Travelling kosher in Italy can be either frustrating or fun, depending on how you decide to look at it. Outside of the cities of Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome where one can find kosher restaurants, there is virtually no ready made kosher food to be had. That can leave one on the outside looking in on diners enjoying their wine and pasta or pizza at sidewalk cafes or classy restaurants. Alternatively, if you plan it right, kosher eating can be an adventure indeed that leaves you feeling both satisfied and right in the swing of things.
Our last trip to Southern Italy was a perfect example of the latter. We chose to stay in apartments with fully outfitted kitchens and our clothing shared space in our suitcases with kosher wine, cheese, crackers, tortillas, coffee, tea, one frying pan, one pot, a knife and some disposable dishes and cutlery. Thus when we arrived in the early evening at our first apartment in rural Saint Agate high above the Amalfi Coast with a bird’s eye view of Sorrento, we were ready to hit the local shops and start preparing dinner. By the time we set out the only store that was open was a fruit and vegetable market that had some basic groceries as well.
What fun it was to explore the local produce, some of which looked vaguely familiar, while other items were totally new. We picked some of each, and enjoyed in particular the red raddicio which added beautiful color and crunch to our salads. We of course purchased local virgin olive oil, and olives, as well as coffee for the espresso machine (non-electric) that we found in the kitchen. Eggs, lentils and barley rounded out the shopping list.
Coming home that first night we enjoyed wine, cheese and olives while the spinach frittata was cooking. The next morning following my friend Sara’s advice, we made a hearty lentil/vegetable soup that cooked while we were eating breakfast and getting ready for departure. What a treat to have supper waiting for us at the end of our long day of touring the Amalfi Coast.
We made sure to eat hearty breakfasts each morning that would hold us for most of the day. One day it was omelettes, another day quesadillas using the tortillas and cheese from home with sauteed onions and mushrooms. Yum.
When the local market opened we were able to find Barilla pasta, and buffalo mozarella (made from cow’s milk) and these both enriched our menus and made us feel like we were eating Italian fare along with millions of tourists and locals.
We spent Shabbat in Naples in a beautiful apartment with views to Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples and we arrived on Friday afternoon just in time to kasher the oven, bake challah, and cook the pasta and fresh salmon that we had bought along the way. Friday night was a feast!
When we realized on Saturday night that the “kosher” pizza we were hoping for wasn’t going to happen in Naples, we made our own, using the leftover challa, tomato sauce and … buffalo mozzarella. It was an okay substitute but the pizza the following night in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto was far better.
In addition to pizaa we enjoyed eating the local Jewish specialty of fried artichokes at BaGhetto restaurant. It’s what I would call an “interesting” experience that need not be repeated, but the food there was very tasty and the waitress was lovely. We enjoyed kosher Italian chianti with our dinner but were happy that most of the wine we had imbibed during the week came from Israel. While it was lots of fun to eat out and celebrate the end of our trip, to my estimation, our home cooked food was at least as good, if not better!
Some additional information you may find useful:
On our recent mid-week stay in Budapest we enjoyed the sites offered by the Jewish community as well as the kosher eateries available nearby. Our first stop after arrival was at the bakery/tea shop called Froelich at 16 Dob Ut. offered fresh baked goods including apple and cherry strudel. One might sit there and enjoy the pastry with a cup of coffee but we were in a rush to make our guided tour, so we packed up some treats and were on our way to the Great Synagogue.
The architect of this building, a Christian, was clearly influenced by the churches in the area, and the synagogue is more reminiscent of a church than a shul. In its heyday there were 15000 families, and while it has been totally renovated and is in pristine shape, today there are no more than 200 families who count themselves as member of this synagogue. One of the interesting features of the synagogue is an organ that is played by a non- Jew, granddaughter of the original organ player of this synagogue.
Making our way up the block from the synagogue we found three kosher eateries, Carmel, Hanna, and Carimama, a kosher pizzeria/dairy place. All three eateries are located on Kazinczy Ut within about fifty meters of each other. While they all advertise that they are open until 10 PM, in December, when we visited the only one that was open late was Carmel. As a result we ate there twice, and are unable to report on Hanna.
Carmel is an upscale glatt kosher restaurant with two main rooms, very nicely appointed with excellent service. The large menu is illustrated with pictures of some of their choice dishes, which makes it a bit easier to choose. The restaurant prides itself on Hungarian dishes including goulash soup, Hungarian noodles, fried blintzes and much much more. We ate there on two occasions, and both times the food was excellent and beautifully served. The vegetable soup was filled with the flavor of winter root vegetables including parsnips and carrots, while the Hungarian goulash soup was brimming with meat, potatoes and paprika. Main courses of schnitzel and beef stew were hearty and filling, as were the vegetarian options of eggs and noodles, a typical Hungarian dish, and the potato blintz with mushroom sauce. We polished off the meal with a local specialty called Gandal pancake, a pancake filled with nut cream and covered with chocolate sauce. Delicious. All this came at a price. The restaurant was definitely not inexpensive. Our meal, each night cost around 15,000 forints (approximately 300 shekel, or $75.) without tip.
