Roman Jewish cuisine developed over centuries, as the Jewish community has existed in Rome for over 2000 years without interruption. It is the earliest and also the largest settlement of Jews in the Western World. The most influential period was between 1500's and 1800's when the Jews were confined in the ghetto.
Jews came to Rome as slaves after the Romans invaded Judea in 63 BC and made them war prisoners. Later, Jewish merchants came to Rome for trade purposes and settled there. More Jews arrived from Sicily and Sardinia, and, a few years later, from the whole of southern Italy when they were expelled from these regions on the orders of Ferdinand of Spain in 1492. The Jewish communities in Sicily, which had benefited from their strategic position at the heart of the Mediterranean economy and culture and the influence from foreign occupiers, such as the Arabs, Normans, and Aragonese, took these tradtions and foods with them to central and Northern Italy. Many of the dishes labelled "alla giudia" were not originally developed in Rome but arrived with the Jews from Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata, and Naples. Before World War II, the Roman Jewish community counted 50,000 persons. Today, there are about 12,000 Jews in Rome. It will come as no surprise then that traditional Roman cuisine is completely interwoven with Jewish culinary specialities.
It is in the ghettoes, which were instituted by decree of Pope Paul IV in 1559, that the various Jewish styles of cooking developed. The Jews were confined within walls and four gates and severe restrictions were imposed on them. "Isolated from the outside world, Jewish housewives were forced to be creative, cooking with limited amounts of humble ingredients while keeping the recipes kosher", explains Ethel G. Hofman in her article Roman Jewish Cuisine. Artichokes, cheeses, salt cod were cheap and available inside the ghetto and spices and seasonings added 'tam.' Some of these ingredients, such as artichokes and aubergines were not originally Jewish, but brought to Italy by the Arabs, via Sicily.
In her article, The Dishes of the Jews of Italy: A Historical Survey, Claudia Roden notes that the Jewish styles of cooking "were different in every ghetto and reflected the local regional styles as well as those of the foreign refugees who joined the communities. The economic situation also had a bearing on food. Some communities were very poor while others were close to the courts and the nobility."
As Ethel G. Hofman points out in her article Roman Jewish Cuisine "Fish dishes are prominent in ancient Roman Jewish cooking probably due to the fact that there was a fish market in the center of the ghetto - red mullet, bream and sea bass cooked in a sweet and sour sauce with pine nuts and raisins is a popular dish for all Romans, Jewish or not. Beef was salted, peppered and dried, an ingredient which Roman Jews still prepare for the Holidays. The influence of different cultures and time periods is most obvious in dessert recipes. Bollo, a soft spongy cake studded with raisins and candied fruits, is known to have been brought to Rome by Jews expelled from Spain. A sweet pizza of almonds, raisins and pine nuts can be traced to the influence of Imperial Rome."
Hofman also explains how "Several of the old dishes, like the chickpea dish ceci coipennerelli and the aliciotti con l'indivia (anchovies with chicory), reflect the poverty of the community (anchovies being the cheapest fish). Many other dishes also reflect the diversity of the Roman community, which included refugees from Sicily and the south."
The ghetto of Rome was one of the poorest in Italy. It was desperately cramped and its inhabitants were forbidden to own property. And, as adds Claudia Roden, they "were excluded from most professions except money-lending, dealing in old clothes and bric-a-brac, and selling food in the street. Many of them became friggitori-street vendors of deep-frying morsels, mainly of fish and vegetables-for which they became famous." The same little slices of fried vegetables (artichokes, zucchini flowers and salt cod) and fried fish chunks that are now served as fritto misto in the finest restaurants of the Italian capital and were sold centuries ago for a few coins on the street by the friggitori. Ironically also, today's ghetto property is some of the most expensive in Rome.