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The Via del Portico d'Ottavia, at the heart of the ancient Jewish district in Rome, is mobbed. School children, pensioners, workers, and tourists form queues at the newly opened M Kosher for K Nuggets, at the historic Ghetto Bakery for pizza Ebraica, and at Franco & Cristina's for every other kind of pizza. This was the scene on an ordinary autumn afternoon in the neighborhood known to Roman Jews simply as piazza. (The ruined porch of a library built by the Emperor Augustus for his sister Octavia gives the street its proper name.)

Today, what was once a place of confinement for Jews is a thriving cultural center. Locals stroll, gossip, and argue as a wandering violinist scratches out the tune of the "Love Theme from the Godfather." The Portico itself, one of Rome's most melancholy monuments, is where in 70 in the Common Era the Emperor Vespasian and his elder son, Titus, flaunted their captives after destroying the Temple in Jerusalem — an episode sculpted in relief within the Arch of Titus. The square in front of the Portico, Largo 16 Ottobre 1943, is so named because it was from there that the deportation of 2,091 Roman Jews to Auschwitz began. Between 1555 and 1870, Jews were forced by papal decree to live walled-in between here and the Tiber, which was given to constant flooding.

While the Grand Tourists, the young, traveling English elite of the 17th and 18th centuries, were discovering Rome's glories, its ghetto was, as Dickens later wrote, "a miserable place, densely populated, reeking with bad odours." Yet the author and others who ventured there were also captivated by its idiosyncratic charms. Both Roman-Jewish cuisine and the Giudaico-Romanesco language (a hybrid of Roman idiom and Hebrew) exist to this day. As Micaela Pavoncello, a guide whose Roman-Jewish lineage dates to the second century B.C.E., demonstrates in her walking tours (, this is perhaps the only place in the city where one can not only see but taste and hear two millennia of history in a few square blocks.

Once papal rule was abolished and Rome declared the capital of united Italy in 1870, Jews were free to live anywhere in the city. Yet the old neighborhood has remained a nostalgic gathering place for both Jews and visitors. This is so in part because of Mayor Veltroni's mission to make Rome's whole past a more vibrant part of its future. The via del Portico d'Ottavia is being paved with sanpietrini — the rounded Roman paving stones first used to line St. Peter's Square — and will soon be closed to vehicular traffic. A major restoration of the Teatro di Marcello is also under way: the Julius Caesar-era amphitheatre-turned-Renaissance-palazzo now houses some of the costliest condos in Rome. And the extensive and ongoing excavations around the Portico have given the neighborhood its own architectural park, one that recalls the Forum.

The face-lift extends to the Turtle Fountain, the enchanting centerpiece of Piazza Mattei. The beloved fountain now draws crowds of students and tourists to its four, buffed bronze youths, each of which delicately hoists a bony-shelled reptile toward the marble basin, and which were initially left empty-handed by the fountain's designer, Giacomo della Porta. (Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini added the turtles later.)

Sunday dinner at Da Giggetto (Via del Portico d'Ottavia, 21a; offers another lively scene. The ritual trimming of artichokes (some 500 a day are deep-fried and pressed open like chrysanthemums to make the Jewishstyle carciofi alla giudea) occurs at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Those who leave the restaurant eager to try this culinary sleight of hand at home can buy the proper tool just across the street at Leone Limentani, the legendary, labyrinthine house wares emporium, where the Bufalo spelucchino curvo is the closest thing to a formal artichoke-paring knife.

Another local delicacy, aliciotti con l'indivia, a casserole of fresh anchovies and endive, is on the menus of two upscale restaurants, La Taverna del Ghetto (Via del Portico d'Ottavia, 8), a kosher eatery, and Il San Pietrino (Piazza Costaguti, 15; ilsanpietrino. it), as well as at Sora Margherita (Piazza del Cinque Scole, 30), a hole-in-the-wall trattoria where the homemade pasta is superb.

Travelers from all over Rome flock to Boccione — more commonly known as the Ghetto Bakery (1 via del portico d'Ottavia) — for its version of freshly fried, sugared ciambelli. During the walk up Via del Portico d'Ottavia, travelers should look for the charity box embedded in a wall just to the right of the entrance to Bar Toto. Inscribed in Italian and Hebrew with the words "Give to the orphans," it is one of the few authentic, surviving relics of the ghetto era that exist outside of the recently renovated Jewish Museum in Tempio Maggiore, Rome's main synagogue.

The museum's policy of lending its objects to Rome's synagogues is more than symbolic — keeping them in use helps preserve a frequently overlooked history.