When we think of Italian food, we don’t tend to associate it with kosher cuisine. But kosher Italian menus are not uncommon in restaurants, seder tables, Chabads, and other gathering places throughout Italy. If you’re planning a visit to Italy, consider a true kosher tour, where you will have an opportunity to discover excellent Italian kosher food along with all the other charms of the Italian countryside and its great cities.
Jews have resided in Italy since at least the second century B.C.E. and have developed unique kosher recipes over the past two thousand years. The best recipes rely on a selection of local, farm-fresh ingredients. Don’t expect Italian kosher cuisine to consist of a dollop of pomodoro sauce atop standard Shabbat fare. Jewish Italian fine cuisine is a true melding of Italian and various Jewish traditions, from Ashkenazim to Italkim and Sephardim.
As in most places, what is considered kosher varies, depending upon the background of the cook. For instance, Ashkenazim households forbid the use of rice, which is considered to be leavened, but allow dairy products such as cheese and chocolate. Sephardim and Italkim households serve rice, but consider dairy products to be forbidden.
The Roman Ghetto Influence
While Tuscany is considered the epicenter of most Italian cuisine, the Jewish ghettos of Rome were the birthplace of the best Jewish cuisine in Italy today. In the mid-16th century, Italian Jews were forced into Roman ghettos. The Jewish quarter isolated them but also allowed them to develop their own set of traditions, both cultural and culinary.
Roman Jewish cuisine has influenced Italian cuisine as a whole, and many of the local favorites are of Jewish origin. Many of Rome’s Jewish population still live in the old ghetto area, and several excellent restaurants and pastry shops are found nearby.
Some of our favorite stops in Rome are:
• Yesh – The extensive menu of this kosher restaurant offers meat dishes, cous cous, fish, pasta, and homemade desserts in a pleasant setting.
• La Taverna del Ghetto – In the heart of the old Jewish ghetto area, this restaurant offers gourmet Roman kosher fare: roast beef in truffle oil; baked salt cod with pine nuts, raisins, and cherry tomatoes; fettucine with grouper and zucchini blossoms – all mouth-watering choices.
• Nonna Betta – Named for a grandmother, you know this restaurant must be great. It prides itself on serving “Italian bubbe cooking” with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and classic Roman Jewish flavor. Try the aliciotti con l’indivia (anchovies baked in endive) or a delicate ricotta cassola for dessert.
If you’re visiting Rome during Passover, you can see and taste the differences between a traditional Ahskenazim seder menu item such as gefilte fish and the Roman Jewish delicacy, pesce in carpione, in which cubes of fried white fish are marinated in a piquant herb vinaigrette with caramelized onions. Viva la difference!
Venetian Kosher Cuisine
Wonderful Italian Jewish cuisine can also be found outside of the Italian capital. One area worth a visit is the beautiful canal city of Venice. When not gliding through the ancient city in a gondola, a you can find time to sample local cuisine.
For centuries, Venice had its own Jewish ghetto, and a distinct Jewish-Venetian cuisine developed here. Such dishes as pumpkin soup with pomegranate, baccala mantecatao salt cod mousse, and strawberry and prosecco tiramisu combine the exotic European flair of Venice with solid Jewish food traditions.
Our favorite stops in Venice include:
• GAM GAM – A meal here is almost obligatory if you’re in Venice. GAM GAM has been serving local cuisine for two decades. Located at the main entrance of the Jewish ghetto, the restaurant overlooks Guglie Bridge, and diners enjoy intimate views of the Cannaregio Canal below. Dishes such as pappardelle with mushrooms, tagliatelle with salmon, and always-fresh baked goods make this dining spot deservedly famous.
• Giovanni Volpe – Located in the Jewish ghetto, this bakery sells a wonderful variety of Venetian-Jewish sweets and baked goods, such as Jewish cookies made of matzoh meal, almond cakes, and macaroons. One favorite is their soft, puffy matzohs, which one patron described as being like “quilted pillows of ivory Venetian lace.”
Italian Cooking Schools
One way to really immerse yourself in Italian kosher food is to study at an authentic Italian-Jewish cooking school. Typically, such schools offer a week’s worth of classes (and generous taste-testing!) in a scenic Italian setting. After a few classes, you will be able to re-create many delicious examples of Italian-Jewish cuisine when you return home.
Two such schools that are worth checking out:
• La Cucina del Ghetto – This Jewish-Venetian cooking school is located within the Venetian Jewish ghetto. Their almond and pistachio cake is an inspiration, as is the sweet tagliatelle omelette.
• La Cucina Kosher – Located in the Tuscan countryside, this cooking school combines time in the kitchen with hours of touring nearby sites of cultural and culinary interest. Learn to make such dishes as Tagliatelli with Sugo Con Prosciutto e Piselli or Salame di Cioccolata Con Lo Zabaione.
Whether you are roaming the countryside, checking out kosher restaurants, or learning to cook Italian kosher cuisine yourself, a visit to Italy will provide you with the culinary experience of a lifetime.