add the onion, garlic and parsley. Saute until onion is translucent, 2-3 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 sauce is too thick, add a little vegetable broth. Sprinkle pine nuts over before serving.
Approx nutrients per serving: calories – 419 protein – 32g carbohydrates – 23g fat – 21g cholesterol – 87mg sodium – 873mg

Serves 4-6

* 4 -6 small zucchini
* 1/2 cup good olive oil
* 2 teaspoons minced garlic
* 1/2 cup shredded fresh basil leaves
* Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
* About 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 4-6 hours or overnight.
Heat olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat to 350F Oil should not be smoking hot. Add the zucchini. Fry until golden brown on both sides, 3-4 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.
Approx. nutrients per serving: calories – 183 protein – 2g carbohydrates – 5g fat – 18g cholesterol – 0mg sodium – 7mg

Serves 4-6

* 2 (10 ounce) packages baby spinach
* 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
* 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
* 1/4 cup vegetable broth or water
* Pinch of nutmeg
* 1/2 teaspoon sugar
* Fresh ground pepper to taste
* 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts or toasted walnut halves

Rinse spinach leaves in a colander. Set aside to drain. Do not spin dry. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with lemon juice, broth or water, nutmeg and sugar.
Place the spinach leaves in a large pot (4-5 quarts). Pour the cornstarch mixture over. Cook over high heat, stirring often, for 3-4 minutes or until spinach is beginning to wilt and liquid is boiling. Remove from heat. Season with pepper to taste. Spoon into a serving dish. Garnish with pine nuts or walnuts.
Approx. nutrients per serving: calories – 56 protein – 4g carbohydrates – 6g fat – 3g cholesterol – 0mg sodium – 79mg

Any other dessert filling such as almond , poppy seed or strawberry may be used instead of almond for this no-roll rich pastry dessert. Note: Do not use pie filling — dessert filling such as Bakers comes in a jar and is firmer in texture.

* 3/4 cup prune plum dessert filling
* 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios
* 1 stick (4 ounces) butter, melted
* 1 tablespoon white vinegar
* 2 tablespoons sugar
* 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
* Confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 375F Spray a 9-inch pie pan with non-stick vegetable spray.
In a small bowl, mix 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 in preheated oven 10 minutes.
Spread prune plum mixture over. Crumble remaining dough and scatter on top.
Return to oven and bake for 20 minutes or until pastry is golden brown at edges.
Cool. Dust with confectioners sugar before cutting into wedges.
Note: To make pareve, substitute vegetable margarine for the butter.

Serves 12-15

* 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
* 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
* 1 1/2 cups sugar
* 4 eggs
* 2 cups cake flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 2 teaspoons almond extract
* 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
* Powdered sugar to sprinkle (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F Spray a 10-inch bundt pan or large loaf pan, (16x5x4-inches) with non-stick vegetable spray.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, cream cheese and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, with 1 tablespoon flour to prevent curdling. Beat well after each addition. Add the baking powder, almond extract, cinnamon and remaining flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, beating well to mix. Spoon batter into the prepared pan.
Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 5 minutes before loosening edges with a round-bladed knife. Cool on a wire rack. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

Approx. nutrients per serving: calories – 271 protein – 4g carbohydrates – 35g fat – 13g cholesterol – 90mg sodium – 128mg


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