Located on the west bank of the Tiber River and south of Vatican City, Trastevere has a spirited medieval old-town feel. Greenwich Village in New York came to mind as I slowly made my way through the tightly winding streets. Quaint, comfortable, charming, incredible nightlife….Trastevere is all of these and more. Read more →
Jewish artichokes are a delicacy I was eager to try while in Rome. I’ve heard them described as delicate chrysanthemum-shaped with a crispy, salt-kissed taste. I knew I just had to try one given the opportunity. They are a big attraction in the restaurants of the old Jewish Ghetto. Also known as cardiofi alla giudia, artichokes were once a mainstay of the Roman Jews during times of scarcity and extreme hardship.
How could exquisite culinary delicacies evolve out of such extreme poverty and oppression?
Women of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV to sequester the Jews into one area, used what little they had to provide tasty meals for their families while also keeping them kosher. Artichokes, cheese, salt cod, and aubergines were cheap and used to create dishes that are considered gourmet cuisine today and served in fine dining restaurants throughout Rome.
The Jewish community began in Rome as early as 63 BC after the Romans invaded Judea and brought many of them back as slaves. Settling predominately on the east bank of the Tiber River, the walls (built in 1555) surrounding the ghetto kept them isolated for almost 300 years. The ghetto in Rome was one of the poorest in Italy. Desperately cramped, the Jews were forbidden to own property. They “were excluded from most professions except money-lending, dealing in old cloth and bric-a-brac, and selling food in the street. Many of them became friggitori-street vendors of deep-frying morsels, mainly of fish and vegetables for which they became famous,” describes Claudia Roden in her article “The Dishes of the Jews of Italy: A Historical Survey.”
The Roman Jewish Ghetto today is a maze of narrow winding streets, interesting shops, and several cute Kosher restaurants emitting delicious smells. Locals and tourists alike still flock to the old ghetto for carciofi alla guidia, Jewish style artichokes.
The Synagogue of Rome stands in the midst of the Jewish Ghetto where the original synagogue stood at one time. The ghetto is described as one of Rome’s most charming and eclectic neighborhoods, with restaurants serving up some of the best food in the city. The same little pieces of fried vegetables (artichokes, zucchini flowers, and salt cod), and fried fish chunks that are now served as fritto misto in the finest restaurants of Rome were sold centuries ago by the friggitori for only a few coins.
Ironically, today’s Jewish Ghetto property, which during the ghetto oppression was considered very undesirable, is now some of the most expensive in Rome.
Have you visited the Jewish Ghetto in Rome and tasted acarciofi alla guidia? What were your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you so please feel free to leave a comment.
A delightful ending to a perfect evening in Rome was not meant to be.
I would never have guessed that I would be lost, wandering those early morning streets that I thought I knew so well.
The evening had begun with lots of merrymaking surrounded by friends at a popular pizzeria in Trastevere. Night time was in full swing, and the winding cobbled streets were alive with activity. Street bands played in nooks along the way while outdoor tables filled to the brim with locals and tourists enjoying the warm summer atmosphere in Rome’s most sought after nightlife destination. Trastevere, that former “seedy, wrong side of the river” place that draws one back time and again.
After dinner, we made our way through the throngs of people littering the narrow streets, checking vendor’s tables and enjoying the atmosphere. It was getting late, so we made our plans to meet up in the morning before going our separate ways. I was given a map to find my way back on foot to my hotel. It seemed simple enough. I just needed to follow the Tiber River northward until I reached Castel Sant’Angelo, then turn westward down a street. There in lied the problem. No one could remember the name of the street. I was staying at the “new” Castel Sant’Angelo Inn which was only half a mile from Castel Sant’Angelo itself. I assured my friends that I would recognize the place when I saw it.
Oh what a night! I followed the Tiber up to Castel Sant’Angelo and found the first street heading westward. I stopped to examine the map again, noticing the huge patch of advertisement stamped over the names of the three possible streets. Since I didn’t have a name, what did it matter. I can find this place.
