Eating in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice
As some of you may know, I've been spending quite a lot of time in the Cannaregio district lately. This is the second biggest neighbourhood in Venice after Castello, famous for many things, but mostly for the Jewish Ghetto. This area is incredibly fascinating, characterised by very high buildings, the presence of five synagogues, among which the lavish Spanish synagogue, small art galleries and an almost magical atmosphere. I don't know what it is that makes it so special, but here, especially in the wide Campo del Ghetto Novo, times seems to stop.
My mother loves the Ghetto so much that she does the tour at least once a month and never misses an occasion to eat at Gam Gam. She has been asking me for months if and when I was going to write about it and I did have it in mind, it's just that I've been very busy... so yesterday we met at midday and went. I was in the inner areas, so to reach her I walked on the F.ta degli Ormesini, crossed the iron bridge and passed both the Campo del Ghetto Novo and the Campo del Ghetto Vecchio.
The ghetto was instituted only in 1516 (before that time it was the area of foundries) and it is said to be the oldest in the world. It is divided in two main areas, the New Ghetto -which is actually the oldest area- and the Old Ghetto, assigned to the community of Spanish and Ottoman Jews in 1541. The Venetian Republic had to enlarge the area again in 1633, when the Ghetto Novissimo was opened, located on the east side of the New Ghetto and composed only by two calli. Until the fall of the Republic this was a secluded area, in the sense that it was connected to the city by two bridges that were open only during the day and it was only with Napoleon that the separation ended.
Personally, I love this area and strongly suggest to go on their tour (click here for more info) or, at least, to spend half a day wandering around and trying to breath-in the atmosphere. The Jewish community is incredibly fertile and lively and there is great attention to all things art and all things culture. In the New Ghetto you can also see the Banco Rosso, the Red Bench, the oldest pawn shop in the world. Red was the colour of the receipt given to those pawning an item and some people wonder if the term banking in red is related to this ... Anyway, there would be way too many things to say about the Venetian Ghetto that I have to stop if I want to discuss the food!
Mum and I met in front of the Gam Gam, a kosher restaurant that has remained unchanged at least since I was a child. The welcome is always very warm, yesterday there was a lovely boy who greeted us with a big smile and seated us in the small side room overlooking the canal. In general, the design is simple, practical and very colourful, the staff is young and friendly and you can see the older members of the community keeping an eye on the situation. On the walls there are some beautiful poems on canvas (at least, I believe them to be poems, but please do correct me if I am mistaken) and the menu very inviting (look at their menu here).
The offer is simple and inviting, the sort of Mediterranean food I enjoy the most. We shared the mixed selection of Israeli appetisers, so delicious! They serve you an array of super yummy things, usually falafel (so good!), hummus, chickpeas in two versions, one with celery and the other with bell peppers, a cream of aubergines and tahini called mass' bacha that is to die for, carrots with honey and raisins, a thinly sliced raw fennel salad and a very very very spicy green sauce, all accompanied with unleavened bread. Great! We also had a little bit of house wine and water.
Then mum had potatoes latkes with the traditional apple sauce and the raw carrot salad, one of her favourite treats. Well, anything that's made with potatoes tastes incredible and I have to say that those latkes were fried perfectly, not greasy at all, just crispy and nice. I make a similar version, slightly lower and larger, that in Italy we call rosti. Latkes are generally made with grated potatoes and eggs, while I don't use eggs. Anyway, try them! The apple sauce is really the cherry on the cake, perfect for dipping! So much richness of flavours, with continuous contrasts between sweet and savoury (I can't say sour, because it wasn't sour at all...).
I ordered a dish of couscous with beef and tomato sauce which was simple and flavoursome, very nice! The portion was very generous so I took my time; mum knows I have an appetite so she asked for two more falafels (OMG, those falafels are just sooooo good) and some fondi di carciofo (heart of the artichoke) to share, made in Venetian style but with the addition of tomato.I was enthusiastic about every single thing, but I have to confess that it was a lot of food and I was starting to feel satisfied. In fact, we skipped the dessert, but I do suggest to leave a little space for their assortment of cookies, cakes and creams...
With regard to the price, in total we spent 47,50, so less than 25 euros each to enjoy a nice meal, seated and in a warm and welcoming environment. If you ask me, this is very good value for money! Gam Gam, in fact, is an excellent option also for vegetarians and vegans.
By the way, some of the most famous Venetian recipes, like marinated sardines, bigoi in salsa (a particular type of holed pasta with an anchovy sauce) or the sweet frittelle (the fried donuts made only with the dough and not filled with cream or eggnog!!!) you'll see everywhere during Carnival, just to mention a few, are of Jewish origin! There would really be an awful lot more to say about the Jews, Venice and our food that the only thing I can suggest is to hop on a plane, come here and find out for yourself! And, obviously, when visiting the Ghetto, stop at Gam Gam and go for the full experience!