✈ Keeping Kosher in Rome, Italy

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Contributed by Elina Rokhkind | Last Date of Travel: October 2009

Kosher Info:

Thankfully, Rome offers a decent choice of options for the kosher traveler. In addition to the centrally located former ghetto neighborhood with about a dozen eateries ranging from the quick bites to fancy restaurants, there are a few other residential neighborhoods with the Jewish infrastructure.

In the Ghetto all restaurants are located in the close proximity to the Great Synagogue and to each other. There are four pricier sit-down restaurants: two dairy (Nonna Betta and Yotvata) and two meat (La Taverna del Ghetto and Ba’Ghetto), which are frequented by locals and tourists alike. It seems that visiting the Ghetto neighborhood and tasting the authentic Jewish Roman cuisine is considered an interesting and worthwhile experience even for a non-Jewish sightseer. We ate at Nonna Betta and Ba’Ghetto – both were really nice and offered a wide menu of Roman specialties. Ba’Ghetto seemed to be most popular.  Make sure to sample the local signature dish – artichokes alla Judaea. Almost all restaurants in the area have outside sitting, and in the cold weather fancier restaurants place large gas heaters near the tables, which makes for a very cozy and romantic dining.

The area also have 2 bakeries and a meat store (didn’t check them out), a dairy fast-food Beteavon (fresh panini and sandwiches with a heimishe feel), Fast Kosher (McDonalds-type fast-food, didn’t try it), Chagat (another meat fast-food, but more Israeli-type with choices like falafel), and Kosher Bistrot (fleishig café with a bit more sophisticated selection which also serves hot beverages and alcohol, and sells a number of imported and Italian packaged groceries; beware – prices are higher when you sit outside than at the bar inside). Pretty much every establishment including hole-in-the-wall joints served wine – and a good one! – so enjoy this inseparable part of an Italy vacation. Try ordering house wines (vino de casa) with your restaurant meal and you won’t regret it! Also, some really yummy kosher deli options exist in Italy, which we haven’t tried before – make sure to taste their carne seca.

Piazza Bologna, Marconi and Monteverde are other neighborhoods where Jews reside, with Piazza Bologna being the most populated. It boasts a few kosher hotels and B&Bs, 3 synagogues and several kosher stores and eateries. We only ate at the pizza/bakery place Pane al Pane (pretty good), which sells pizza by weight, and the variety of toppings makes you wish to try them all. 

From the restaurants located elsewhere we also tried C’e Pasta e Pasta (not far from Trastevere train station) – a takeout-type place with a few seats, selling delicious pasta products and appetizers (the cheese-filled crepes we ate there were simply divine). And I can’t recommend enough another dairy café and bakery called Dolce Kosher. (We happened to live nearby during our stay in Rome, otherwise it’s a shlep from the center.) Everything we tried there was absolutely amazing, and they have a mouthwatering selection of deserts! I couldn’t believe the parve pastries were actually parve. The place was abounding with the knowing locals, although we were there at 11 am on a weekday…

All Roman kosher establishments are under Beth Din of Rome, meat by default is not glatt (however, several restaurants offer glatt selections), some of the dairy places are Chalav Yisrael. For more detail on kosher options and Jewish life the Jewishitaly.org proved to be very instrumental. Also, Shamash.org kosher database provides details and reviews on the restaurants. 

Tourist Info:

Rome is filled with places to visit and things to do, so I can comment only on whatever we ended up doing during our 3.5 day visit. We explored the Ghetto neighborhood and visited the Main Synagogue and the Jewish Museum located in the same building (more info in the next section). We walked a lot in the historic center visiting most of the tourist landmarks: lively Campo dei Fiori with farmers market in the morning and live music in the evening, Pantheon, Piazza Navona with its impressive Bernini fountains, Piazza Colonna with a huge column, the legendary Trevi Fountain, and the ever-crowded Piazza di Spagna. We also had a walk through a vibrant Trastevere neighborhood, visited magnificent Piazza del Popollo, and promenaded along Via del Corso. Walking miles and miles in Rome you realize that the city itself is the biggest museum under the open sky with its abundance of architectural marvels, beautiful statues and plentiful fountains. Ancient ruins that pop up at you from everywhere is the most amazing thing. In the midst of the modern city you suddenly stumble upon some interesting excavations, or an enormous Egyptian obelisk, or the remains of an ancient wall. Structures are built upon the older foundations making the city a multi-layer history showcase. We were looking for the Pompey theater ruins marked on the map, but seen nowhere, until we found out that the remaining wall of the theater is the actual back wall of the present-day buildings on that street – bars, restaurants, hotels.
Rome Roma
We also visited the Michelangelo-designed Capitoline Square and were astounded to see the poster of Gilad Shalit on the City Hall. The enormous Victor Emmanuel monument complex nearby the Capitoline Hill offers great panoramic views of Rome. 

