Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fabulous Dining in Rome's Jewish Quarter

Nonna Betta logo features a scroll
 made of pasta and rolling pins
The Jewish Quarter of Rome is an area that I have always enjoyed and in which I spend a lot of time whenever I am in Rome. Located across the Tiber in Trastevere, some of Rome’s best restaurants are found in this area.  Rome’s Jewish quarter once contained one of the oldest Jewish Ghettos in the world, having been constructed only 40 years after the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, which was the oldest. For more than 300 years, beginning in 1555 with the construction of the walled city, until 1848 when it was abolished and the walls destroyed, the Ghetto was home to Rome’s sizable Jewish population as well as the oldest synagogue of Europe. A beautiful orthodox temple in which men and women worship separately, sadly today the temple is continuously guarded by armed police.

Artichokes alla Giudea or Jewish style.
From a culinary perspective, it has been argued that the most authentic Roman cuisine is found in Jewish Roman cooking. Roman Jews are credited with preserving, within the walled city, recipes that date back 1500 years. Today, the great culinary traditions of Rome are best savored in the Jewish Quarter, which is lined with wonderful restaurants that cater to visitors and locals alike.
Squash blossoms filled with mozzarella
 and anchovy and deep fried.
A seasonal specialty that absolutely is not to be missed is the artichoke.  Roman artichokes differ from American varieties because they do not have a coarse beard at the center and they are so tender they can be eaten raw. Common preparations include steamed with fresh mint; finely sliced, raw, dipped in vinaigrette; or my favorite, alla Giudea or Jewish style, where trimmed artichokes are flattened into a flower shape and deep fried so that stem and tender leaves are eaten all together.  I can think of nothing more satisfying, as the textures and flavors of this dish cover all bases: crunchy outer leaves; a tender center; the sweetness of the young artichoke and the salt of the preparation.  My husband and I resolved to eat sensibly and got one order to share but upon seeing it arrive at our table, we immediately felt compelled to order another….and another!

Delicious pasta cacio e pepe e cicoria
from Nonna Betta restaurant.
Another seasonal specialty not to be missed is the squash blossom, classically prepared by stuffing it with mozzarella and anchovy, dipping in a flour pastel and deep frying. The use of squash blossoms is very common in Italian cooking and can be found in pasta, risotto, even pizza. Dinner one night was at the famous Roman pizzeria Ai Marmi, where my husband and I enjoyed a novel twist on the classic recipe--pizza with squash blossoms, mozzarella and anchovy topping.
Puntarelle alla Romana servered with
grilled scamorza or smoked mozzarella
 from Nonna Betta.
This time of year you can also find “puntarelle alla Romana” tender chicory shoots that have been crisped and curled in cold water and served with anchovy vinaigrette.  A favorite Roman vegetable, cicoria or chicory is also very commonly throughout Italy.  I enjoy cicoria in just about everything but I especially appreciate when it is steamed and graces the classic pasta cacio e pepe dish-- the oldest of Roman pasta recipes, made simply with cacio sheep cheese, butter and black pepper.

These delicious dishes are found in restaurants throughout Rome and the Jewish Quarter, but two in particular stand out for me and are consistently excellent.  Nonna Betta, which translates as “grandmother Betta” is charming, well managed and has great kosher Roman Jewish cuisine. Nonna Betta actually was the grandmother of the owner and matriarch of a family who has lived in the Jewish quarter for many generations.   

The chef at Giardino Romano
enjoys late night people watching
while preparing artichokes
for the following day.
Next door to Nonna Betta is Giardino Romano. Despite the proximity of the two restaurants the menus are very different and I would recommend trying both. Giardino Romano is Jewish but not strictly kosher and has other classic Roman dishes containing ham products, such as pasta alla carbonara and all’amatriciana, as well as shell fish, trippa (tripe), and abbacchio or lamb. Of interest at Giardino Roman is the charming indoor dining room which has been built around the preserved ruins of a 16th century building.  I have attached a photo of the chef at Giardino Romano, sitting late at night at one of the outdoor tables, trimming artichokes in preparation for the following day. The scene was so delightful, and the chef extremely gracious to allow me to photograph him.

A gorgeous sidewalk display
greets visitors at Giardino Romano.
Join me later as we explore the International Film Festival of Rome, and then make our way to Sicily. 

Until then,
Ciao a presto!


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