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

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.

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. And if the exterior stands out from its surroundings, then the Babylonian interior is a world apart from its classical neighbours; an epic beige wedding cake of giant white columns topped with goat's-horn scrolls and blazing gilded menorah candles. It also hosts a museum of Romano-Jewish culture, tracing the local blood line directly back to the Temple of Jerusalem and displaying the few treasures to have survived the Nazi occupation in 1943.

Past troubles will never be forgotten, but a new community is shaping the future of the area. In recent years many Jews have left to find homes in other parts of Rome, leaving their workshops empty. Rome's artistic community, seduced by the ghetto's charm, is turning the shady side-street of Via della Reginella into a bustling artistic quarter.

First on the scene was Giuseppe Consetti's eccentric antiquarian gallery. His shop must be the only place in the world where you can find a 1970s press photo of Margaret Thatcher alongside a set of bishop's vestments. Next door is a madcap gallery of black-and-white photos. Giuseppe arrived in the ghetto 10 years ago. "Piazza Navona and Campo di Fiori have turned themselves over to Irish theme pubs and your-name-on-a-grain-of-rice artists." he told me. "In the ghetto people still take time to talk to each other."

His neighbour Roberto Arzu, a sculptor and restorer, agrees. "I came to Rome from a small town and settled here because this place is a little village," he said. Roberto is inspired by the surrounding architecture, making reproductions of the tortoises on the legendary Bernini fountain in Piazza Mattei, at the end of Via della Reginella.

Incongruous perhaps, but the ghetto is the right place for Rome's new artistic quarter: it's a meeting of an old and new community of outsiders. And while the rest of the city surrenders to ubiquitous modernity, the ghetto's mix of Italian and Hebrew, of the bohemian and the biblical, stands alone.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Marc Zakian travelled to Rome with Italian Journeys (020-7373 8058; www.italianjourneys.com) which offers three nights' b&b at the Mozart Hotel from £439 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and transfers.

Further information

Italian State Tourist Office (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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