ROME (Feb. 5)
Just 50 yards from the Trevi Fountain, in the heart of old Rome, is a new kosher fast food spot and pizzeria.
Da Michele is the newest of a flowering of restaurants, fast-food outlets, groceries, butchers and catering services that now offer tourists and Romans many aspects of kosher cuisine — not just the Roman tradition — and has forced the Jewish community to radically reorganize and expand its kashrut control service.
Shops selling kosher products say the increased demand is coming mainly from Jews. But restaurateurs say at least half their customers are non-Jews who want to sample classic Roman Jewish cooking, which many consider to be the most sophisticated of traditional Roman cuisines.
The boom in kosher restaurants has been noted in many newspapers, as well as food and general-interest magazines. An element of “ethnic trendiness” appears to be leading non-Jews to the kosher eateries, too.
In a population of nearly 4 million, Rome has only 14,000 “official” Jews, and perhaps as many who consider themselves Jewish but aren’t registered with the community. Observance of religious and kashrut laws traditionally has been very low.
Twenty years ago, the Eternal City had only one kosher restaurant, two butchers, a couple of groceries and a pastry shop. Today there are five full restaurants, eight fast-food places of various kinds, 12 butchers, nine groceries, two bakeries, at least two catering services and one pastry shop that are kosher.
Most of the options aren’t in Rome’s old Jewish ghetto but are scattered in surrounding residential neighborhoods. The menus are no longer limited to the Roman tradition of kosher cuisine. Due in part to the influx of thousands of Libyan Jews in the 1960s and ’70s, they now include many Middle Eastern dishes or new fusion recipes.
“Years ago most Roman Jews ate what other Romans ate, unconcerned with kashrut,” said Joseph Arbib, head of the community kashrut office and a Libyan emigre.
Three factors explain the boom, he said: “First, a general heightening of interest in Jewish identity and traditions, a phenomenon which we see all over the world and not just in Rome. Second, Libyan Jews were always much more observant than the Romans, and their arrival in Rome created a new demand for kosher food. Thirdly, the Jewish schools teach the principles of kashrut to children, who then go home and influence their parents.”
Consequently the community has had to expand the kashrut office. The number of full-time kashrut inspectors has grown from two to five, with each covering a section of the city. Others are called in for special events like catered banquets, Arbib said.
Some of the kosher restaurateurs grumble — off the record — that community authorities charge too much for overseeing kashrut and issuing a kosher certificate while doing too little to ensure supplies of top-quality kosher products.
Arbib says some of the complaints are exaggerated.
“The surveillance that our office provides is very strict, and the mashgiach [kosher supervisor] goes to the restaurant or fast-food outlet every day,” he said. “The money does not go into the community account, but is used by our office to only partly offset the cost of paying the mashgichim.”
Perhaps the most fashionable of Rome’s kosher restaurants is La Taverna Del Ghetto, on the main street of the ghetto where until 1870, the city’s Jews were forced to live and locked in at night. The Taverna, a meat restaurant focusing on traditional Roman Jewish cuisine, was opened in 1999 by an Israeli restaurateur named Rafael and his Roman wife, Miriam.
A couple of cobblestoned streets away is Yotvatah, a dairy restaurant opened in 2002 by Marco Sed, whose family has been in Rome for 2,000 years. Yotvatah specializes in Roman Jewish dishes and also sells kosher cheeses, including mozzarella.
Moving out of the ghetto to the residential neighborhood around Piazza Bologna are two restaurants run by the same family. Amram Dabush, a Libyan Jew with Italian ancestors, left Tripoli in 1967 and moved to Israel. Around 1990 he came to Rome with his wife and four sons, then in their late teens and early 20s.
In 1991 they opened Medio Oriente, which as its name suggests offers Middle Eastern food like shwarma, hummus, couscous, falafel and kebabs. In 2002 the family opened a second restaurant, Gan Eden, which is more Roman-oriented but also provides a number of Eastern delicacies, as well as a more stylish decor.
Rome’s fifth kosher restaurant is the Yesh steakhouse, in another residential area near Viale Marconi, south of the city center. The furnishings and decor are modern; the menu is rooted in the Roman tradition.
Among the many fast-food places, Da Michele is a standout. Owner Michele Sonnino, of ancient Roman-Jewish stock, had opened a fast-food place and pizzeria in 1994 in the ghetto. Ten years later he sold it and opened the current spot by Trevi Fountain.
Along with the pizza Sonnino and his wife, Cinzia, boast an excellent Sicilian version of felafel, omelets, meatballs alla Romana and stuffed pita. They also make what may be the finest suppli, or fried rice balls, anywhere in Rome — kosher or non-kosher.