It sounds like only a slight difference, but it’s actually a nuance that comes with a series of tasty consequences. Nonna Betta is not only the only restaurant run by an authentic Roman Jew, but also the only one located in a building dating back at the time of the Ghetto.
There is a famous photo of Via della Pescheria, in the outer confines of the Ghetto, shot near Nonna Betta. This has been confusing to some, because Via della Pescheria was originally outside the perimeter walls, outside of the doorways that opened at dawn and closed at sunset. Of these homes there is no trace left after the area was razed at the end of the ‘800s.
When you come to Nonna Betta, ask to see this photo. It’s highly evocative, and portrays the Portico of Octavia submerged by construction, scattered shops, marble counters where fish was sold, as well as former homes. Mostly it shows the level of decay and neglect it suffered at the time. The crumbling homes stacked one against the other, with jutting rooms and wooden eaves, hanging laundry, and alleys covered in wet cobblestone paving. Streets were always wet because of the near constant flooding of the nearby Tiber.
The photo is a snapshot, a frozen moment that stills a fragment of life, a wretched existence well over the threshold of poverty. There is a woman standing opposite a wall – in her arms is an infant whose head is covered in a white bonnet – she’s chatting with a neighbor whose face is only partially visible. Her arm is bent, with her fist resting on her waist: a typical pose among the women of the people. At the corner there’s a fragment of a Roman column – this is a portion of the colonnade that belonged to the Portico of Octavia. The column is incorporated in the walls of a building, and next to it are two smaller marble columnettes that block the passage to carriages. Between the two columnettes another woman approaches, wearing a long skirt. She is carrying an armful of rags and she is motioning to the two women chatting. On the left there’s a mangy dog approaching the lens like the woman holding rags. In the background, a small crowd of men and a woman are leaving the Portico of Octavia, at that time it housed the fish market as well as the Forum Piscarius that extended as far as the Theater of Marcellus and that was submerged by two thirds below street level. The sky is milky white, and this adds to render the scene ghostly.
The Ghetto was later demolished and the Roman Jews freed after more than 300 years of segregation.
My name is Umberto, my brother’s name is Vittorio Emanuele after our grandfathers’ names on our father and mother’s side. They were born at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 1900s – they were the first free Roman Jews after the long and humiliating separation. Nowadays, in the quarter that once hosted the Ghetto, the sun shines.