The pizzeria, Carimama, is a more reasonable option, and also provides a wide range of dishes beyond pizza. This includes salads, soups, pastas, and some traditional Hungarian dishes as well. We enjoyed a pizza for two (2500 forints – 50 shekel) and purchased a Hungarian cake (750 forint- 15 shekel) to take home and enjoy with tea. At the pizza shop one can also buy kosher bread and baked goods.
Farther along the street there is a small kosher grocery with items imported mostly from Israel and the UK. We looked high and low for something to buy that might be Hungarian, and all we could find was sweet tokay wine (pass on that) and paprika, which we bought.
Budapest, when all is said and done, is easy on the kosher traveler. If one enjoys the fruits and vegetables at the breakfast bar, and takes advantage of the kosher eateries, you can feel that you have taken advantage of Hungarian cuisine at its best.
For the kosher traveler Venice is a wonderful place to spend a few days or more. On our current stay there we rented an apartment and brought with us a couple of pots so breakfast and lunch were a breeze. Part of our enjoyment of Slow Venice was shopping with the locals in the small supermarket just over the footbridge which supplied us with milk, eggs, yoghurt and Barilla pasta. The large outdoor market was a twenty minute walk away, and there we rubbed shoulders with local Venetians and were able to partake of the proliferation of colorful produce and the very fresh fish. There were many kinds of greens and mushrooms that we had not seen before and we enjoyed trying them out. Also readily available were sun dried tomatoes and pure olive oil which turned our pasta into a gourmet’s delight.
In terms of strictly kosher provisions there is a grocery store called Volpe (Ghetto Vecchio, phone: 041-715178) that sells kosher produce and bake goods. It is located just a few steps down from the Chabad House in the Ghetto. The store has long hours and excellent baked goods that are under the supervision of the local Jewish community (not Chabad) and while the counter people and we had no common language we had no trouble making our purchases and enjoying the fare. The fresh rolls and cakes added a nice touch to our late morning breakfasts and evening tea.
Right across from Volpe grocery is a kosher pizzeria, run by the local Chabad that serves coffee and sandwiches as well. We did not have the opportunity to sample their wares, but the aromas wafting out of the small storefront were mouthwatering.
The high point of our Kosher Venice was the famous Gam Gam Restaurant located at 1122 Cannaregio, Venice (Main entrance of the Ghetto by the GuglieBridge). GamGam has been around for close to twenty years under the kashrut supervision of the Chabad Rabbi Rami Banin and is the most remarkable of restaurants. During the week it looks like a typical Venetian restaurant that fronts one of the many canals. In fine weather diners can choose to sit at outdoor tables and enjoy the water traffic and soak up the unique atmosphere of Venice. If weather is inclement the indoor seating is in two rooms that are tastefully appointed with pleasant lighting and ambiance. When we ate dinner at GamGam on a weeknight, many if not most of the diners were tourists who did not look particularly “kosher” or Jewish, and were just looking for a good place to eat. That reassured us that prices were reasonable. The menu included some Venetian specialties such as pickled sardines (yum) as well as typically Israeli and Jewish cuisine. It was all tasty and prices seemed on par with other restaurants in Venice.
The fun begins on Shabbat and Jewish holidays when GamGam undergoes a facelift and becomes the local Chabad House, serving meals to one and all without charge. Donations are of course gratefully accepted and in fact encouraged but no one will be turned away, and the hospitality is amazing. Hundreds of people are served wonderful three course meals prepared by the Rebbetzin Shachar and her staff every Shabbat of the year. It is both remarkable and heartwarming. The Shabbat that we were there the restaurant was packed to overflowing, and four long tables were set up outside to accommodate the overflow. Rumor has it that during high season in the summer meals take place in two shifts and over 300 people partake at each meal. Eating at long communal tables with fellow Jewish travelers is always an interesting adventure and this is an experience not to be missed!
One last kosher option is the guesthouse/pension Giardino dei Melograni (phone number: 39 041 8226131) that is located right next to the Chabad House on the large square of the Ghetto and is under the supervision of the Chief Rabbi of Venice. When we visited Venice they were sporadically operating a restaurant on the patio adjacent to the hotel called Hostaria del Ghetto, and we ate a lovely late lunch there accompanied by a bottle of Italian Kosher Prosecco. (Maybe that’s why the lunch was so lovely!). The restaurant was not inexpensive, but the food was tasty and authentically Venetian. Several days later we walked by the restaurant and it was closed, so it pays to make sure they are open before making plans.
All in all, Venice is an easy destination for the kosher traveler, and highly recommended.