In Rome, even something as proverbially simple as a “piece of cake” – or tart – can have hidden layers of history, resilience and even mischief tucked away between the crust and the cream. The iconic Crostata di ricotta e visciole (ricotta and sour cherry tart) is the perfect example – with a creamy layer of sweet whey cheese, generous coating of jam and thick shortcrust concealing a secret.
“It is a stratagem, a work of trickery,” said Ruben Bondì, a Roman Jewish chef, who became famous for his TikTok and Instagram videos in which he leans out of a balcony and asks his neighbours, “What do you want to eat?” He then prepares anything from salt cod roll sandwiches to zucchini risottoin a makeshift kitchen set up on top of an air-conditioning unit, often with the help of his little nephew, cousin or sister.
The art of doing a lot with a little is at the heart of most Roman-Jewish recipes. But the case of the Crostata di ricotta e visciole goes one step further in ingenuity. Ruben, whose recipe for the tart is featured in his new book, Cucina Con Ruben, believes that it was designed to bypass an absurd ban on selling cheese and dairy products imposed on Jews by the Vatican in the 18th Century as outlined in Chapter XXIV of Pope Pius VI’s Edict Concerning the Jews (1775).
“Why cheese?” one might wonder.
“It’s just another item in a long list of humiliations,” explained Vatican expert Iacopo Scaramuzzi. The Church believed that Christianity had to replace Hebraism, and they did all they could to make Jewish people’s lives impossible. Silversmiths were not permitted to forge menorah, the nine-branched candelabra used for religious rituals; Jewish men and women had to wear a piece of yellow cloth stitched to their hat similarly to when Jews were forced to wear the Star of David during World War Two; they couldn’t talk to Christians; and they couldn’t light the traditional torches used to honour their dead on the way from the synagogue to the cemetery during funerary rites. They were also banned from many business pursuits, including the selling of cheese.
Ruben Bondì is a Roman Jewish chef who became famous for his TikTok and Instagram videos (Credit: Ruben Bondì)
That’s when Jewish bakers supposedly came up with a Trojan horse strategy for their Crostata di ricotta e visciole. As Bondì explained, they covered the normally open tart with a top layer of dough, so that no one could see the ricotta from the outside, and they could sell it without fear. And its story has come to symbolise Jewish ingenuity and resilience in the face of centuries of oppression.
Except that this might not be true.
“It’s absolutely not true! It’s a cake that my grandmother invented about 65 or maybe 75 years ago. That pope thing has nothing to do with it,” said Sandra Calò, one of the six women who run Pasticceria Boccione, the only Roman pastry shop where you can buy the original Crostata di ricotta e visciole.
The shop faces the main piazza of the Ghetto, once an insalubrious enclosed area where Jewish people were forced to live, and now an elegant neighbourhood in the heart of the city, between the Tiber River, the Pantheon and Campo de’ Fiori. Boccione’s ochre walls are peeling and there is no shop sign above its two arched windows, but it is so popular that people line up well into the middle of the piazza to buy their pastries. The online reviews of the shop are virtually unanimous: Romans and tourists alike love the tarts, though some are slightly intimidated by the ladies’ hasty customer service.
“Boccione is the symbol of confident and casual Roman Jewish pride: the beauty of being who you are and being respected for what you do,” said my friend Karen Di Porto, a film director who grew up eating crostata in the main square. “Maybe the chefs are not the most obsequious, and they have always worked in that same little shop, but they carry on a grand tradition of exceptional desserts.”
For over 200 years, Boccione has been run by women, and it’s much more than just a history of pastry.
“They deported all of my grandmother’s family,” she said, referring to the Nazis during the Holocaust. “Seventeen people – her brothers, her sister with her husband and their five children… everyone.”
During World War Two, her grandmother, Graziella Limentani, was hiding, pregnant and with a four-year-old daughter, in the house of a Catholic woman in the Roman neighbourhood of Primavalle. She was told to leave because it was becoming too dangerous, but her host fell sick and became dependent on her. So Limentani stayed hidden there and survived. Her husband, who kept his market stall in Piazza Vittorio, was deported in April 1944 on his way to work.
“Before the war, there were many pastry shops like ours in the Jewish quarter, you know?”, said Calò. “After the war, between those who were deported, those who closed their shops and who didn’t reopen, we were the only ones left”. Graziella asked a young cousin to mind her newborn baby and daughter during the day, and she took over the pastry shop, with the help of her brother Settimio. She worked there until the age of 92.
