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I try to take a short vacation with Mimi every now and then while leaving our kids with my parents.
In 2012 when Singapore started allowing people to redeem miles for the A380 couple’s suite I booked us tickets to Paris just 2 days before departure. It was our 2nd visit to the city of lights, but we enjoyed it so much the first time that we had to go back again. We spent 2 nights at the Park Hyatt there and enjoyed the city in the quieter winter season.
In 2013 when BA had a glitch that allowed us to fly to Buenos Aires in first class for 0 miles we dropped Rafi off at my parents and were on a plane within just 2 hours of booking tickets! We only spent a single night in Buenos Aires, much to the shock of the same crew that flew back with us the following evening, but we had a glorious time.
In 2014 we didn’t get away ourselves as Talia was too young, but in 2015 we spent a few nights at the Park Hyatt NYC.
In 2016 we flew Cathay Pacific First to Vancouver. We spent just 36 hours there, but had a wonderful time there as well.
Last July I was pondering where to spend a couple of nights on a quick getaway. Mimi was due in December, so I was itching to book a babymoon.
The 2 schools of thought on how I pick my next flight destination…
Truthfully, I had been avoiding Rome over the years. I love nature more than I appreciate ancient churches and buildings. I don’t usually care for most museums or history lessons. DDF members seemed to be obsessed with the Jewish tours of Rome, but I’m just rather anti-tours. I cringe when I see a tour of sights like on Maui’s Road to Hana. In general, I’d rather explore and discover a place on my own.
In the end, I found United 3-cabin Polaris first class saver award space from Cleveland to Rome via Washington DC on the outbound and via Chicago on the return. The cost was 160,000 United miles round-trip and I gladly took it over the lightly les expensive old United business class option. I briefly considered flying Lufthansa first class via Chicago and Frankfurt on the outbound and taking advantage of the offer to rent a Porsche 911 for €99, but that would eat up too much of our limited time.
The S. Regis Rome didn’t show any award space on their site, but I chatted with SPG on their site and was able to book a deluxe room. A regular room in high season is 25K points, while the deluxe room in high season is 26,750 points per night. A bargain compared to the $800 paid rates.
The Kosher situation in Rome is complicated. As in Paris, the local beis din allows non-glatt kosher meat to be used. Some restaurants, like Bellacarne, do offer a glatt kosher menu, but I wasn’t able to get a straight answer about whether glatt and non-glatt meats were cooked together. I asked the shliach from Venice and he advised only eating at Little Tripoli for meat products as they are the only exclusively glatt kosher restaurant.
There was also little information online regarding the Cholov Yisroel status of some of the dairy eateries in Rome.
I bought Rick Steves’ pocket guide to Rome before traveling and its a worthwhile read.
The DDF Master thread on Rome is excellent and is loaded with great trip planning advice.
Despite my strong aversion to guided tours, members on DDF convinced me that Rome would be meaningless without them.
There are 2 main Jewish tour operators in Rome.
Roy Doliner founded Rome for Jews. He co-authored “The Sistene Secrets,” a NY Times bestseller that explores the deeper meaning behind Michelangelo’s artwork. While Roy doesn’t typically offer tours, David Walden receives rave reviews for his Rome for Jews tours. They’re hard to reach via email, so persistence is key. It’s even harder to determine if Roy or David will be giving the tour, or if it will be farmed out to another docent. Once again, persistence in asking is the key. The main tours offered are of the Jewish Ghetto, Ancient Rome, and the Vatican. All are offered from a Jewish perspective.
Micaela Pavoncello founded Jewish Rome Tours. She comes from a family of Jews from Rome and once again, the key is figuring out which tours she will guide herself versus farming out to other guides.
Our flight from Cleveland to DC was slightly delayed and landed a long walk and a train ride away from the DC to Rome flight. We hustled to the gate and made it as they were boarding the flight to Rome.
As we made a left upon boarding we passed by the old business class on pre-merger United’s 777-200s.
