Rome’s Jewish Culinary Heritage

Rome is a layer cake of culinary civilizations. For centuries Jewish specialties have formed the core of the Roman culinary repertoire including Carciofi alla Romana (artichokes braised in white wine and olive oil), Gnocchi di Semolino alla Romana (semolina gnocchi with butter and cheese), Aliciotti con l’Indivia (baked anchovy and endives) and Lattughe Farcite (stuffed lettuce with olives and anchovies).

Jews first came to Rome in large numbers as prisoners following the annexation of their lands by general Pompey the Great in the first century B.C.E. The Roman Jewish community flourished under prince Herod Agrippa II, who moved from Judea to Rome with his entourage after Emperor Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.).

Rome’s medieval Jewish community followed the Tiber River’s unincorporated west bank in Trastevere. Later, Jews began moving into the left bank area now occupied by the Synagogue. In 1556 under Pope Paul IV that area became the infamous walled Ghetto. Rome’s Jews suffered periods of persecution and poverty there, but also tolerance and prosperity.

The Ghetto’s walls came down in 1848 and although its residents were free to live wherever they wished many stayed on. To this day, the spirit of this age-old community lives on. The Ghetto’s colorful delis, specialty food outlets, bakeries and restaurants are found primarily on or in the vicinity of the Via del Portico d’Ottavia. On one end of this atmospheric street stands the eighth-century church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria. It occupies the ruins of a portico that Augustus Caesar rebuilt and dedicated to his sister, Octavia. The portico housed Rome’s main fish market (la Pescheria) from the 12th to the late 19th century, a market largely operated by Jews. Then as now, fish and anchovies in particular were a big part of the local diet.

The roots of the Roman Jewish predilection for anchovies go back to at least the imperial era. Nowadays Romans, whether Jewish or not, favor the anchovy (Engraulis encrasicholus) over other fish species. The Italian terms for anchovies are alici or aliciotti when fresh and acciughe when salted; anchovy paste is called pasta di acciughe. Using them in much the same way as the Ancients, contemporary Roman cooks slip or crush them with glee into everything from antipasti to vegetable side dishes, pasta and main courses.

So fond are Italians in general and Romans in particular of fishy flavors that they commonly home-salt their own anchovies. A few even make contemporary versions of ancient fish sauces.

Anyone wanting to experience what garum actually tastes like should have a meal at Magna Roma, a self-styled "archeological restaurant" in the Via Capo d’Africa near the Coliseum. Magna Roma bases its menu on the writings of first-century C.E. gastronome Apicius, who collected the recipes that later went into the world’s oldest cookbook, "De re Coquinaria" ("The Art of Cooking"). Apicius called for fish sauce in just about every dish he listed.

Surprisingly, the contemporary garum served at Magna Roma is less aggressive than anchovies still crusted with salt, Colatura d’Alici (anchovy juices macerated in brine), or even some anchovy pastes. In making garum the fish does not rot; it’s transformed in a process similar to that of lactic acid fermentation in making cheese or sauerkraut, with a parallel action caused by enzymes and oils found in high concentrations in the entrails of fatty fish.

It was in large part thanks to the Jewish community that the garum tradition was kept alive, through the use of salted anchovies or anchovy brine in myriad recipes.

Recently, I visited Trastevere to ask my favorite Rome fishmonger, Anna Elisa Scipioni, how she preserves her acciughe the old-fashioned way. I discovered that she uses coarse sea salt or kosher salt, a handful of bay leaves and a large round sterilized glass jar at least 5-inches wide with a tight seal, such as a Mason jar. She fills the jar with layers of salt, bay leaves and fresh anchovies 4- to 5-inches long. She discards the anchovy heads but does not gut the fish (the entrails impart flavor and their enzymes aid the maturing process). Atop the filled jar she places a weighted, wide-bottomed water glass or tumbler that fits snugly into the jar’s mouth. The weight slowly presses down the anchovies and salt, keeping air out.

Stored in a corner of the refrigerator or in a cool cellar and topped off regularly with salt to keep the fish submerged in brine, the anchovies are ready after one month (but are even better after two or three). To use them, all you need do is rinse them under cold water and with your fingers remove the fins, backbone and entrails, and then separate them into fillets. If desired, you can crush them to make paste. Once desalted you can store anchovy fillets or paste under olive oil in the refrigerator for several weeks and use them to make all the traditional Roman Jewish and other favorite recipes.

David D. Downie is the author of “Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome” (Harper Collins).