Celebrating Jewish holidays as an American Jew in Rome—the Catholic caput mundi—can be tricky. Businesses close for holidays dedicated to patron saints Peter and Paul, but not for the High Holidays; Romans don costumes for Carnevale, not Purim. Pasqua, originally the term for Passover (from the Hebrew Pesach), now means Easter in modern Italian, while Passover is called Pasqua Ebraica—literally “Jewish Easter.”
But in the historic center of Rome alongside the Tiber River, Rome’s quartiere ebraico, known as the Jewish ghetto, is alive and well, a bustling oasis of Jewish life. And it was here, in my 17th-century apartment on Largo Arenula, that I hosted the first of my annual Passover Seders beginning in 2002 while working as a restaurant chef and private caterer, and teaching cooking classes in Rome. Of all the dishes I prepared for these Roman Seders, perhaps the most representative of my experience is what I’ve dubbed baccalà al ghetto. It’s a marriage of local ingredients and tradition, of kosher-for-Passover pragmatism and creative expression. It also happens to be lick-your-plate delicious.
Rome’s Jewish quarter was formally established in 1555 and remained a neighborhood unto itself—with residents literally locked behind gates—until Italian unification in 1870. After the dissolution of the ghetto, the Jewish community claimed the area, cleaned it up, and constructed the great synagogue of Rome, completed in 1904. Though the Nazis rounded up over 1,000 Jews from the ghetto with the infamous raids of Oct. 16, 1943, many Roman Jews had hidden elsewhere or fled the city. Eventually, the decimated Jewish community reclaimed its historic neighborhood, postwar. The area is still the focal point of Jewish life in Rome today.
Roman Jews themselves are a unique and proud group. They’re neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, but rather Italkim. They’ve been in Rome for nearly 2,200 years, the longest continuously existing Jewish community in the Western world. Throughout these millennia, waves of Jewish immigrants have joined them: from 13th-century Central European Jews, to Iberian Jews escaping the Inquisition in the 1490s, to a wave of Libyan Jews in the 1960s. Each community brought with it its own culinary customs that were absorbed into Roman Jewish cuisine.
Within the ghetto’s gates, Jewish home cooks created dishes that allowed them to keep kosher and to keep the Sabbath, including an abundance of dishes served at room temperature, cooked on Friday mornings, to be eaten at Sabbath meals without the need to turn on the stove. Zucchini concia, fried sliced zucchini doused in vinegar and fresh herbs, and fish cooked and marinated in a vinegar-and-onion sauce are examples of the cucina ebraica that lives on in Roman cooking today. Jews popularized the concept of fritti—battered and fried vegetables, cheese, and fillets of baccalà (codfish) served from street vendors and eaten in the open within the ghetto: the original street food.
Baccalà, in its many forms, is a classic Roman Jewish food that’s crossed over into the general Roman culinary landscape. It’s often served stewed in a tomato sauce—tomatoes themselves an item introduced into Italy through the Portuguese and Spanish Jews arriving in the 16th century with this curious fruit in tow, brought back to them by Iberian New World explorers. Any modern-day dishes that feature artichokes, eggplant, or fennel are generally of Jewish origin as well, because these vegetables were condescendingly considered “Jew food” by the Roman public, consumed solely by Jews until the late 19th century. That the artichoke has become the culinary symbol of Rome speaks to the importance of Jewish cooking in the Eternal City’s modern identity.
As for my own culinary identity, as an American female Jewish chef working in Rome, I had my fair share of challenges and stereotypes to dispel in the restaurant world. I struggled to gain entry into the professional kitchen, and acceptance once I got through the door. But by the time I moved to the ghetto, I was 18 months into my extended Roman sojourn. I’d worked for and with various Michelin-starred chefs, and I’d won over my all-male kitchen coworkers with diligent work each night on the line, combined with ambitious staff meals and good-natured ribbing. On the side, I’d gained notoriety as a caterer in the expat community. Still, the one place where I ruled the kitchen without doubt, without the challenge of Latin male bravado, was in my own home.
I was a hostess with a knack for bringing eclectic groups together to celebrate life with delicious meals, whether it was a special occasion or a random Tuesday in October. I invited friends to taste original recipes I was developing, expecting honest feedback in return. I hosted Thanksgiving, threw latke parties for Hanukkah, Valentine’s-for-singles buffets, and dessert-only parties wherein each homemade cake or tart was paired with offbeat flavors of homemade gelato. I hosted a five-course Russian feast built around some top-notch vodka and caviar my friend hauled back from Moscow. The art of the dinner party was important to me, and a seat at the table at one of mine became a coveted invitation.
Since a Passover Seder is really just the ultimate dinner party, I made sure my Roman Seders enticed. They were all about drinking some kick-ass Italian wine and feasting on a delicious meal. And they featured a collaborative reading of the haggadah by everyone (including and especially the non-Jews). In a way, Seders are perfectly Italian: Seder means “order,” and Italians are nothing if not obstinate about the progression of a meal. So my Seders became a way of connecting to my adopted home country and my neighborhood with the 2,000-year history of Italian Jewish life. They allowed me to flex my culinary muscles, creating dishes different from the Ashkenazi standards of matzo balls and brisket I’d always known.
During the Seder, we ask the Four Questions. In creating baccalà al ghetto for Passover, I asked myself a “fifth question”: Why this dish tonight? I considered the classic Italian Jewish dish of baccalà cooked in a simple tomato sauce. Locally, it’s prepared with raisins and pine nuts—a signature of Roman Jewish dishes, indicative of the Arab roots of Sicilian cuisine as brought to the ghetto by Sephardic Jews. I married this with the Italian preparation of fish in guazzetto, stewed in olive oil, white wine, onion, garlic, and cherry tomatoes. I added anchovies or collatura (fermented anchovy brine), a Roman Jewish method to bolster the umami in a dish while avoiding the use of pork guanciale favored by Catholic cooks. I amped up the agrodolce (sweet-sour—another Sephardic touch) with the addition of red wine vinegar and sugar. Finally, to represent the bitter herbs we eat during the Seder, I finished the dish with copious amounts of parsley.
Ultimately, baccalà al ghetto is a mishmash of foodways with a modern touch, a personal reflection on a special place and time for me. Hosting Passover Seders and serving this food in my home in the Jewish ghetto helped me to forge my own Roman family when my actual family was 5,000 miles away. I was creating community, and love letters from me to my religion, and to my adopted home. These meals also helped my Roman and expat friends connect with an important (and delicious) part of our beloved ancient city. And that’s something worth celebrating, at least once a year.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.