Unless you’re traveling with a family of 4, you do not want to wind up in the middle section of business class:
We flew from Chicago to Honolulu on this plane last February and got booted down from First to Business due to carseats being banned in United first class due to the angle of the seats. Being a family of 4 it worked out just fine, but it was funny seeing the 4 business people in what looks like the bed from Willy Wonka when the seats are in bed mode:
United is phasing out first class as they introduce their new Polaris business class seat. But in the meantime the first class seats are spacious and a big step up from United business class, though they’re not competitive with first class seats from most foreign carriers.
I did enjoy the massage function built into the seat.
United really shines in the bedding department. They now have bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue and it’s excellent. Bedding included a mattress pad, a day blanket, a comforter blanket, a pillow, and a gel cooled memory foam pillow. I had to ask for the mattress pad and the gel cooled pillow as those aren’t provisioned at the seat.
A matching amenity kit is provided as well.
Unfortunately the service on the DC-Rome flight was truly nothing special. The flight attendants went through the motions, but nothing that made it even remotely memorable. In contrast when flying first class on most foreign carriers you are treated like a king.
The first course of the Regal meal was quite spartan. Some hard pita, smoked salmon, a tiny cup of edamame, and a dry coconut flaked cake.
The hot entree was couscous with roasted chicken breast in a mushroom sauce. It won’t win any awards, but at least it was edible.
After dinner it was time to get some shut-eye on the very comfortable bedding:
Between meal services there was a snack basket that contained lots of kosher snacks:
Flights from the US to Europe are shorter than flights back to the US and after just a few hours of shut-eye I got up to daven shacharis, which was easy thanks to the spacious seat.
After that I took a look at the breakfast. There was a bagel with cream cheese that I couldn’t eat as it hadn’t been 6 hours since I finished the chicken.
The cinnamon roll would have been better if it wasn’t loaded with the gob of jelly in the middle.
And the hot entree was the infamous rubber omelette:
After landing, I took out some Euros from an ATM while waiting for our bags to come out and we got through customs without being asked a question in about 15 minutes.
There’s no reason to rent a car in Rome, so the options from the airport were to take an Uber Black for €66, a taxi for €48, or a train for €28. There is no UberX in Rome.
We opted for the taxi, but we hit rush hour traffic, so it took about 50 minutes to reach our hotel.
The S. Regis Rome has a grand renovated lobby. We attempted to checkin but were informed that the hotel was sold out and that our room would be ready in about 90 minutes. Somehow in the 5 minute conversation the receptionist used the words Allora and Prego about 2 dozens times each.
Tired, but without a room, we took a taxi to “Flour” for breakfast. The S. Regis is located directly in between the residential neighborhood where Flour is located and the famous Jewish ghetto where the Jews used to be forced to live, but ironically, can no longer afford to live in.
The heavenly smells from Flour waft out into the street.
Inside the store it got quite confusing. There is no menu, but you are supposed to go to a register to pay before getting your food. That’s no easy task for visitors, especially given that none of the employees spoke English!
Making matters worse, the counters were packed with locals who actually know how to order, many of whom enjoy their espresso on the counter, while others enjoyed their goodies indoor or outdoors.
Eventually we used the point and buy system for anything that looked good.
We wound up with way more pizza than we had hoped for. The pizza was very good, though nothing out of this world.
Everything in Flour is Cholov Yisroel except for the milk, though you can request cholov yisroel milk.
The Cafe Macchiato (€1.50) and the Cappucino (€1.50) were amazing as were the delicious Italian Cornettos (€1). Mimi prefers the buttery french croissants from Chez Akol in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, but these are very good as well.
We didn’t spy any taxis and didn’t want to splurge for Uber Black, so we walked back to the hotel in the summer heat.
We passed by a slightly sketchy looking market and then were able to get into our hotel.
The S. Regis “deluxe” hotel room was elegant, though it was on the small side and could definitely benefit from the renovations that are ongoing at the hotel.
View from the room:
We were in room 413, which while on the small side, looks positively gargantuan compared to the non-deluxe rooms:
After we got to our room we took a refreshing shower and napped for a bit until it was time to head to the Jewish Ghetto for a 2:30pm tour with David Walden of Rome For Jews.
David originally hails from Toronto, but married a local and has raised his family in Rome. He’s funny, engaging, and has a true passion for his craft.
While most tour guides drone on, David manages to keep your interest hour after hour, which is no small feat.
