Writer Leah Koenig keeps a framed photo of herself and her husband on her nightstand. In the image, they are twenty-something newlyweds traveling through Rome, drinking glasses of traditional mint tea. Koenig says the photo reminds her that “a toast to good times is only a glass of tea away.” Portico, which began as a pandemic project, seems to suggest that delicious food can be just as much of a toast to good times.
Koenig’s seventh cookbook takes its name partially from Portico d’Ottavia (“Octavia’s Porch”), one of the most iconic structures in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto neighborhood. The word “portico” also translates to “front porch,” and it offers a warm “welcome,” or entrance, to Koenig’s subject. With friendly introductions to over one hundred recipes, the book is divided into a manageable six sections — vegetables, soups, fritters, pasta and rice, main dishes, and sweets — and ends with several menus for both cozy weeknight meals and Jewish holidays. Portico acts as something of a Roman travel guide, featuring descriptions and photos of delightful-looking kosher bakeries, butchers, catering companies, and restaurants.
Rome is home to about sixteen thousand Jewish inhabitants from three different communities: the Italkim, who arrived in the second century BCE; the Sephardim, who settled there following the Spanish Inquisition; and Libyan Jews, who immigrated by the thousands after 1967. The result is a unique melding of flavors. (Sephardic Jews, for example, brought the artichoke to Rome, where the vegetable is now incredibly popular.) Striking a balance between tradition and adaptation seems to be something Koenig is interested in. For instance, she includes a recipe for pasta carbonara, which is traditionally made with cured pork and thus is not kosher; but she easily adapts it, calling for umami-rich mushrooms or zucchini instead. She also discusses a popular Jewish Ghetto restaurant that decided to renege on its kosher certification in order to continue serving traditional dishes, simply because kosher sourcing for certain ingredients has become too difficult.
Tradition and adaptation also play a role in one particularly sweet moment about halfway through Portico. Early on in the book, Koenig refers several times to a cookbook called Dal 1880 ad Oggi (From 1880 to Today), handwritten in 1982 by Roman Jew Donatella Limentani Pavoncello. She cites it in her descriptions of artichoke frittata and apple fritters, among other recipes. Throughout the pandemic, Koenig, like so many of us, experienced “months of virtual everything” and could consult the cookbook only in digitized form. So when she sees a paper copy at a friend’s house in Rome in 2021, she opens it “with trembling hands” and says the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer of gratitude. We, too, feel the joy of being part of these good times and this special history.