If kids could invent a perfect vacation spot, chances are it would have pizza at every restaurant, along with ice cream on every corner. There would also be royal palaces, super-cool ruins where the gladiators once caroused, fountains convenient for splashing younger siblings, and canals with singing gondoliers.
Wait — that’s not your idea of adult fun? How about glorious Renaissance art, a rich, 2,000-year Jewish history, stylish kosher restaurants … and canals with singing gondoliers?
All that and more is on offer in the classic Italian itinerary: Venice, Florence and Rome. From the Eternal City to the Grand Canal, Italy’s blockbuster trifecta is an ideal family adventure: everyone will find lots of things to enjoy in this tasty, richly Jewish corner of the Continent. And with the strongest dollar in over a decade, there’s more pizza for everyone. (There’s even a kosher carbonara — seriously! Read on.)
The downside of Italy’s greatest hits: crowds are inevitable, especially during summer, when Italy swelters under a broiling sun and the lines at Florentine museums resemble Disney World. But with some advance planning, you can minimize both wait times and heat. Remembering to ask for rooms with air conditioning is the single smartest thing you can do to circumvent kvetching. The second smartest is to reserve your museum visits online in advance, allowing the family to skip blithely into the galleries and come out in time for lunch.
Between the Internet, Chabad and the increase in Jewish tourism, it’s also easier than ever to eat Jewish in Italy. Rome is justly proud of its autochthonous Jewish cuisine — a distinctly Mediterranean, artichoke-and-eggplant-rich tradition distilled in its legendary ghetto — and visitors will find a pleasant variety of kosher and traditional-Jewish trattorias, both dairy and meat.
Kosher dining is also available, if more limited, in Florence and Venice, while vegetarians (and kids) find it easy to thrive on Italy’s spaghetti, pizza and salads. A few tips: If kosher meals are part of your plan, always phone or email in advance for reservations. Italy’s kosher establishments are used to English-speaking guests, and, as a rule, they are friendly and helpful. Be aware that kashrut standards and terminology vary widely abroad, and kosher suppliers are in constant flux.
If a city full of canals and palaces won’t charm kids, nothing will.
Few attractions anywhere can rival the palazzo-lined Grand Canal and an al fresco pause amid the pigeons and crowds of St. Mark’s Square. Those darkly atmospheric back-alley canals are the coolest side streets your American children have ever seen, while the armor, dungeons and imperial pageantry of the Doge’s Palace make that attraction the closest you will come to a guaranteed hit. With the possible exception of a gondola ride — pricey, to be certain, but just think about the selfies.
As in Rome, an historic Jewish ghetto was established in Venice in the 16th century in a neighborhood that today is one of the city’s most charming. The Jewish district of Cannaregio, where five historic synagogues are preserved for viewing by the Hebrew Museum, retains a 17th-century ambience. Any of the guided tours offered through the Hebrew Museum — which typically include the museum and three or four synagogues — are worthwhile for the context they give to both city and ghetto. The splendid Baroque interiors of these Venetian shuls will enchant many kids, and everyone will enjoy learning about a proud community that works so hard to maintain and share its heritage.
Families can stay right in Cannaregio at that rare and cherished overseas luxury: the kosher guesthouse. On a peaceful piazza near the Hebrew Museum, Giardino dei Melograni promises guests a mikveh, Shabbat elevators, a night entrance and kosher dining; you can even reserve a bottle of kosher champagne upon arrival.
The new kosher eatery Ghimel Garden serves up vegetarian fare with an Italian-Jewish twist, and its airy, sunlit courtyard has made it a popular lunch spot.
Dreamily romantic in the haze of a Tuscan afternoon, Florence shimmers in Renaissance splendor — but very young museumgoers are much more likely to be charmed by Botticelli’s ladies if they don’t have to stand in line for three hours first. Nowhere else in Europe is it more critical to reserve your museum visits before leaving home.