I started down the street a ways and turned northward after what I assumed was about a half mile. If my hotel was not here, it must be on the next street. And so it went until everything looked the same to me. I was convinced that I would recognize my hotel, but I could not find it. I kept admonishing myself that it was only a half mile away, that it had to be very close to me….but where?
I texted my friend for help and she said she would find the name of the street and text it back to me. I had opted for the no data plan for overseas phone options, so I could not look my hotel up. While I waited, I asked several locals, pub owners and couples out for a late night stroll, for help. They looked at the map and shook their heads when I mentioned the Castel Sant’Angelo Inn. Since it was a new hotel in an old-established building, they had not yet heard of it. My heart was sinking.
Before long I got a text with the correct street name. A flood of relief. I gave the address to a pub owner who took me outside and gave me directions consisting of turn this way and then that, etc. I followed what I thought he said but got lost again. Finally, after countless inquiries and attempts, I found a taxi parked on the side of the road. With unmasked desperation, I gave him the street address. He gave me directions about turn this way and that. I told him I would pay him to take me there. He said no, I could find it, then gave me a “move along now” motion with his hand.
I turned on my heel and quickly acted on his directions, forcing my mind to stay relaxed. To my great delight, I found it. Key in hand, I was inside the hotel in a flash and made a beeline straight to my room. I gazed at my alarm clock on the nightstand. It was two thirty in the morning.
As I lay in bed trying to get a few hours sleep before meeting up with my friends, I thought about my wanderings. Although I was frustrated, I never felt that I was in danger. People tried to be helpful but with such little information it was impossible. I was sure I would recognize my hotel, but I learned that after dark everything looks quite different and how very easy it is to get turned around. Needless to say, we all had a good laugh together later that morning after everyone got over the initial shock that I had actually “got lost.” So, from now on I will always have my own detailed map with me. I’ll just mark this one down to experience.
I had just arrived in Trastevere from the ancient forum across the Tiber River in Rome. Dodging traffic and keeping my sense of direction paid off. Trastevere, with a past reputation of that ‘seedy, wrong-side-of-the-river’ village Rome. But I found it anything but seedy. With my back to the river, I began my journey into the depths of this ancient and colorful neighborhood.
Trastevere is still a busy place, but it has hummed with human activity since 750 BC. Beginning with the Etruscans, it eventually developed a large Jewish population and grew into a multi-cultural community. The inhabitants were called “Trasteverini.” Trastevere is Latin for Trans Tiberim, meaning ‘beyond the Tiber River.’
After stopping by a cafe for a cappuccino and cornetto, I passed ivy-colored trattorias and weathering apartments. Umbrella-shaded outdoor cafes lined the alleyways filled with tatoo shops and alimentari (a small market selling fresh produce, cold cuts and dry goods.) It was in an alimentari that I had my first experience on local manners.
“Non toccare, mi metterò che,” “Don’t touch, I will get it.” the young man chided as I picked up a banana. Taking it out of my hands he took it to the front counter. I paid my due and left, a little wiser on local protocol.
I set off to find the famous old church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Following a few twists and turns, I was standing in the small grassed courtyard before the church.
St. Cecilia was a young woman who lived here during the 2nd century when Christianity was sporadically persecuted. As the legend goes, she was martyred by beheading (three attempts) for her faith. A white life-size marble replica of her lies under the altar in the main church.
An archaeological dig below the church is believed to be the remains Cecilia’s home. I was eager to go exploring. After entering the church, I found a small office to the left where a friendly Italian speaking nun with a huge smile let me descend the stairs to the house ruins for a small fee.
The air grew damp and earthy as I stepped onto the ancient turf. I was experiencing an Indiana Jones moment. It was more spacious than I thought it would be, leading me to believe that Cecilia belonged to a wealthy family. A main hallway ran straight back with rooms on each side. Some original marble pieces, floor tiles and columns were left to be viewed.
