The Jewish Palate: A Kosher Roman torte for passover

Chef Dennis Wasko looks into the rich culinary history of the Jews of Italy.

"The Ghetto" in Rome 311 (photo credit: Stephen Burstin)
"The Ghetto" in Rome 311
(photo credit: Stephen Burstin)
The History of Jews in Italy goes back over 2,000 years.  Jews first appeared in Rome in the 2nd century B.C.E when Judah Maccabee sent envoys to the Roman Emperor.  The Jewish community in Rome is one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe and also one the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world. After the Romans invaded Judea in 63 B.C.E., Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves; Jewish delegates came to Rome on diplomatic missions and Jewish merchants traveled to Rome seeking to do business in the Imperial capital. Many of those who visited Rome stayed and the Jewish population began to grow.
The Jewish community in Rome was actually treated better that the Jews who remained in conquered Judea. Julius Caesar, who was known to be a friend of the Jews, allowed them to settle anywhere in the Roman Empire. It is said that when Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., Roman Jews wept at his tomb. His successor, Augustus, also acted favorably toward the Jews and scheduled his grain distribution so that it would not interfere with the Jewish Sabbath. The Emperor allowed synagogues to be built in Rome without restriction.
During the Jewish Wars in Judea, prisoners were brought back to Rome as slaves.  Many of the oldest Jewish Roman families trace their ancestry to this period.  Judea was of course crushed, the Temple destroyed, and world Jewry changed forever.  Upon his victory over the Jews, the Emperor issued a coin stamped with the words “Iudea Capta” – “Judea Captive”, and the Arch of Titus erected.  The Friezes on the arch depict the destruction of Jerusalem and the treasures of the Temple being carried off as spoils of war.  Jews were granted the privilege of becoming Roman citizens in 212 C.E.
By the second half of the first century C.E., the Roman Jewish community became firmly established. Jews were shopkeepers, craftsman and peddlers, but other Jews became poets, physicians and actors. The satiric poets of the time depicted the boisterous activities of Jewish peddlers and beggars in their poetry. 
Life for the Jewish community in Rome and the rest of the Empire was good until the rise of Christianity and the reign of Constantine.  Constantine enacted laws limiting the rights of Jews as citizens. Synagogues were destroyed by Christian mobs in 387-388 C.E. and in 493-526 C.E. When Rome was captured by Vandals in 455 C.E., the captured treasures of the Temple were taken to North Africa and lost to history. 
Throughout the centuries, the Jewish community of Rome and the rest of Europe suffered immeasurably at the hands of the Christians.  Jews were seen as a threat to the flimsy Christian mythology, and therefore persecuted and exterminated at every opportunity.  The Jewish community of Rome continued to flourish and there was a revival of Hebrew studies, centered on the local yeshiva, Metivta de Mata Romi. A number of well-known scholars, Rabbi Kalonymus ben Moses and Rabbi Jacob "Gaon" and Rabbi Nathan ben Jehil, taught in Rome. Roman Jewish traditions followed those practiced in the Land of Israel and the liturgical customs started in Rome spread throughout Italy and the rest of the world.
The Jews of Rome fully participated in the glories of the Renaissance, becoming merchants, traders and bankers, as well as artisans. This glory did not last long for the Jews.  Pope Alexander VI imposed a tax on Jews to pay for one his military campaigns against the Turks.  In 1555, Paul IV was the first ruler in Europe to segregate Jews from the rest of the population by forcing them to live in a Ghetto.  They were also forced to wear a yellow hat or badge, and were forbidden from leaving the Ghetto at night.  They were only allowed to have the most menial of jobs.  They were not allowed to study in higher education institutions or become lawyers, pharmacists, painters, politicians, notaries or architects. Jewish doctors were only allowed to treat Jewish patients. Jews were forced to pay an annual stipend to pay the salaries of the Catholic officials who supervised the Ghetto Finance Administration and the Jewish Community Organization; a stipend to pay for Christian missionaries who proselytized to the Jews and a yearly sum to the Cloister of the Converted. These abominations would be revived by the Nazis.
During the Reformation the Talmud was banned, and on Rosh Hashanah 1553 it was publicly burned with many other Jewish volumes.  The Jews were continually harassed in the Ghetto and humiliated at every opportunity.  Jews were forced to inhabit the Ghetto for 300 years.  The Ghetto was finally dismantled in 1870 when Italy was united under King Victor Emanuel.  He also gave the Jews full citizenship.
Today there are about 15,000 Jews in Rome.  The community is very diverse and vibrant.  The area that was once the Roman Ghetto is still the heart of the Jewish area, where Jewish shops and kosher restaurants abound.
The cooking of Roman Jews is legendary.  All of the glories of Italian Cuisine tempered by the laws of Kashrut are at the fingertips of the Roman Jews.  Specialties include whole artichokes fried in olive oil, salt cod, dried beef, and many cheeses.  Fresh fish are also very popular.
The following recipe is for a traditional Roman Passover almond cake.  Called Torta del Re, this recipe can be traced back to the Sephardic Jews who found their way to Rome after being expelled from Spain in 1492.
Torta del Re
Serves 8 to 10
Extra virgin olive oil for greasing pan
5 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 ½ cups ground almonds
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Juice of half a lemon
Passover confectioner’s sugar for dusting
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted.
1. Prepare a 10 inch spring-form pan by oiling with olive oil and lining bottom with parchment paper.
2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Beat the egg whites, half the granulated sugar, and salt to firm peaks.
4. Whisk the egg yolks with the remaining granulated sugar until they are foamy and lemon-colored.  Add the ground almonds, lemon juice, and zest.  The batter will be quite stiff.
5. Mix 1/3 of the egg whites into the nut mixture to lighten it.  Then delicately fold in remaining egg whites.
6. Pour the batter into prepared cake pan and bake for 1 hour. 
7. After 1 hour, turn off oven, open the door a crack, and allow to cool for 15 minutes.
8. After 15 minutes, remove from oven and cool cake in the pan upside down on a rack until cooled completely.  When completely cooled, remove cake from the pan.  Dust the top with confectioner’s sugar and sprinkle with toasted almonds.