You can go online to buy advance tickets for the Uffizi Gallery, home to the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, from Caravagio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac” to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” The small, intimate scale of the equally popular Accademia — where lines form early for Michelangelo’s “David” — makes it a manageable introduction to Renaissance art for kids.
Most tourists then head to the Duomo … but you’ll find fewer crowds and the same Florentine-spumoni color scheme in the city’s Great Synagogue, a reminder of how influential Florence has long been as a nexus of Tuscan Jewry. One of the grandest and most beautiful buildings in northern Italy, this Moorish-style landmark leaves a strong impression.
There are scores more sights in Florence, many of them heavy with Catholic iconography and mobbed with tour groups. Escape across the Arno to the Palazzo Pitti, a grand, inviting real-life castle in a peaceful garden setting that houses a variety of entertaining collections. These include Italy’s only museum of fashion history, a fun showcase for vintage opera costumes, and a modern art gallery, which is only modern by Florentine standards — it ends around World I. After so much time indoors, everyone enjoys a frolic in the formal Boboli Gardens outside.
What about dinner? The city’s favorite kosher eatery is Ruth’s, a pescetarian bistro on Via Farini that is perpetually packed. The stylish, modern-Tuscan dining room features stone-and-wood décor and walls lined with bottles of Sangiovese. Ruth’s menu is a crowd-pleasing mashup of Italian standards — pastas, salads, four-cheese pizza and lots of fish — and Jewish classics like falafel and couscous.
For kids, the key to enjoying Rome is romping among the ruins. Leave most of the indoor art for other cities (or a more mature age) and let the family loose amid the Forum, the Colosseum, the Campo dei Fiori and the atmospheric lanes of Italy’s longest-enduring Jewish ghetto. Then spend your evenings sampling Roman-Jewish cuisine in the antique ghetto, Italy’s top spot for kosher dining.
Most of Rome’s iconic sights are within walking distance in the historic center. The Forum — the ancient core of modern Rome — was cool even before “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” glamorized the ancient world. Squint your eyes as you wander through the well-preserved arches, and you can imagine the ancient city in the age of the empire.
It’s an easy stroll from the Forum to several other sights guaranteed to captivate all ages: the Colosseum, whose crowds only enhance its grandeur; the Pantheon, a cool, soaring marble oasis; and an assortment of alluring fountains and piazzas — the Trevi and Navona, respectively, being the most famous.
All these are just a cobblestone’s throw from the Jewish Ghetto. Home to Europe’s oldest Jewish community from the mid-1500s until the 1870s, this district is still the heart of Roman Jewry. Today the ghetto, a picturesque quarter near the River Tiber, is also one of Rome’s hippest neighborhoods, drawing legions of foodies as well as visitors to the glorious alabaster Great Temple (Rome’s central synagogue and community center) and the Jewish Museum.
A mouth-watering selection of kosher restaurants, along with non-kosher cafés that cook traditional Roman-Jewish recipes, are found along the Via del Portico d’Ottavia, an elegant main thoroughfare. Notable among these are Ba’Ghetto and the nearby Ba’Ghetto Milky, meat and dairy branches of the same upscale Roman-Jewish restaurant, serving up favorites from carcciofi alla giudia — artichokes Jewish-style — to parve gelato. There’s another kosher branch near the Sapienza University Campus in northeast Rome.
Ba’Ghetto is one of a handful of Roman eateries with a Shabbat lunch menu. Another is Bella Carne, whose focus, as you might expect, is on kosher Italian-style meat dishes — as well as other local specialties, meaty and otherwise; Bella Carne promises that anything is possible, including kosher carbonara.
Get your pizza fix at the dairy restaurant Yotvata, named for a kibbutz in the southern Negev. The menu, which features pizzas made with locally produced, artisanal kosher cheeses, includes Roman-Jewish specialties and local classics like spaghetti cacio e pepe.
For dessert or just to keep the kids happy in between history lessons, stop for a round of kosher, dairy-free cookies at Il Mondo di Laura, a pink fantasy of a pastry shop owned by a young, local Jewish entrepreneur.