Food is an essential element of any traveller’s vacation to Italy – my wife, for her part, was ecstatic at the thought of tasting the country’s locally grown tomatoes. However, as with all places, not all restaurants are created equal, and with the limited options available, kashrut-observant Jews will want to be picky about where they spend their euros.
The kosher restaurant scene in Rome is mostly concentrated in the former Jewish ghetto, whose neighbourhood is home to many of the city’s Jews and a major point of interest for tourists. A handful of restaurants and half a dozen other eateries are situated on the area’s main street, the Via del Portico d’Ottavia, where we began our Italian culinary experience in a dairy bistro called Ba’Ghetto Milky.
Seated in its inner dining room, enveloped by the scent of a strong cheese whose odour seemed to cling to the brick walls, we ate a modest but tasty meal. My wife enjoyed a light, fluffy salmon and potato gnocchi, while I managed my way through about half of the Milky pizza – an oily white (no tomato sauce) pizza topped with a mountain of fried chicory and a bottarga (fish roe) garnish. Unfortunately, my food came with one extra ingredient: a dark black hair hidden among the pile of chicory. When this was initially pointed out to the waiter, he jokingly made excuses about the chef going bald. Only when it was time to pay and I pressed the matter did he offer a discount, which cut the cost of our simple meal to a still somewhat hefty 30 euros ($45), including the cover charge and a fee for the water we drank.
After dinner, we walked a few steps down the street to Cremeria Romana, where we had our first taste of authentic Italian gelato. With quite a few cup sizes available, the shop had an option for customers of varying budgets and appetites, as well as pareve alternatives that, while not as tasty as their dairy counterparts, would sate the cravings of those unable to partake of the milchig offerings.
For Shabbat, we created a tasting menu comprised of a number of dishes from various other places in the former ghetto area. However, as the food was brought back to the hotel and not eaten fresh, I am unable to provide a fair and comprehensive recommendation about their fare.
But just like Rome’s Jewish population eventually broke free of the ghetto, kosher restaurants are not confined to that area of the Eternal City, and in fact, some of the best food we ate in the Italian capital was found a few kilometres away, and at slightly more reasonable prices.
One of these places was Flour, whose large array of bread, pastries and other confections was a sight for sore eyes and empty stomachs that had been teased daily by our hotel’s enticing, extensive, but non-kosher breakfast spread. We feasted on flaky croissants, bite-sized raspberry mousse and other sweets as though we didn’t know when our next filling meal would be – which, of course, we did, since we ordered sizable portions of focaccia to take with us for lunch during that day’s adventure to the Vatican.
The friendly folks at Flour were also kind enough to put aside some food for pick-up that evening, which fortunately brought us back into the area to dine at Little Tripoli, where we partook in what was undoubtedly our best meal in Rome. While the décor in the simple dining room is altogether bare and bland, this tribute to Libya boasts some truly delicious and flavourful homemade cuisine that is made so fresh we could hear another patron’s order of schnitzel being tenderized in the kitchen. After starting our meal with some incredibly fluffy pitas, we feasted on some of the tastiest beef kebabs I’ve ever had, as well as a delectable plate of rigatoni covered in a creamy broccoli and meat sauce. Thrilled by the quality of the food, we decided to buy an extra meal to take with us the next day to Naples, a kosher restaurant wasteland.
After a few days in Naples, subsisting mostly on packaged food we had brought with us to Italy, we headed north to Florence and found an oasis called Ruth’s. A vegetarian diner reminiscent of a cafeteria, the food was mediocre but passable, while the portions were a bit stingy for the price.
Unfortunately, Ruth’s seems to be the only game in town, though its proximity to the city’s synagogue is very convenient.
However, if you’ve rented a car and are willing to venture out of the city – perhaps as a short detour on your way to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa – a 75-minute drive from Florence will bring you to Cantina Giuliano, a kosher winery and dairy restaurant in the heart of Tuscany. Owned and operated by Eli and Lara Gauthier, this gem offers genuine garden-to-table – or in the case of fish meals, port-to-table – dining and an intimate atmosphere. With no formal menu, meals change to reflect the availability of produce from nearby farms, including one a short walk up the road, owned by Lara’s family. But rest assured, if your experience is like ours, whatever is put in front of you will be delicious. Just be sure to call ahead to make a reservation, as their hours, like their menu, adapt to the season.
After a brief tour of the family’s garden and the wine-making facilities, we returned to the restaurant. The fixed dinner menu began with homemade bread and a variety of antipasti, including a lovely tomato basil salad. The main course featured luscious, handmade ricotta and zucchini ravioli coated with a light lemon butter, while we rounded out the meal with a smoky almond sorbet atop warmed apricots for dessert. Eli, who also acted as our server, paired each of the three courses with a different house wine, ranging from a delicate white to a robust red.
Dealing with the Gauthiers was a very pleasant experience. They are extremely warm and hospitable restaurateurs with excellent local fare. They helped arrange accommodations for us in a nearby villa apartment, and loaned us some kosher kitchen equipment so we could cook a meal for ourselves. They also offer options for those looking to stay in the area over Shabbat. In fact, the only sour taste you may be left with after visiting Cantina Guiliano is when you realize how much you’ve spent nickel-and-diming yourself – as we did, ordering breakfast, lunch, homemade mascarpone ice cream, bread, two bottles of wine and another two bottles of jam – and even then you’ll think it a worthwhile expense!
Similar to Florence, tourists looking for kosher eateries in Venice will have very few choices. In the main square of the city’s former Jewish ghetto is Ghimel Garden, a dairy restaurant with a relaxed ambiance and lots of outdoor seating under a canopy. While the food was satisfactory, the service was slow and rude. Instead, consider a canal-side table at Gam Gam, a fleishig establishment with friendly staff, tasty food and fair prices. (If you’re not comfortable with the idea of pigeons at your feet while you eat, ask for a booth inside.) Venice is also home to two Frulala smoothie stands with alcoholic and virgin options. Just ask to see their kosher menu.
Our last stop was Milan. With Italy’s second-largest Jewish community, this fashion mecca does have a few options for kosher-seekers, including Carmel, a dairy restaurant we became quite familiar with as customers for three consecutive nights during the Nine Days of Av, when meat consumption is customarily restricted to Shabbat. The food was appetizing and decently priced, especially during our second visit, which occurred on Erev Tisha b’Av, as we had found a Groupon promotion for a four-course meal for two for about $60. While in Milan, we also visited Denzel, a meat restaurant with a fine-dining atmosphere, punnily named for its location on Via Washington.
However, the breakout star of Milan’s kosher food scene, for us, was Gelato Ecologico, a mom-and-pop ice cream shop with dozens of dairy and vegan pareve options, differentiated by a KL or KP, respectively, as well as white or red scoop handles. The store also serves a few flavours of fruit ices, a partially frozen, slushy treat akin to a 7-Eleven Slurpee, doled out in ladles and consumed with a straw and/or spoon. If sweet’s your thing, go for the watermelon, which tasted so fresh that my brain was tricked into expecting seeds to pop into my mouth. If you prefer sour, opt for the lemon. Either way, it will be delightful and refreshing, especially if you’re travelling during the summer, sweating buckets on a hot day or muggy night.