Who would have thought I would ever see the world? The first time I stepped out of the tristate area was to get married in a place I’d never been to before, Connecticut. Okay, actually, I had also been to Orlando, Florida to see Mickey with my aunt and even Pennsylvania to visit the Liberty Bell on a school trip. I know, I’m soooo wordly. When I finally headed out to Israel, it seemed make believe. I mean, who would have imagined that I would ever see Israel? I’m just a poor girl from Washington Heights. I couldn’t have told you where Israel was on a map before I visited.
But going to Israel definitely made me worldlier. I had been to the Dominican Republic but it didn’t count. In the Dominican Republic, I had no trouble reading the signs. It wasn’t home but I always had enough family members and comforts to make it feel like almost one. In Israel, I nearly collapsed in the supermarket trying to differentiate between yogurt and milk, not to mention trying to read Hebrew script (who knew Hebrew came in script?!). And the water, oh the terrible water, nearly killed me. Who knew that Israeli water was more hardcore than Dominican water?
Still, Israel prepared me for Italy. And yet, I spent a whole week before the trip to Italy completely hysterical. My biggest fears were keeping kosher abroad. In Israel that had been a snap, in the Dominican Republic, we had eaten rice and beans and soup for a week, in Italy, I had no idea what we would eat. I was fine daydreaming of myself gallivanting around Rome with its handful of kosher restaurants but Florence and Venice only had one restaurant a piece! Would I starve to death? I had been to Berkeley, California once and suffered from such slim pickings before. I’d barely made it out alive. Yes, I know have been spoiled by the endless kosher food that populates the streets of New York and LA.
But, oh, was there food in Italy!
We ate at the Gam-Gam restaurant in Venice. It was divine, a little nook by the water. My husband and I pretended to have a romantic candlelight dinner while the rest of the family sat together at another table. I think we had pasta. Every other thing we ate in Italy was pasta (or bread) but in Venice, we had pasta by the water. We also picked up soft bread and thick crust pizza at the local bakery.
In Rome, we ate in most of the restaurants in the Jewish Ghetto. (By the way, this was the first time the term “ghetto” really hit home outside of Washington Heights.) We tried burgers at Fast Kosher, a kosher burger joint on Via Maria del Pianto. The ketchup was bad and reminded me of that funny ketchup in Israel. The burgers were pretty bad but tasty. Not terrible but not great. The fries were frail. The mayo was thick AND runny. But then Italy isn’t known for its burgers, is it? The bathroom was classically Roman, a tiny box of room, a toilet without a seat. I think you flushed with your foot.
We also ate at the kosher deli on the same block, Kosher Bistrot?, some meaty, unidentifiable treats wrapped in yummy bread. We ate at the dairy deli, Beteavon?, where everything was thick with different kinds of cheese. I tried not to think of my cholesterol as I popped a million Lactaid pills over the course of the trip. All the fish was smoked and I tried to swallow things down quickly so my sensitive taste buds wouldn’t notice.
In Florence, further into the land of no rice and beans, we ate at Ruth’s restaurant and at the local Chabad. Chabad was a mix of Israeli salads and cholent. The conversation was much better than the grub. I met an Italian Jewish woman who had lived in the Dominican Republic and we conversed, surprisingly easily, in Spanish. At Ruth’s, there was more delicious pizza and soup with beans (thank G-d, I was spared withdrawal). The great guy who runs the place packed us a day trip lunch with tuna and couscous balls that were so good I nearly ate the plastic they were packed in. And of course, there was pasta, always pasta. Yum.
But hands down my favorite eateries were in Rome, Ba” Ghetto and Nonna Betta! We ate dinner at Nonna Betta as often as possible. We had pizza. We had pasta. We had the famous Roman Jewish fried artichoke. I ordered fish and didn’t realize until it arrived that it was served alone because I had to ask for specific sides. The greatest part was watching the waiter rip the bones from the fish with quick finesse. His hands were a blur. The food was delicious and the owner was friendly. He had to step in with his English to help us order a number of time.
Ba” Ghetto was the most expensive place and it was on par, if not better than the Manhattan restaurants of its ilk. I went there for dessert, insisting on eating real life Italian tiramisu before leaving. My husband surprised me by ordering a whole meal with the kosher Roman specialty, spaghetti alla Carbona and my favorite, spaghetti alla Bolognese.
I learned that Italians like to chew their foods slowly in several elaborate courses and that service is just as slow. I learned that ordering American coffee means watering down your expresso yourself with the provided little pitcher of acqua calda (hot water). I learned that Italians eat a lot of carbs and some American told me the reason Italians might be so short is that the diet isn’t so nutritious. In the end, my taste buds were definitely worldlier but lucky my waistline wasn’t. I didn’t gain a pound thanks to all that touristy walking.
(My friend says I was totally negligent about writing my trip to Italy up on my blog. I was, I totally apologize. Chalk it up to being overwhelmed by jetlag, getting back to errands and work. I still think I have plenty of details to add and I’m promising to uncover my journals on it and get some more dirt on here. )