The tour starts in front of Rome’s Great Synagogue:
David talks about the local Jewish day school that his kids go to. Tuition for each of the 1,500 students is just €2,000 per year!
Any tour that includes gelato is a good one in my book and Cremeria Romana is fantastico! David shares that his wife helped make all of the gelato in the Cremeria cholov yisroel. The gelato here is probably the best I’ve ever tasted. On the tour David went behind the counter and gave us samples of every flavor. The flavors change daily, so be sure to come back more than once.
David seems to be best friends with everyone in the ghetto and as we passed by a new pizza shop, Alice (pronounced Ah-lee-chee), they offered us free slices of mouth-watering pizza:
We strolled down the ghetto and learned everything from the tragic history of the place to today, when locals can’t afford the sky high real estate prices.
A condo in the ghetto today will set you back 7 figures:
A brick in front of the building of condos commemorates a deportee who was sent to die at Nazi hands in Auschwitz.
You can buy a 600 year old fixer-upper if you have a few million handy:
Some of the newest construction in Rome, about 110 years old, can also be found in the ghetto:
October 16, 1943: The day the Jews of Rome were deported en masse by the Nazis.
After a walk around the ghetto we made our way into the Great Synagogue and the museum housed in its basement.
The mezuza has the Euro sign flipped 90 degrees to create the hebrew letter shin.
In the museum is an impressive display of centuries old Roman Jewish artifacts from the ghetto:
The Great Synagogue itself is the most beautiful shul that I’ve ever seen. David takes the time to explain the amazing history and symbolism behind everything in his tour.
Walking back down to the museum, David continued to tell us about the artifacts stored there and the lack of space to display even a fraction of them.
David pointed out the little details, such as the embroidery of a family crest on Judaica in the museum that showed who donated the item:
A depiction of one of the shul’s in the ghetto shows marble columns:
Which are now on display in the museum:
A siddur donated by Nereo Musante, a convert to Judaism, is on display. He was injured by gunfire in the 1982 Palestinian attack at the Great Synagogue and says he was saved by the siddur in his jacket pocket which mitigated the damage of the bullets that were shot at him:
On bottom are Jews serving in the Italian army in WW1. On top are Jews that were deported to Nazi concentration camps:
David telling stories about this Kisei shel Eliyahu:
Everything is on display from ancient Torah Scrolls to centuries old Friday night robes:
The tour ran way past its official end time, until the museum had to force David to leave due to a government delegation getting an after hours private tour of the museum. Afterward David took us to Bar Toto in the ghetto, where he bought everyone on the tour the most delicious iced tea that we’ve ever tasted. It’s sweetened only with homemade lemon sorbet that is scooped into the iced tea:
Iced coffee and iced tea from Bar Toto:
Dinnertime in the ghetto:
After the tour we took a cab to Little Tripoli for dinner. The food was good, though my hopes had been slightly higher based on rave reviews I has read.
We started with a felafel plate (€5), which was delicious:
And a burik carne (€5), which had a good flavor but was dry.
I ordered the Mafrum (€13), which consists of potatoes, eggplant, and meat with couscous on the side. I guess I was hoping for some more exotic flavors, but this dish tasted pretty heimish to me.
And Mimi had a mezzi rigatoni (€12), which was a pretty good option:
After dinner we went to some of the main tourist items starting from the Pantheon:
And then walking from there to the beautiful Trevi Fountain:
The real life picture is a bit less serene than the Instagram shot:
And from there we walked to the Spanish Steps:
Before heading back to our hotel room:
In our room was a Platinum amenity of a bottle of kosher wine and fruit:
As an SPG Platinum member the hotel also bought us kosher breakfast:
Sadly, the breakfast was not very good at all. But it’s the thought that counts 😉
We went to the ghetto, where we stopped by Boccione also known as forno del ghetto. After all, there aren’t too many kosher bakeries that the NY Times raves about as they do this one.
I asked the ladies in the family owned and operated bakery for a sampling of their treats:
NY Times: “Don’t miss the unique and addicting pizze, dense bricks of sweet dough bursting with whole almonds, pine nuts, raisins and chunks of candied fruit (price varies by weight; a typical pizza goes for about 3 euro each). Baked throughout the day to keep up with demand, they’re usually warm and, like most of the forno’s sweets, are burnt almost to a crisp on top.”
