Buon Appetito! Rome’s “Jewish Soul Food”

By | Aug 09, 2013

by Alison Morse

Most days, Attilio Pavoncello, an Italian Jew and amateur chef, can be found on Via Portico D’Ottavia, the main street of Rome’s former Jewish ghetto, helping out at his wife Speranza’s souvenir shop or his son Umberto’s kosher restaurant. He has lived on this street for more than 60 years and has seen it transform from a quiet, cobblestoned promenade with a restaurant or two, to a riot of awnings, umbrellas and outdoor tables belonging to the kosher Roman Jewish restaurants that have sprung up in the last ten years. Blackboard signs promising the most authentic version of popular deep-fried Roman-Jewish specialties, such as artichokes alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes) or fiore di zucca ripieno (zucchini stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies), compete for the attention of tourists, both Jewish and not, from all over the world. “Being Jewish has become fashionable,” says Pavoncello, a small but powerfully built man in his eighties with large brown eyes lit with a mischievous twinkle.

Pavoncello lives in an apartment around the corner, in the old ghetto, where much of Roman-Jewish cooking evolved. The story begins before ghettoization, back when the 7,000 to 40,000 Jews who immigrated to Rome from ancient Israel during the pre-Christian empire quickly took to using plentiful and inexpensive staples such as olive oil, wine and fish, according to Gil Marks, rabbi, historian, chef and author. Through the 14th century, their food was “aristocratic,” says historian Ariel Toaff, author of Mangiare Alla Giudia (To Eat Jewish Style). Authors of the time such as Kalonymos ben Kalonymos and Zedikiah Anaw described Roman Jewish holiday banquet tables filled with game, both hoofed and feathered, roasted with or without goose fat, stuffed into pies or served in vinegar with mint and cloves, along with lamb, duck, capons and baby goat. Roman Jews employed all manner of spices, too, from cinnamon to saffron, and ate stuffed pasta, beans, chestnuts, fennel and the ever-popular deep-fried artichokes.

By the 16th century, Roman-Jewish cooking was mostly a mix of local and southern Italian-Jewish influences, peppered with Jewish-Iberian traditions brought over by Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain. But the blossoming of Roman-Jewish culinary arts was curtailed during the Counter-Reformation when, from 1555 to 1870, Pope Paul IV confined all Jews under papal rule to gated ghettos. The city’s Jews were crowded into the streets around Via Portico D’Ottavia, a four-block, disease-infested slum. The Pope also went so far as to limit what Jews were allowed to eat. That’s why, even to this day, dishes such as “artichokes in the Jewish style” and “fried cod filet” are created with the kinds of inexpensive foods consumed by the poor, “the only ingredients that the Church permitted the Jews to use,” says Toaff, “thus extending the discrimination against them even to the table.”

Roman Jewish cooks weren’t fazed, however, and “devised, over the course of centuries, recipes of great flair and distinctive flavor,” says Toaff. Take, for instance, aliciotti con l’indivia (anchovies with endive) a dish invented, he says, by ghetto-era Roman Jews in response to a 17th century sumptuary law that prohibited Jews from preparing salads with any foods other than leafy greens and dark-fleshed fish.

Jews also invented recipes using cod, mullet, anchovies and herring for seafood; lungs, kidneys, tripe and spleen from local stockyards for animal entrails; and artichokes (more torch-shaped and tender than the American variety), zucchini and fennel found in the Roman countryside. Due to the confines of the ghetto, Roman-Jewish cooking developed separate from cuisines in other Jewish communities nearby, such as Livorno and Ancona.

The poverty that marked the Jewish existence along Via Portico D’Ottavia extended into contemporary times as well. Attilio Pavoncello’s most vivid memories of his childhood in Trastevere, Rome’s first Jewish neighborhood, involve hunger. “When I was young, I liked to eat everything because there was nothing to eat,” he says, in a still strong tenor voice that mixes Italian and Romanesco dialect with a sprinkling of the English he learned from American soldiers and phrasebooks during World War II.

Pavoncello lived with his parents, seven brothers and sisters, and an uncle during Italy’s fascist period, yet another painful chapter of Roman-Jewish history. In 1938, when Mussolini’s racial laws stripped Jews of their citizenship, his father, a street vendor, could no longer run his business legally and Attilio, then age 12, was prohibited from attending school. Instead, he helped his father and brothers earn a living. “As soon as we made any money, I took the tram home and gave money to my mother to buy groceries,” says Pavoncello. He was always hungry; he remembers his mother’s bocette in brodo, meatballs made with mostly bread in a broth of “water dirtied with a little tomato” and pasta, and if the family “was lucky,” a few potatoes or zucchini. “It was a party when we had that, the first and second course together.”

His father sold whatever he could while trying to steer clear of the military police. “In order to get food for us, he risked his life,” says Pavoncello. “That’s how he lost it.” Less than two months before the Allies liberated Rome, his father was taken to Auschwitz, where he was killed. Fortunately, the rest of his family survived.

While food—and cooking—were understandably a focal point of Pavoncello’s life, he became a cabinet maker, and after the war, opened his own cabinet shop, which flourished for 60 years, first in Trastevere, then around the corner from his apartment. “It’s work that I like. It requires many things: diplomacy, manners, creativity, intelligence. It’s not that I was intelligent; I became intelligent.”

Now retired, Pavoncello applies that same craftsman’s intelligence to his cooking. “It gives me pleasure to cook,” he says. He follows many recipes created by his Jewish mother-in-law, a woman the family called Nonna Betta —also the name of Attilio’s son’s kosher dairy restaurant on Via Portico D’Ottavia.

When Pavoncello prepares a particular recipe, he emphasizes technique. For aliciotti con l’indivia (anchovies with endive), for example, Pavoncello advises: “grab the head of the endive in one hand and the stem in the other, twist and pull the stem off; everything that’s not good will come away.” He demonstrates this technique with the same efficient movements he once used to craft wood into furniture. Tools are important too. Pavoncello cuts the endive into bite-sized pieces with a pair of scissors and adds a neat but generous “beautiful swirl” of olive oil from a long-spouted can atop the mixture of anchovies and endive.

Pavoncello finds ways to lighten the cooking process of many classic recipes—eschewing the deep-frying most often associated with the Roman-Jewish cooking, and substituting vegetables for meat or cheese in many dishes while staying true to the kosher modifications that make Jewish versions of traditional Roman fare unique: the use of fish as a flavoring instead of fatty pork products and the substitution of cheese for meat. At Pavoncello’s table, as on the tables of the city’s 15,000 other Jews and in growing rows of restaurants along Via Portico D’Ottavia, Roman-Jewish cuisine is an innovation of an innovation, a tradition within a tradition that is finally getting the attention it deserves. Says Gil Marks, it is Jewish “soul food” that has lasted because it tastes good.


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