Por­ti­co: Cook­ing and Feast­ing in Rome’s Jew­ish Kitchen

By – August 28, 2023

Writer Leah Koenig keeps a framed pho­to of her­self and her hus­band on her night­stand. In the image, they are twen­ty-some­thing new­ly­weds trav­el­ing through Rome, drink­ing glass­es of tra­di­tion­al mint tea. Koenig says the pho­to reminds her that a toast to good times is only a glass of tea away.” Por­ti­co, which began as a pan­dem­ic project, seems to sug­gest that deli­cious food can be just as much of a toast to good times.

Koenig’s sev­enth cook­book takes its name par­tial­ly from Por­ti­co d’Ottavia (“Octavia’s Porch”), one of the most icon­ic struc­tures in Rome’s Jew­ish Ghet­to neigh­bor­hood. The word por­ti­co” also trans­lates to front porch,” and it offers a warm wel­come,” or entrance, to Koenig’s sub­ject. With friend­ly intro­duc­tions to over one hun­dred recipes, the book is divid­ed into a man­age­able six sec­tions — veg­eta­bles, soups, frit­ters, pas­ta and rice, main dish­es, and sweets — and ends with sev­er­al menus for both cozy week­night meals and Jew­ish hol­i­days. Por­ti­co acts as some­thing of a Roman trav­el guide, fea­tur­ing descrip­tions and pho­tos of delight­ful-look­ing kosher bak­eries, butch­ers, cater­ing com­pa­nies, and restaurants.

Rome is home to about six­teen thou­sand Jew­ish inhab­i­tants from three dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties: the Italkim, who arrived in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry BCE; the Sephardim, who set­tled there fol­low­ing the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion; and Libyan Jews, who immi­grat­ed by the thou­sands after 1967. The result is a unique meld­ing of fla­vors. (Sephardic Jews, for exam­ple, brought the arti­choke to Rome, where the veg­etable is now incred­i­bly pop­u­lar.) Strik­ing a bal­ance between tra­di­tion and adap­ta­tion seems to be some­thing Koenig is inter­est­ed in. For instance, she includes a recipe for pas­ta car­bonara, which is tra­di­tion­al­ly made with cured pork and thus is not kosher; but she eas­i­ly adapts it, call­ing for uma­mi-rich mush­rooms or zuc­chi­ni instead. She also dis­cuss­es a pop­u­lar Jew­ish Ghet­to restau­rant that decid­ed to renege on its kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in order to con­tin­ue serv­ing tra­di­tion­al dish­es, sim­ply because kosher sourc­ing for cer­tain ingre­di­ents has become too difficult. 

Tra­di­tion and adap­ta­tion also play a role in one par­tic­u­lar­ly sweet moment about halfway through Por­ti­co. Ear­ly on in the book, Koenig refers sev­er­al times to a cook­book called Dal 1880 ad Oggi (From 1880 to Today), hand­writ­ten in 1982 by Roman Jew Donatel­la Limen­tani Pavon­cel­lo. She cites it in her descrip­tions of arti­choke frit­ta­ta and apple frit­ters, among oth­er recipes. Through­out the pan­dem­ic, Koenig, like so many of us, expe­ri­enced months of vir­tu­al every­thing” and could con­sult the cook­book only in dig­i­tized form. So when she sees a paper copy at a friend’s house in Rome in 2021, she opens it with trem­bling hands” and says the She­hecheyanu, the Jew­ish prayer of grat­i­tude. We, too, feel the joy of being part of these good times and this spe­cial history.

Discussion Questions

Cook­ing from Leah Koenig’s Por­ti­co: Cook­ing and Feast­ing in Rome’s Jew­ish Kitchen is like tak­ing a leisure­ly walk down Rome’s Por­ti­co d’Ot­tavia — the ancient ghet­to’s main street — and inhal­ing the fra­grant aro­mas of cuci­na ebraica that waft from the front porch of local kitchens. With lus­cious food pho­tog­ra­phy and entic­ing recipes such as clas­sic Jew­ish-style fried arti­chokes, gar­lic rose­mary roast­ed lamb, and spinach frit­ta­ta with raisins and pine nuts, Por­ti­co is a cook­book that deserves to be savored in small bites, to let the fla­vors of Italy’s Jew­ish cui­sine linger on your palate and in your heart.