Items like the Pizze Fruitcake and ricotta chocolate cake aren’t items I would typically order, but they were indeed delicious:
After sampling the pastries we went to the Colosseum, where we had a guided tour booked with Jewish Rome Tours.
Quite frankly, this tour was very disappointing.
The tour guide for Jewish Rome Tours didn’t tie in any Jewish history here and it was told in a pretty dry manner. Not unlike being back in history class. Pretty much the polar opposite of the previous day’s tour.
But this guy was fun to photograph:
Arch of Constantine, as seen from the Colosseum:
The infamous Arch of Titus depicting loot stolen from the 2nd Beis Hamikdash:
I was hoping that at least by now we would hear about the Jewish background of what we were seeing. Alas that didn’t happen.
Around the city of Rome you can refill your water bottle with free delicious ice cold water from these fountains:
The guided tour continued through the old Roman Forum. The tour guide droned on and on. This is just not my cup of tea.
It is pretty cool to see 2,000 year old marble being excavated and uncovered though:
I knew it was time to bail when the tour guide wanted to take us into a church. The rest of the group protested as well and we went off to grab a bite to eat.
Monuments are a dime a dozen in this ancient city:
Back to the ghetto we tried going to Ba’Ghetto Milky, but they were closed for a private function. Instead we went to Yotvata where we started things off with the absolutely heavenly Fritto Yotvata (€12). It consists of fried zucchini, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, potato, and mozzarella cheese sticks. We asked if they could add in some fried artichoke, one of the ghetto specialties, and they were happy to do so at no added cost.
Eggplant Parmesan (€12) was good, the sauce was much sweeter than what we were used to.
Delicious Ravioli Rosa (€11):
The highlight was the fantastic Fettuccine Alfredo with mushrooms (€11):
After lunch we took a taxi to Vatican City. This was another part of Rome that I didn’t plan on going, but after reading DDF reviews, decided to book a tour here with David Walden of Rome for Jews.
We went to the Menora exhibit, but we forgot to bring our free tickets that we had received from the Great Synagogue tour the day before. With just a few minutes until our guided tour was to begin, we skipped it.
David took us into the Vatican and kept us spell bound with his fascinating anecdotes and stories.
He also shares tidbits like where to find the original mosaic with no line, instead of the copy of it that has long lines.
Look forwards and the ceiling looks like it’s sculpted with images. But look backwards and you can see that it’s nothing more than a painting.
Calabria, home of the most expensive citrus fruits on this planet 😉
Ceiling paintings in full color represent the “New Testament” while the monochrome paintings represent scenes from the Old Testament, signifying how the Vatican sees them as old or out of date:
Scenes like Akeidas Yitzchak are painted in Monochrome:
The beautiful city of Venice, where David explains the origin of the word ghetto:
This tapestry includes a fish, Look closely at it.
Yes, the fish has the Hebrew word Chai in it. Go figure…
I didn’t find this tour as interesting as the Jewish Ghetto tour, but David did a very good job keeping my interest about a subject matter that I don’t really care for.
Towards the end of the tour you are supposed to walk through the Sistine Chapel, which is halachikly questionable. As I didn’t ask the question I wanted to avoid it, but the guards insisted that you had to exit through the chapel. David called over a manager for us and got rather animated, but in the end they allowed us to bypass and wait to meet up with the end of the tour.
The architecture and marble pillars are pretty amazing:
The tour finished just in time to see the changing of the Swiss guard:
Finding a taxi was no easy feat. All of them wanted to charge a high flat rate rather than use a meter. We used Uber Black instead, which was pricey, but less than what the taxis wanted.
For dinner we went to Ba’Ghetto Milky. They hadn’t yet set up the outside tables, so we crammed into their upstairs dining room.
We started with their specialties, a Roman style artichoke (€5)
And a Jewish style artichoke (€4.50). Both are worth trying for the experience of it.
More people were added onto our table and feeling claustrophobic, we asked to be moved outside as soon as it was set up.
