What’s So Jewish About Rome?
By Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo © Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram
Somewhere in the mid-eighties while wandering Rome’s old Jewish quarter on the Tiber River, we noticed a small door with a red chenille curtain. A hole in the wall, literally, it had no sign and there was no name on the door. Curious, we peeked in and saw that it was a little restaurant jam packed with students and locals. We were unceremoniously seated in the back at a long table with a group of animated Israelis.
And we enjoyed one of the best — and cheapest — meals we have ever had in Rome. We had discovered one of Rome’s best-kept secrets: Sora Margherita,
Last spring, we attempted to find Sora Margherita again. Incredibly, we succeeded. After our second meal — 20 years later — we decided to venture no further. We had dined many times in some of the better-known ghetto neighborhood restaurants, but our little hole in the wall, “Sora Margherita,” is a goldmine of both Jewish history and flavor.
Sora Margherita is located on the north side of the Piazza di Cinque Scole. An unlit, daisy-shaped neon sign rests to the left above the door and the number 30 sits to the right. If you look closely, there are small credit card symbols stuck on the window underneath lace curtains. Inside you’ll find homemade pasta, gnocchi, and other classic Roman comfort food.
A few years ago the restaurant was shut down as being “too cramped.” Sora Margherita then became a private club, an Associazione Culturale. All guests are now required to become members or show their membership card. My dog-eared membership card is one of my most prized possessions.
Rome’s Jewish Ghetto
One of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world, this gated “ghetto” neighborhood sits on the bank of the Tiber River. Since the second century, the narrow streets and alleys surrounding the ancient Portico d’Ottavia have been home to the tiny neighborhood known as the Jewish ghetto. Several thousand Jews were forced into this small area during the 16th century, beginning centuries of repression, isolation and humiliation. If you make your way to these ancient and confining alleys today, you will discover that an ancient culinary artistry that is very much alive.
Typical fare includes Carciofi all Giudea — artichokes, stems and all — fried in olive oil until the outer leaves curl like a chrysanthemum, brown, salty and crackling with flavor, the heart silky and tender. You will find many traditional Roman dishes like the artichoke, served outside the ghetto, but their origins are decidedly Jewish.
Ancient Jews used foods that were plentiful and readily available in the ghetto — salt cod (baccala), cheeses, organ meats, artichokes, chickpeas and zucchini. Handed down through generations, these wonderfully evocative recipes serve up Roman history while preserving a Jewish culinary culture as rich and as enduring as any you will find.
Sora Margherita’s menu features homemade pasta (fettucine, gnocchi, spaghetti) three ways: al sugo di carne (with meat sauce); cacio e pepe (ricotta, parmesan & pepper); or with basil pesto. There are juicy agnolotti, tiny meat dumplings wrapped in pasta.
Their Fegato alla Margherita con Rughetta (liver with arugula) is robust, tender and flavorful; their filetti d’abbachio is a generous serving of perfectly grilled lamb, delicately flavored with salt and lemon. The traditional filleti di baccala — fried salt cod — is flavorful history on a plate. Our favorite dish, Margherita’s salsicce con polenta (sausage and polenta) is served on a rustic wooden plate lightly sauced in olive oil and tomato is delicious, robust and generous — enough for two.
Margherita’s Carciofi alla Giudia, whole fried artichoke, is served on a square of brown paper that underscores the humble origins of this typical old-world Jewish specialty. Other Roman starters include another favorite, Fiori di Zucca, zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovy and mozzarella and fried — a rich and salty Roman treat.
Desserts include some of the following, Torta di Ricotta; Torta Bella Nonna (cream and pine nuts); Ricotta Fresca con Nutella e Grand Marnier; Ciambellone (ring cake); and the occasional simple poached pear.
The service is typically Roman — a little distant but not unfriendly — and you’ll need to give your name and wait in line to be admitted the first time. No English. Reservations encouraged. Cash is preferred. Always a crowd but the regulars never seem to wait; and those “in the know” ask for a reservation.
Note: Sora Margherita is not strictly kosher, but “kosher style.” Piazza Cinque Scuole, 30 – 00186 Rome Tel. 06-6874216. Sora Margherita Opens at 12:30 (usually full by 1:00) for lunch Tue-Fri / Sat 12:30 PM – 3:00 PM and open for dinner 8:00 PM-10:30 PM / Sun 12:30 PM-3:00 PM.
Rome is a city of 2.7 million, 10,000 of whom are Jews. For the most relentlessly Catholic city in the world, this is a pretty respectable statistic. Roman Jews are serious Jews, undaunted by church bells each evening and the dominance of the Catholic tradition that surrounds them. Rome is Europe’s oldest Jewish community, and its Italian Jewish roots go back over 2,000 years — Jews were transported to Rome to build the coliseum.
Often we are in Rome during the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Last October, we dined in a sukkah three times in a Jewish restaurant that had lined their outdoor dining area in straw and decorated with traditional lulav (palm frond bound with myrtle and willow branches), and etrog (citrus fruit that looks like a bumpy lemon).
Don’t miss: The Fontana Tartarugha, a small but very special fountain in Piazza Mattei in the ghetto neighborhood, where tortoises play with four lithe young men encircling the fountain.
Don’t miss: The impressive Roman Synagogue (completed in 1906, and its excellent historical museum which links 2,000 years of Jewish history to Rome’s modern community.
Author: Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo travels to Rome from her home in Portland as often as possible, in all seasons.