A Slice of Kosher Pizza, a Taste of Ghetto Life ; Rome's Ancient Jewish Quarter Is Home to the City's Artistic Crowd. Marc Zakian Reports on a Community of Outsiders, New and Old

By Zakian, Marc | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), September 12, 2004 | Go to article overview
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A Slice of Kosher Pizza, a Taste of Ghetto Life ; Rome's Ancient Jewish Quarter Is Home to the City's Artistic Crowd. Marc Zakian Reports on a Community of Outsiders, New and Old


Zakian, Marc, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


The sight is like a postcard from the past: families eating on their doorsteps; old men with nicotine-gravel voices chin-wagging deep into the night; couples romancing in a corner of the cobbled piazza. This is Rome's ghetto, the Eternal City's most ancient community. The Jews arrived before the building of the Coliseum, before St Peter and St Paul, and before the Vatican neighbours hoisted their dome on the opposite bend in the Tiber. Today, their home is becoming Rome's new artistic quarter.

We are in Bar Toto, on Piazza Delle Cinque Scuole, a landmark for the past century. Each day, except the Sabbath, the Toto matriarch Emilia perches behind the counter, dispensing coffee and wisdom. Her customers don't need to order - she knows what cigarettes they smoke and how they take their espresso. "We're a tiny community of a few thousand who all know each other," she tells me. "We've seen hard times so we look out for people. Nobody goes hungry here."

But these days it would be tricky to go hungry anywhere in the ghetto. Jews, like all Romans, have a passion for food. Across the road from Bar Toto is Zi Finizia. Nine years ago Michele Sonnino left the rag trade to become a pizzaiola, opening the city's first kosher pizzeria. Italy's food police, the magazine and TV station Gambero Rosso, says Zi Finizia makes the best take-away pizza in Rome.

Approval from the great Gambero meant that Michele's conversion from schmutter-seller to pizza philosopher was complete. Corner him when he's puffing on his pipe in the piazza and you'll get his mystical take on pizza: "It's an excuse for helping people. That's why I named it Zi Fenizia (Auntie Fenizia) - after a legendary ghetto cook who offered people cheap but tasty food at the end of the war."

Such folklore is a reminder of the area's turbulent history. The ghetto began when papal bigotry forced the Jews into a gated community known as the Borghetto. To add insult to confinement, all Jews had to attend mass at the Catholic San Gregorio, by the river. They went, but with earplugs in place to block out the papal hectoring.

It was only when Italy was unified that Rome's Jews were finally unshackled from Vatican rule. In 1904 they built their synagogue on a bend in the Tiber. Highly visible from St Peter's, it's the landmark of a people swimming against the tide of the Holy See.

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A Slice of Kosher Pizza, a Taste of Ghetto Life ; Rome's Ancient Jewish Quarter Is Home to the City's Artistic Crowd. Marc Zakian Reports on a Community of Outsiders, New and Old
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