Homemade kosher bread stuffed to the brim with toasted almonds, candied ginger, marzipan, pine nuts, maraschino cherries, and burnt raisins.
While in Rome’s Jewish Quarter, I happened upon a crowd of people lined up outside a small corner shop with an exposed light where the sign should be. On first glance it had the look of a small government office of some kind, and if it weren’t for the odd plate of slightly burnt, hard-looking buns on display in the window it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that the place was actually a bakery.
Normally burnt buns wouldn’t be something that would entice me to go inside, but I remembered reading about a supposedly fabulous multigenerational Kosher bakery in the Jewish Quarter that served a particularly delicious, hugely popular local delicacy called Jewish Pizza. The place had been described as unappealing and nondescript with no sign and some burnt baked goods on display–in short, not the kind of place that would draw you in. The crowd and the burnt offering in the window were the only things that clued me into the fact that I had stumbled upon the place I had read about.
Both the interior décor and the service were equally dubious. The lineup was long, but the two women behind the counter were taking their time. The glass display cases were literally piled with long hard buns so burnt they appeared on first glance to be covered with chocolate – but no, it was blackened bread. It was almost as though they were hoping to deter rather than attract customers.
Everything about the experience reminded me of Cuba during the Special Period—dated, sparse décor, fluorescent lighting, odd displays, and staff who would assist you if they happened to be in the mood. Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to stay my course.
When enough people had cleared and I finally got close to the front, I spotted another tray of burnt buns haphazardly placed on the grimy countertop. The pieces of raisins and red and green maraschino cherries poking out of the burnt dough clued me into the fact that these must be the famed Jewish Pizzas.
To be honest, I loathe maraschino cherries and in general can’t stand fruitcake, so the chances that I would be swayed by one that looked as hard and overcooked as this one seemed far-fetched to say the least. But I had waited for so long I had to at least get one. Both my husband and father (who were waiting outside) love dried fruit and are crazy for fruitcake, so I figured it wouldn’t be a total loss. I assumed by the crowd of people that it had to be better than it looked.
Seemingly against all odds, the Jewish Pizza was incredibly delicious. We devoured it in about two seconds, then waited in line for more. Even my mother – who is nothing short of hostile toward anything containing raisins or other dried fruits – loved it so much she bought several more pieces and even went back to in try every other (burnt) baked good Il Boccione had on offer (I thought the Jewish Pizza was by far the best).
What makes this hard, burnt bun filled with stuff I usually can’t stand so good? I wish I could explain it myself. There was so much good stuff in there and the combination just worked–even the maraschino cherries tasted good to me. At first I thought it was a trick of low expectations making something seem better than it actually is. But I went back three times that week, and a few days later found myself traveling home with 8 Jewish Pizzas stowed in my luggage, unable to bear the thought of life without this burnt baked good. It is incredibly addictive. I just hope that the next time you are in Rome you will stop in and try one for yourself!
One more question: why hasn’t the staff at Il Boccione figured out how to avoid burning all of their baked goods? After all, the place has been open for over 200 years (which, admittedly, probably sounds like nothing to people living in Rome). With the exception of the harsh fluorescent lighting, I think it’s safe to say that not a whole lot more has changed there since that time. Perhaps they are standing by the old adage, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.
Il Boccoine is located on the Jewish Ghetto’s main street.