Between Michelangelo's beautiful Campidoglio square and the Tiber is a neighborhood of distinctive character. It was in this area, during the 16th-century Counter-Reformation, that Pope Paul IV had a wall built to segregate the Jews of Rome inside a ghetto. To this day, many of Rome's Jews still live here, and it seems appropriate to visit in the spring, during pasqua ebraica, the Jewish Easter which we call Passover.
Rome has had a Jewish community since at least 50 BC. Over the centuries, Italy's Jews were often isolated from other Jewish communities, so they developed their own style and traditions of cooking. According to Evan Kleiman, Los Angeles restauranteur and cookbook author, Roman Jewish food does not conform to the traditions of the Sephardic Jews of Spain and the Middle East nor to those of the Ashkenazy Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, it has heavily influenced Roman cuisine. Many distinctive local dishes such as carciofi alla giudea are of Jewish rather than Italian origin.
A typical Roman Passover menu seems to run on parallel tracks to those served by non-Roman Jews. However, differences are numerous. The traditional starter of the Passover seder is Haroset all'italiana, a paste-like mixture of ground dates, oranges, raisins and figs. This Italian version of Charoset is much denser and richer than its Ashkenazy counterpart. Another first course might be carciofi alla romana and bresaola (air-cured beef) with arugula and lemon. Next, the Roman Jewish host would present pesce in carpione, cubes of fried white fish marinated in an herb vinaigrette with caramelized onions. While this dish is served at the same time as the gefilte fish in an Ashkenazy household, the two preparations bear little resemblance to each other. Next would come stracciatella, an egg-drop soup that does not include the matzoh balls found in most Jewish versions of chicken soup.
The main course of an Italian seder might be tortino di azzine, a matzoh lasagna made of vegetables and lamb. With this the host would serve insalata alla Sefardita, a salad of romaine, dill and green onions with red wine vinaigrette. For dessert there would be ricciarelli di Siena, incredibly rich almond-paste cookies rolled in powdered sugar.
Next time you're in Rome, take a stroll through the Jewish ghetto. Although most of the original streets and buildings (and the odious wall) are gone, Via della Reginella is still there; in front of the house at number 2, four gold cobbles have been placed in the paving to commemorate the Jews deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1943.
In recent years there has been a concerted effort to revive the neighborhood, so now you'll see yummy pastry shops and fast-food establishments selling mouth-watering delicacies from Mama's cucina romana ebraica cookbook. On Sundays in particular, there's a palpable "small town" atmosphere as residents bring chairs out to sit in the pedestrian-only streets and chat in amiable groups. At the end of Via di Portico D'Ottavia, the synagogue, built in 1904, contains a fascinating museum of the history of Italian Jews. Across the street is the tiny church of San Gregorio where, for centuries, Jews were forced to worship every Sunday under penalty of severe punishment. It is perhaps the only Catholic church in the world with Bible verse inscribed in Latin and Hebrew on its façade.