Unless you're looking for it, you're unlikely to find the microcosm of via del Portico d'Ottavia. Jewish Rome was once far larger, and Jews lived in the city before Christianity existed, let alone became the predominant religion. But in 1555, the whole community, about 2,000 people, were forced into the ghetto across the Tiber from what's now the hip Trastevere neighborhood. Like much of Jewish history, it's a story of hatred and privation. But today, what's left is a few blocks lined with restaurants serving Jewish Roman cuisine to tourists.
What are they eating? Here's what you need to know:
Milk or Meat?
Because kosher law dictates that milk and meat can't be served together, restaurants either serve only one or the other, or have separate kitchens and serve them at once but on different menus. It's worth checking the bill of fare (always posted outside) beforehand to make sure the spot you're planning to dine has what you want.
Carciofo alla Giudia
The most famous ghetto dish is the fried artichoke. Jews, of course, are so great at frying that they practically have a holiday devoted to it (Hanukkah). At restaurants in Jewish Rome and its environs, it's common to see fried cod on menus, essentially fish and chips without the chips. Latkes? Not so much, as they're a more Germanic tradition. But the king is the artichoke. Why? I can't explain. I tried more than one, all of which felt and tasted like salted pinecones to me.
If you want to eat Jewish food between the sundowns on Friday and Saturday, your only option is Nonna Betta, a restaurant that once hosted Anthony Bourdain, then on the Travel Channel. The restaurant does purport to be kosher, but not as observant as it serves fish and cheese, and meat, though not together. A little less authentic? Sure, but if you only happen to be in the city on the Sabbath, you'll be glad Nonna Betta is serving up her grandmother's food.
Carbonara alla Giudia
How do you make carbonara without cheese? Very carefully. The sauce is made from egg yolks whipped so creamy that you're unlikely to notice anything is missing. But what about the guanciale? Anyone who's enjoyed a pastrami sandwich knows Jews have a fine way with a cure. And the beef used in the pasta dish bears a striking resemblance to that beloved smoked meat. Pastrami in creamy pasta? Why didn't New York think of that?
Don't Expect Luxury
Remember what I said about privation? Because historically Jews were only allowed to work a few different unskilled jobs (particularly as moneylenders, since Christians were banned from that trade), their cuisine wasn't one based around meat or other expensive ingredients. Cod and anchovies were common, and if there was meat, it was likely in the form of scraps. The gnocchi dish above is covered in a tomato sauce dotted with bones from a lamb's spine lightly covered in meat. If you are looking for a more deluxe experience, La Reginella is slightly upscale, though inexpensive, while BellaCarne is a kosher steakhouse with all the flesh that implies.