Can you eat ice cream in November in Rome? This was my big concern when booking a trip to the Eternal City at the back end of 2018.
As this goes to print it’s still cold: it’s January; you’re thinking more about hot chocolate than frozen chocolate and beach holidays than European city breaks.
But soon it will be spring: a bit of sun but not so many tourists. Just like November in Rome. So yes. Go to Rome and eat gelato in your puffa jacket. And that’s just the start of the treats.
There’s also the amazing pizza, pasta — and let’s not forget the culture. In a city like Rome, history is everywhere. Living in Britain you can become immune to the historical significance of buildings.
But in Rome, every few yards you see the remains of an ancient temple, an arch, a fountain designed by Bernini or you sit and have a meal gazing directly at the Pantheon, as I did, under the stars.
And the Jewish ghetto is probably one of the areas in Rome which has best preserved its history. So I kicked off my weekend trip with a three hour food tour run by LivItaly (yes, more food — but we are Jewish).
This tour was private, just my husband and I and the tour guide, a lovely American ex-pat called Laura. All LivItaly’s tours are small however, with a maximum of six people, if you’d prefer company without the crowds of a coach tour.
Laura pointed out her favourite kosher restaurants as we walked through the ghetto, although we didn’t visit any as part of the tour but all the tasting plates we enjoyed were tailored to fit our kosher/vegetarian food restrictions.
It wasn’t the first Jewish ghetto in Italy; that dubious honour goes to Venice, which created its own segregated area in 1515. In the ancient world there were an estimated 12 synagogues, we learned, although even in a city which preserves its ruins, none exist any more.
But the Jewish ghetto is home to the Great Synagogue of Rome, which distinguishes itself from the city’s many other religious buildings by having the only square dome breaking up the skyline.
And it’s here too that Rome’s famous street food originates. Segregated Jews were forbidden from holding the majority of jobs, needed outdoor stoves to prevent fires from spreading through their cramped, dangerous living conditions and suffered restrictions placed upon the availability of fresh food.
As a result fried artichokes became the dish of the day in the Jewish quarter — a delicacy that Rome still champions.
The best fried artichokes are still to be found in the Jewish quarter though, along with fried, mozzarella-stuffed courgettes with melty anchovies hidden in the middle, and baccala or fried salt cod.
Between a pecorino cheese tasting plate, fried artichokes, and the more well-known delicacies of pizza (the square slices that Romans eat on the hoof, priced by weight, rather than the round version from Naples we’re used to) plus pasta — cacio e pepe is Rome’s signature dish — Laura told us the area’s history.
Pointing out sculptures and fountains, along with the Pantheon, we also discovered that prosecco should be paired with fried foods. Who knew?
The ‘ghetto’ is still considered the hub of Jewish life, and while not necessarily residentially Jewish any more, it’s one of the most desirable areas of real estate in the city — and demands some of the highest AirBNB prices.
After walking miles along Rome’s narrow, winding streets, we rested our own legs at the beautiful Hotel Vilon. Tucked away in a cobbled backstreet, blink and you’d miss the entrance to this recently refurbished Small Hotel of the World.
Just a short walk from the famous Spanish Steps and decked out in shades of duck egg blue and cream, with pops of colour for contrast, this was the perfect place to return to after a day full of sightseeing and eating.
Rome in November isn’t a particularly bustling city — we visited just before the traditional invernale, or winter period, which starts on November 19 and everything in the city winds or shuts down.
So while I didn’t feel the need to escape the hordes like I might have in the summer, it was nice to return to an oasis of calm, even if the mint tea I ordered on room service one night cost more than my lunch.
The bathroom deserves special mention too. I always think that a hotel bathroom should be more luxurious than your bathroom at home and this one certainly fit the bill.
The walk-in shower was immense and the lovely thick waffle towels were some of the most decadent I’ve ever come across, while fluffy turquoise slippers were a nice touch.
We returned to the Jewish ghetto as part of a historically-focused (as opposed to food-focused) walking tour on our last day in Rome.
Our guide this time, Kylie, showed just how personalised LivItaly makes its tours, with a special detour to the famous Campo de’ Fiori which we’d mentioned in passing during our first tour as somewhere we’d like to visit.
In a city packed with churches — there are over a thousand in Rome — Campo de’ Fiori is the only piazza with no church, although on a Sunday morning, the chime of ringing bells remained a musical backdrop to our tour.
As you walk through Rome, brass stones on the streets recall the names of the Jews that lived there during the Holocaust. The Roman population was the biggest to survive the Second World War in Italy as Roman families absorbed Jews into their own.
We finished our tour with a trip to a famous Jewish bakery (yes, more food, but when in Rome…). There was a queue trailing down the street of Jews and non-Jews alike, waiting to get into this tiny bakery serving only two things.
Pasticceria Boccione,has been famous for generations for what is known locally as ‘Jewish Pizza’ — a sweet bread filled with toasted almonds, candied ginger, marzipan, pine nuts, maraschino cherries and raisins.
It’s certainly not a traditional Jewish dessert that I’ve ever come across but the half biscuit/half cake studded with jewel-like dried fruit has joined my list of Roman delicacies.
And it was perfect to eat while strolling through the cobbled streets on that sunny November day. Along with gelato, of course.
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