Pasticceria Boccione is the only Roman pastry shop that sells the original Crostata di ricotta e visciole (Credit: domonabikeItaly/Alamy)
According to Calò, her grandmother came up with the recipe right after the war, when Italy was trying to get back on its feet. When I mentioned that their tarts are considered the best in Rome, she replied: “Tesoro [literally “treasure” but is used similarly to “honey” or “sweetie” in English], it’s not that we do it better. We were the first ones to do it. The others can copy it, but obviously it will never be the same”.
Calò has two pro tips, one for baking and one for tasting: the more you brush the top layer with egg, the more it darkens; and remember to eat the tart while cold to taste the true flavour, the perfect mix of mild creaminess and fruity zing. But she also told me that she, her sister, her three cousins and aunt don’t have a written recipe. “We have everything in our head,” she said.
Calò’s story about the tart’s origins is inspiring, except for the fact that it may not be completely true either.
“There are no records, only clues,” said Claudio Procaccia, historian and Director of the Culture Department of the Jewish Community of Rome. He believes that sour cherries came from South-Eastern Europe and Asia and most likely were brought to Rome by the first Jews who settled in the capital between the 2nd Century BC and the 1st Century AD – first as ambassadors, merchants and freed slaves, and later as prisoners during the first Jewish-Roman war (66-73 CE). He believes that the tart was created sometime afterwards as a result.
“It’s a long story that begins with an alliance, an occupation, and finally, a war and the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem”, he explained. According to Claudio, this tart – with its union of ricotta, the most typical of Roman cheeses, and cherries from the East – is a metaphor for the ancient relationship between the city of Rome and its oldest religious group, where each layer remains distinct while enriching the other.
Romans and tourists alike love the Crostata di ricotta e visciole at Pasticceria Boccione (Credit: Matteo Vieille)
The idea of Jewish bakers making this tart as a response to an 18th-Century ban also doesn’t make sense to him. “What [the papal edict] truly says is, ‘look, don’t try to be smart’. It’s not that you can buy milk for fillings and cakes and then resell it,” he said. He believes that the edict addressed a custom that must have already been widespread: the practice of hiding cheese or other goods in order to sell them. “Certainly, [these tarts] are something the Jews were already doing, probably like many other things they would do under the table in defiance of bans and restrictions. You don’t ban something unless someone is already doing it.”
Nevertheless, without documents or records we’ll never know for certain how the Crostata di ricotta e visciole came to be. Whatever the truth, these tales of resilience and survival in times of struggle all share the wish to marry two cultures, like sour cherries and ricotta, in a tasty promise of life.
As we were walking to the market, Karen told me that she didn’t know much about the complicated history of the Crostata di ricotta e visciole, but that she grew up feeling that she was a part of a special world owned by her people.
“Only later I understood the discriminations that the Jews of Rome had suffered over the centuries,” she said. “But even in difficult times, we were together in the piazza. And it’s that air of community that I have always breathed.”
Ruben Bondì’s Crostata di ricotta e visciole (Ricotta and sour cherry tart) (Credit: Matteo Vieille)
Crostata di ricotta e visciole (Ricotta and sour cherry tart) recipe By Ruben Bondì
Makes one 26cm-round tart
For the shortcrust pastry: 150g (10½ tbsp) cold unsalted butter 130g (⅔ cup) sugar 1 lemon, zested 1 whole egg 2 egg yolks salt to taste 400g (3¼ cups) plain, or all-purpose flour
For the filling: 800g (28oz) sheep’s milk ricotta 170g (¾ cup) sugar 1 lemon, zested (optional) 400g (14 oz) sour cherries jam
To brush: 1 egg, beaten milk to taste
Step 1 Start by preparing the shortcrust pastry: in a standing mixer, the cold butter into small pieces with the sugar and grated lemon zest. When you’ve obtained a creamy texture, add the whole egg and the yolks and continue working the dough. Add a pinch of salt and the flour and mix well, until you get a smooth mass.
Step 2 Divide the dough into two equal parts. Using a rolling pin, roll each piece of dough between two sheets of baking paper, until you obtain two discs with a diameter of about 30cm (12in), 5mm (¼in) thick. Leave them in the refrigerator for 30-40 minutes to firm up the pastry.
Step 3 Now prepare the filling: put the ricotta in a bowl and mix it with the sugar. If you like, you can add flavour to the filling with grated lemon zest.
Step 4 Preheat the oven to 165C/325F. Line a 26cm (10in) diameter and 4cm (1½in) high cake tin with a sheet of baking paper and place one of the two discs of shortcrust pastry inside, trimming the excess pastry along the edges. Prick the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork, then pour the cherry jam inside and spread it well. Pour the ricotta and sugar mixture over it and cover it with the second pastry disc, sealing the edges well.
Step 5 Brush the surface of the tart with the beaten egg and a bit of milk and bake in the preheated oven for 50-60 minutes until the tart is golden. Before serving, let the tart cool completely.
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