 We explored Ancient Rome monuments with a private guide from the Jewish tour company. There are 2 companies – Rome for Jews and  Jewish Roma that offer several tours of Rome with the Jewish twist. We went with the 1st company, and were quite satisfied, but their guides are Americans; Jewish Roma, I believe, has Italian guides. Our 3-hour tour included some introduction to the Ghetto and its history (on the way to the ancient sites), overview of the Forum and the story of the Jewish history in the Ancient Rome, a close-up of the Arch of Titus, tours of the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. Since private guides are not inexpensive, it makes more sense to hire them if you are traveling with a small group. 

We visited Vatican with the tour by the Vatican Museums – it lasted 2 hours and covered the highlights. The Museums are enormous – plan ahead if you want to see something specific. Also, it is going to be less crowed if you visit it in the afternoon. Some people, who did not want to enter the Sistine Chapel, complained that they could not bypass it once they got close, since it’s a one-way path. In fact, there is a door on the top of the stairs which leads back through the main corridor – it may be marked as no entry, but there is a way out – try talking to the security guards if you are stuck, some of them are helpful. It’s about a 15-minute walk back through the museum and another 10 to the St. Peter’s Square to take a look at the famous semicircle of massive columns and the gigantic Basilica. 

We also wanted to see Galleria Borghese – an interesting collection of art and sculpture housed in a 17th-century cardinal villa. The museum requires advance reservation, as they only allow a certain amount of visitors every 2 hours. So if you are late – that’s what happened to us – you forfeit your visit since there are usually no extra tickets. Our only consolation was that the villa is located in the large and beautiful park – Borghese Gardens, which is a pleasure to walk or bike through (bike rentals available). 

It is vital to have a good map in Rome, since even with the map we kept getting lost. The locals are extremely friendly and go out of their way to help even when they don’t speak a word in English. A good bus route map is also helpful since metro coverage is limited. Romans get around mostly by motorini (mopeds) – the swarms of them are an inextricable part of the local character. 

Jewish Info:

 Rome’s Jewish community numbers about 15 000, it has 14 synagogues (all of them Orthodox), and an established Jewish infrastructure with schools, mikvahs, periodicals and communal organizations. An outsider, judging by the cover, would not be able to tell who is Jewish – not many kipahs and distinguishably Jewish dress is seen even in the Jewish places.

 Rome is home to one of the most ancient Jewish communities in Diaspora – first Jews settled here during the 2nd century BCE. Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, they are called Bnei Roma (or Italiki Jews), and they have their own nusach and minhagim. Obviously, a lot of other Jews (mostly Sephardim) joined the Roman community throughout the centuries. During the Ghetto times Jews were allowed to have only one synagogue, so they housed several minyanim in one building. 

The Ghetto existed from 16th to the late 19th century, and it enclosed several blocks near the Tiber River. The frequently flooded area, where thousands of Jews crammed was in such a miserable condition by the time of the unification of Italy, that it was completely demolished and rebuild. In place of the old synagogue the Roman Jewish community built a magnificent new structure clearly recognizable on the Roman skyline by its rectangular dome. All artifacts from the old shuls were preserved and are now either in use in the synagogues throughout Rome or on the display in the Jewish Museum of Rome. The Jewish Museum also houses a large collection of Torah covers which Jewish housewives crafted from the second-hand clothing they husbands peddled. The Museum ticket includes a half-hour tour of the Synagogue with the overview of the history of Roman Jewry. There are daily services in the Great Synagogue.

 Also of Jewish interest is Ostia Antica – a large archeological site containing excavations of an ancient synagogue. It is outside of Rome, and accessible by public transportation. (We haven’t visited it, however).

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