Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Dining Experience
When asked who— or what— Ruth’s is, Simcha Jelinek opens up a page in a leather bound red book. A rudimentary drawing of a girl dressed in primary colors peers out at us.
“That,” says Jelinek, a twinkle in his eyes, “is Ruth.”
The drawing was made by a young girl whose parents took her to Florence as part of her bat mitzvah gift, and who stopped by Ruth’s for a kosher meal. Other pages of the book reveal pen-drawn illustrations—including one by the famous Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, Simcha’s old college professor— and countless other messages from diners over the years who have been touched by Simcha’s gentle, welcoming attitude, the homey ambiance of his restaurant (which boasts impressive wooden puppets from Simcha’s puppeteering years, and plenty of Judaica besides), and, of course, the food.
Ruth’s, open since 1997 on via Luigi Carlo Farini 2/a, is a vegetarian kosher restaurant also catering to pescatarians, changed hands from the original Italian owner to Jelinek when Rabbi Levy asked if the latter would be interested in running the establishment. At its inception, Ruth’s had been conceptualized as a hot food kiosk, popular in Israel, but the idea fell short as the menu expanded. When the restaurant reopened in 2001, the recipes were not selected by the Czechoslovakian Jelinek— whose only homegrown offerings are the borscht and dessert blintz (a rolled crepe with various fillings)— but rather an accumulation of suggestions from various workers, including a young Israeli who insisted on Jelinek’s adding shakshuka (crushed tomatoes flavored with onion, bell pepper and spices, topped with poached eggs), to the menu.
Ruth’s menu contains other familiar dishes, like couscous, falafel, lentil soup, and over half a dozen fish platters, but also Italian twists like fried artichoke, Roman-Jewish style (the latter of which is a must-try) and Mediterranean dishes such as Greek salad and Middle Eastern tabbouleh (a bulgur salad made with tomatoes, parsley, onion, and mint).
The more popular items include the plate for two, which include several small portions of Ruth’s typical offerings such as falafel, hummus, pita bread and salad.
Other popular offerings included the the soup of the day and the eggplant dishes.
The dessert menu is varied, ranging from cheesecake, apple strudel and chocolate cake in addition to and halva and blintzes.
When asked about his clientele, Jelinek admits that the majority is comprised of out-of-towners. This was not always the case. When Ruth’s first opened in 2001, 9/11 had just occurred and tourists were terrified of terrorist attacks, so locals filled up the restaurant. They came “once a month, twice a month,” by Jelinek’s calculations, but as time passed and tourism resumed, more and more foreigners began flocking to Ruth’s. The change occurred once more in the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks, when the police presence around Ruth’s (close to the synagogue) became more pronounced.
“Usually we were full [of locals] in the evening,” says Jelinek, “but now we are empty.”
As we were speaking, a number of people came in, including a twenty-something couple from New York who made amiable small talk with me throughout the course of their meal, and the Rabbi Levy in question who asked Jelinek to take over Ruth’s, an affable man who now runs a Jewish school of his own.
The ambiance was comfortable and intimate, and I was soon entranced by the cabinet on the rightmost side of the restaurant that contained endearing cartoon illustrations and photographs of Jelinek, newspaper clippings, and two elaborately carved wooden puppets, testaments to his passion for puppeteer work. It was very easy to imagine Ruth’s as an inversion to the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretl— unassuming on the outside, boasting delicious, hot food on the inside.
When asked what he sees for the future of Ruth’s, Jelinek tells me that he doesn’t think about it. “I am not a prophet,” he says, matter-of-fact, and I turned to consider my empty plate of fried artichoke, scarfed down within the fraction of a second it appeared at my table. Jelinek may not be a prophet, but he and his staff might well be divinely touched. Prices are incredibly reasonable. (Lyric Niv)
For information on Ruth’s menu and opening hours, visit their website at kosheruth.com.