I'm sitting in the Hostaria Gigetto al Portico d’Ottavia in Rome's Jewish Ghetto.
The walls are panelled in wood and adorned with scenes of pastoral life; the floors are darkly tiled; the waitstaff are sharply shirtsleeved. This ur-traditional place offers a broad variety of Roman fare, and from the looks of the dishes emerging from the kitchen from my vantage point at a nearby table for one, it does a capable job of dishing it all out.
But there's one thing this hostaria really excels at, and I've just downed a plate of it: “Carciofi alla Giudia”; better known in English as Jewish artichoke.
It's more or less an entire artichoke, which happened to be exactly in season during my early March visit, twice-fried in palm oil until its leaves are crispy and its meaty interior is tender and savory. It's served whole, in an arrangement that somewhat resembles a lotus flower made of Pringles, and best attacked with fork and knife. A quick Google reveals this treat was traditionally prepared by the city's ancient Jewish community to celebrate the end of the yom kippur fast, but it's been enjoyed by Romans of all creeds and walks of life for centuries. And it's easy to see why the Jews couldn't keep this treat to themselves: it's extraordinary.
Carciofi alla Giudia is fairly different from the rest of the food I’ve had since arriving here a few days ago — except in one pretty critical way. Everyone agrees it has to be prepared just right, or it doesn't count as "the real thing".
Italians are on a completely different level when it comes to the seriousness with which they guard the authenticity of their cuisine. In Germany, people eat to live; in Italy, people live to eat. The respect for food here permeates everyone and everything. People who would be considered “foodies” in other countries — already something of an empty term nowadays to be fair — are part of the mainstream here. I get the sense that an Italian who didn’t know where his or her food came from - and I mean every last ingredient - would be considered far more out of the ordinary, far more rebellious.
Italy is a land of belief, passion and conviction, and food is just one expression of these deep-seated traits. Italians have a yearning for life that drives everything they do, and especially everything they excel at. Cars. Wine. Art. Clothing. Leather. It’s a land of sensory overload, where if you’re not being overwhelmed by one of your senses at any moment, the next fragrant whiff or stunning vista or burst of flavor is hiding just around the bend.
Earlier on this trip, which is primarily for work, I took a pasta-making class with a few coworkers. We were welcomed into the home of an old man, Ludovico, who greeted us in sweatpants and a somewhat Socratic beard. Over the course of the evening, he taught us the methods of his grandmother, which her grandmother taught to her. These techniques were remarkable in their precision: with the right visual reference points and sleights of hand, one can turn a mass of raw egg and flour into an unimaginable variety of geometrically perfect shapes and complex textures without the use of any modern machinery — or any machinery at all really, aside from one’s own hands. No measurements or additives required.
Later on, the old man, Ludovico, was seated comfortably holding forth at the end of the dinner table when I asked him how Rome has changed in his lifetime, and if it had become any less Roman. He ticked off a number of predictable forces that had changed his streetscape and daily routines: the corner bakery had been replaced by a pharmacy to cater to an aging population, the communal hallway bathrooms once commonplace to Roman apartments had been upgraded to ensure that every tenant had his or her own private facilities.
But never did Ludovico budge an inch when probed on whether Italian-ness was going anywhere. He seemed wholly unconcerned that any of his cooking techniques or other orally-preserved traditions were in any danger, and I think he was right not to worry. (What a stark contrast to Germany, where columnists lament the decline of Deutsch in certain gentrified neighborhoods of Berlin on a near-weekly basis.)
Italy is a place where things are done a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. And can you blame them? This is the land that sprung forth the most powerful human empire ever seen, where art and literature and science have progressed not because their creators bucked tradition, but because they paid respect to it.
Anyway, here in the “Hostaria”, all is well. Other detectable cultures near me are Russian, British, German. I am surrounded by couples from all over the world, none of whom are making even a passing effort to speak to the elderly, vigorous Italian waiter in a way that respects his culture (see previous blog post for more thoughts on why that sucks).
But he isn't backing down from his traditional Italian hospitality, which makes me smile. There were quite a few locals in here earlier, which made me feel even better about the realness of this choice of lunch spot than all the TripAdvisor comments and travel blog reviews in the world ever could.
Tonight, it's back to Berlin. But for now, I'll do as the Italians do, and as they've always done, and enjoy the moment.