The pizza (€11.50) is a thin crust delight:
The Tonnatelli cacio e pepe (€11.50) made with Pecorino cheese was a bit too wtrong for our tastes, but real cheese lovers will likely adore the dish:
But what stole the night was the Ravioloni di Acqua (€14) filled with buffalo mozzarella in a truffle sauce. The flavors are simply out of this world and it was easily the best dairy pasta dish I’ve had in my life.
For dessert we tried the Pistachio cream tart (€6), which is decent:
And we had the Tiramisu (€6.50). Some people are obsessed with their Tiramisu, but we found it to be vile.
Rather than bother with those desserts, go next door to the Cremeria Romana for some incedible Gelato:
After dinner we went back to our hotel for a massage and got to explore the nooks and crannies there:
And then we headed back out to the night market along the banks of the Tiber River in search of some souvenirs and presents.
It’s quite picturesque:
You’ll find everything from play areas for kids:
Kids at heart:
To endless gift shops:
After a long day it was time to head back to the hotel.
The next morning we went back to Flour for breakfast. The Cornettos are just heavenly with their delicious coffee drinks and we brought home a box of Cornettos for friends and family back home.
Getting a taxi from Flour is nearly impossible and there were no nearby Ubers, so we started walking towards the hotel and hoped to flag down a taxi. Unfortunately every one was full and so we stopped about halfway to the hotel as we were getting dangerously late to call an Uber.
After getting to the hotel I asked the Uber driver if he would take us to the airport and he gave us a quote that was half the rate of using the app, so we ran upstairs to get out stuff and drove off the airport.
Passing by the Colosseum on the way to the airport:
We got to the airport about 65 minutes before the flight and the security agent positioned at the door before the US departures was not pleased with us. She chastised us for arriving at the airport so late and quizzed us on what we were doing that morning instead of showing up earlier to the airport!
Checkin cutoff time is an hour before the flight and I’ve never had that happen at another airport, but we were allowed to pass and checkin to the flight. We had no problem making it to the Priority Pass lounge near the gate before the flight started boarding.
A federal air marshall bumped me out of my seat, so I wasn’t able to sit in the seat right next to Mimi.
But it worked out just fine across the aisle from each other:
Alitalia flight taking off:
The kosher meal consisted of Deli and Goulash:
But we ate the pizza that we brought from Flour:
The flight attendants on this flight were wonderful and made sure I was fully stocked on sparking water. Easily the best United service I’ve ever had:
The snack basket had these great kosher chips in them:
Pre-arrival kosher meal:
Hot entree of croquettes and borekas:
Upon landing in Chicago we went to the new United Polaris lounge:
It’s a beautiful lounge:
I went to the concierge to try out the showers:
Like in the old Continental President’s Clubs, you can have your clothes pressed while you shower: by putting them in this closet with 2 way access:
The shower rooms are stunning. It’s hard to believe that a US carrier could pull this off:
The Saks towels were great:
The shower itself is spacious, has intuitive controls for the rain shower and regular shower, and has plenty of hot water with strong water pressure:
The toiletries were great as well:
Floor heating is a real treat for an airport shower:
The concierge can also arrange a private room with a day-bed:
Back in the main part of lounge you can dine by yourself:
Or with someone else:
I had some Balvenie. As with everything else in the Polaris lounge, there is no charge:
Help yourself to a drink from a cup or a can:
I have to give a big shout-out here to Bryan Gryka, the executive chef at Milt’s. I messaged him from the plane asking if he might be able to make an order for me so that it would be ready when I landed and he pulled through with an excellent balsamic bbq sous-vide ribeye steak sandwich:
I called an Uber when we landed and had them bring the food to the airport.
We also ordered some delicious preztel bites:
And then it was so long to the Polaris lounge:
Polaris lounges will be coming to airports like Houston, Newark, and San Francisco this year.
Overall it was a great trip. I don’t think I’d ever plan another trip with 3 organized tours, but I definitely didn’t regret any of the time spent with David Walden of Rome for Jews. He definitely knows how to bring history to life.
The food in Rome was really what made the trip for us. The combination of out of this world kosher eateries in this ancient city is awesome and will be the reason we’ll return one day. Good thing I tossed a coin over my shoulder at the Trevi Fountain 😉
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