After I left the church of St. Cecilia, I discovered the oldest fountain in Rome. It was located in the center of the nearby piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Traced back to the 8th century, it was restored during the late Renaissance by the architect Donato Bramante. This piazza is the neighborhoods most important one with the steps of the fountain designed to be the so-called ‘sofa’ of the neighborhood. During important soccer games, a huge screen is set up in the piazza for everyone to watch and share in the excitement.
This fountain is not without a legend. As it goes, on the night of the birth of Christ a stream of oil burst forth miraculously on this same spot in front of the church. Who can say for sure, but it certainly put this piazza on the map.
As I sat on the steps of the fountain and watched the hustle of people crossing the piazza against a backdrop of cramped and peeling buildings, I wondered if anything had really changed all that much over the centuries.
I crossed the piazza and onto the portico of the landmark church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
The church of Santa Maria was founded in the 4th century, making it one of the oldest churches in Rome. Inside are exquisite Cavallini mosaics dating from the 13th century. The portico (covered area just outside the door) is covered with bits of old stone with Christian symbols. Many are believed to be parts of lids to early catacomb burial niches. The entire front of the columns are lit up at night, casting a golden glow onto the piazza.
Evening was quickly descending. The narrow cobbled alleyways lined with medieval houses gave way to a throbbing Roman nightlife as twilight slid into darkness. Pubs, cafes and restaurants faced the crowded streets, beckoning to me as I passed. Waiters stood advertising their menus to the din of a nearby guitar.
“Madame abbiamo un tavolo per uno!” “Madam, I have a table for one.” A handsome waiter had just tapped my elbow and motioned toward a seat. His smile and touch convinced me. “Perché sì, grazie,” I buckled.
As the evening wore on, I made my way slowly back toward my room. Bands of musicians played along the streets while diners enjoyed good food and friends with indiscreet enthusiasm. Scruffy poets stood in corners quoting in reckless abandon. Trastevere hasn’t changed much over the centuries in appearance. The streets still attract crowds of locals and tourists alike. But today, it is becoming an upscale neighborhood, far removed from the pain and poverty of the distant past.
But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn’t compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed. I am inspired by the regal self-assurance of this city, so grounded and rounded, so amused and monumental, knowing she is held securely in the palm of history. I would like to be like Rome when I am an old lady.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
Guess who’s turning 2,767 years old this today? Rome it is. Twin brothers Romulus and Remus must get some credit as founding fathers of this famously historical metropolis. Nursed by a she-wolf after being orphaned, as legend goes, these boys grew up to establish the city of Rome in 753 BC. Rich in culture, wine, food, archaeology, fashion, music, and a travelers dream, Rome continues to impact the world today.
Moving away from legend, modern archaeologists believe that inhabitants of small Latin settlements converged at the Forum during this time, from which the city grew. The hills and marshes around the Forum and the location of the Tiber River protected the newly established community. Although the Etruscans from the north conquered Rome around 625 BC, they advanced the town into an important city-state, ruled by kings. The rest, so they say, is history.
If you happen to be in Rome, join in with the festivities taking place all over the Eternal City. In the Circus Maximus, reenactments of the history of Rome which include the story of Romulus and Remus and several exciting battle scenes between Romans and Barbarians will take place. The Pantheon and Piazza del Campidoglio will host live bands and concerts. Street performers and parades with traditional costumes of historical figures such as Roman soldiers, slaves, barbarians and senators will be seen throughout the city.
Monuments, archaeological sites and museums are free all day.
Aventine hill will be wrapped with torches and lights. Gladiatorial shows and Roman feasts will take place followed by grandiose fireworks over the Tiber River that will cap off the evening.
The Romans know how to celebrate, so don’t be outdone. Grab a gelato or, better yet, a glass of sparkling Frascati and enjoy a beautiful sunset wherever you are.