July 16, 2012
Florence's Jewish food business feeds off tourists, not local Jewish community
City’s small Jewish population not enough to sustain local merchants.
by Kayla Sanner
FLORENCE, Italy --- With only three fully kosher food sources in a city that is home to approximately 700 to 800 Jews, you might think these businesses have mostly local Jewish customers. You would be wrong.
These kosher food merchants depend heavily on Florence’s thriving tourism trade to survive.
The Kosher Market , the kosher butcher at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio and Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Food each cater mainly to tourists, not Florentine Jews, who are too few and too scattered throughout the city to build a business around.
About 95 percent of Kosher Market’s customers are tourists, said Sarah Sonnino, owner. Situated in the heart of the Jewish community on Via dei Pilastri, Kosher Market sells a range of kosher meats, as well as cheese and wine. The store also has a dine-in area. Sonnino said she sells meat mainly from Rome, France and Israel, but occasionally gets meat from the local kosher butcher.
Sonnino said most local Florentine Jews, who no longer concentrate in any one area of the city, buy their food in the city’s regular markets rather than buying exclusively from her shop, which is located in what for decades was the new Jewish quarter.
(For a story on the history of Florentine Jews, see Florence's storytellers)
Like Florence’s other giant food mall, the Mercato Centrale, Mercato Sant’Ambrogio specializes in fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses and meats. The very plainly named kosher butcher shop is near the front of the building, but unlike the mercato’s other butcher stations, the kosher butcher runs on its own schedule, making the counter a bit less convenient to shop than the mercato’s other merchants, and than the city’s other non-kosher markets in general.
In addition, the shop’s kosher counter sits behind a glass door displaying the Star of David, inhibiting causal interactions with those passing by common to the mercato’s other counters and merchants.
What makes it kosher?
However, the kosher butcher has nearly an exclusive on offering nothing but kosher meats, a claim made possible by a pains-taking preparation process.
To keep meat kosher, it is first soaked in warm water for half an hour. After removing it, the meat is covered with salt in order to draw out the animal’s blood, a step that takes about an hour. The meat is then rinsed with water to make sure there is no remaining blood, and to wash off the salt.
To insure that the meat has in fact been prepared according to Jewish law, two people from Florence’s Jewish community alternate assisting and monitoring the process. If satisfied, the “committee” puts a seal with the local rabbi’s name on the meat, certifying that it is in fact kosher.
Another distinguishing characteristic of the Florence’s only kosher butcher is the fact that it acquires and uses the entire animal, insuring its proper handling from start to finish.
The kosher butcher “may be the last butcher that works all the parts,” said Tomas Jelineke, owner of Ruth’s restaurant, a prominent member of the local Jewish community, and a frequent assistant in the butcher shop’s kosher meat preparation.
Because practicing Jews do not eat the backsides of animals, the meat from that part of the animal is instead sold on another side of the kosher butcher station, the non-kosher side. This side has an open counter like that of the mercato’s other butcher stations.
Because the kosher butcher supplies only about 20 families, Jelineke said it’s necessary to also sell the non-kosher parts to the general public in order to generate revenue.
Feeding people with more than food
As a Jewish Czech immigrant to Florence, Jelineke is a bridge between cultures, languages and faiths. As an assistant at the butcher shop and proprietor of the city’s only fully kosher restaurant, ironically a vegetarian one, he is a bridge between members of the city’s Jewish community, as well. He understands better than most the need to cater to non-Jewish clienteles.
Even though his small restaurant is located next to Florence’s only synagogue and is just around the corner from the Kosher Market and the kosher butcher shop, Ruth’s depends utterly on Florence’s Jewish tourist industry to survive.
(For more on Florence’s Jewish tourist industry, see Historic sites cater to Jewish tourism in Florence, Italy, Florence Synagoge attracts tourists, too and Jewish tourism in Florence a bigger business than many might think)
Why would someone with expertise in the preparation of kosher meats own a vegetarian restaurant? Because no one knows better than Jelineke the complicated Jewish rules and regulations regarding the handling, preparation and serving of meat.
“The Jewish life is not easy, and we are making it more complicated,” Jelineke said, about the preparation of kosher meat.
According to Jewish law, when meat is being prepared, it cannot be introduced to milk, for example, not even a trace. Therefore, if Jelineke served meat in his restaurant, the meat would have to be prepared somewhere completely separate. Ruth’s is not large, tucked into a small storefront along Via Luigi Carlo Farini. Offering only vegetarian dishes in a country that favors pasta anyways keeps life simpler for Jelineke, a man who has experienced enough complexity to last a lifetime.
When asked about his immigration experience to Italy, Jelineke paused for several seconds before saying, “it’s painful, it’s quite painful.”
Jelineke became Ruth’s second owner in 1997, a choice he made with his wife “to let me believe again,” he said softly. “And the work is nice.”
When re-opening Ruth’s, he said he imagined it being a place for people to shop for a quick meal. He quickly had to change the approach because “local Florentines like to sit down” and linger for mealtimes, Jelineke said.
During the winter about half of Jelineke’s diners are local non-Jews, he said. Because the summer months brings hordes of tourists to Florence, many of them Jewish, the majority of diners during the summer are non-local Jews, as was evidenced on a recent weekday night in early June. College students and professors from the United States, a couple from New Rochelle, New York, and a newlywed couple from North Carolina filled the intimate dining room.
Regardless of the season, Jelineke said his goal isn’t just to make good food, but to feed his customers.
“There is a difference,” he said. “For me it is a collaboration.”
With such a wide range of people eating at Ruth’s, with different taste palettes, and recognizing that Ruth’s is in Tuscany, “we have to cover this large interest,” Jelineke said.
Ruth’s has adapted by coming up with menus that reach far beyond custom kosher Jewish food. The restaurant offers pizza, pasta, fish, and a long list of typical Mediterranean food. He says there are 20 choices he maintains, but changes the soup or pasta choices every day.
“We are not obligated to change the menu very often because people [coming into the restaurant] change very often,” he said. It is rare to have the same customer two or three days in a row, he said.
Kayla Sanner is a senior visual communications major with a minor in art. From Evans, Ga., upon graduation, she hopes to work on the Christian missions field doing graphic design and photography.
The Jews of Florence articles:
86-year-old Fortunata Franchetti Treves looks back.
Florence’s Jews ‘fight’ to maintain distinct identity in a culture dominated by Catholicism.
How Jewish Italians remember their history, pass on tradition and preserve their identity.
City’s Jewish population continues to decline.
City’s small Jewish population not enough to sustain local merchants.
Visitors share experiences.
Minority status has made Jews convenient scapegoats.
The Jews of Florence video coverage:
A look into the struggles Italian Jews face in attempting to combine and reconcile their cultural and religious identities.
The Treves family story represents in microcosm Italy's conflicted political and religious history. Hear the story first-hand from Fortunata Franchetti of Florence.
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Few tourists realize that the popular Piazza delle Repubblica in Florence is the former location of a 16th-century Jewish ghetto, one of Europe’s largest. Florentine Jews say they wish there was more recognition in the piazza for the hardships once endured.
Several sites of Jewish historical significance are preserved in Florence, sites that attract many Jewish visitors each year.
The Jews of Florence photo slideshows:
Jewish tourists from near and far visit more than just Renaissance art. Jewish historical sites like the synagogue and Jewish businesses cater to Jewish tourism in Florence, Italy.
A photo narrative highlighting the unique aspects of one Jewish-Italian family.
Jews discuss how difficult it can be to maintain their heritage in Florence.
How to make Ruth’s falafel . . .
Jean-Michel Carasso, a chef at Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Food restaurant, uses this recipe for Ruth’s popular falafel.
1. Take dry chickpeas and soak in water for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight
2. Drain the chickpeas. Combine with garlic, parsley, cumin powder (green in color), and a drop of olive oil.
Important: do NOT add salt, which would ruin the consistency of the mixture.
3. Blend the mixture, but do not purée, so the mixture can form tiny balls.
4. Use a falafel scoop, or your hands, to roll the mixture into small balls, or about the size of a ping-pong ball.
5. Drop the falafel balls into oil and cook until golden brown.
6. If desired, add salt once the falafel is ready to be served.
. . . and a great Tahina dip for the falafel
1. Purchase Tahina sauce (also referred as Tahini sauce), which is a Middle Eastern sesame paste
2. Dilute the paste with lemon juice
3. Add garlic and salt
4. Beat the mixture with a fork or blender until smooth
Do not add oil to the paste, as it will harden. If you wish to dilute it more, add other liquids, such as lemon juice.