It’s a cozy Monday night at Ristorante La Torricella in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood. As I peruse the menu, Augusto D’Alfonsi, the restaurant’s owner for 40 years, approaches my table, holding up the pride of Rome’s spring season: an artichoke. “This is a gift from God,” D’Alfonsi says, stroking the artichoke’s stem as though it’s the thigh of a lovely signorina. “Carciofi, carciofi...,” he sighs: car-CHO-fee, car-CHO-fee. Inspired, I order an antipasto of carciofi alla Giudia, an artichoke that has been flattened and deep-fried, transformed into a crisp, golden flower.
My dinner companion and cooking teacher, Daniela del Balzo, smiles with approval when the antipasto arrives, and we tear into its crunchy leaves, relishing the earthy, nutty flavor. “Romans have had a love affair with artichokes for thousands of years,” says Daniela. She explains that back in toga-wearing days, the leafy thistles were believed to be powerful aphrodisiacs. Women were long forbidden to eat them, but Catherine de’ Medici, infamous for her insatiable appetites, took some with her to France in the mid-16th century when she married Henry II, and her artichoke gorging caused quite the scandal.
In Daniela’s cooking class, I learned the carciofi alla Giudia essentials. The lesson began at the Testaccio market, where, from late February to early May, stalls overflow with carciofi Romaneschi, a small, round, purple-tinged artichoke that happens to be the best variety for making carciofi alla Giudia. Though traditional eateries all over the city prepare them well, every Roman (including Daniela) believes that to have the most authentic experience of this specialty, you must go to its place of origin—Rome’s Jewish ghetto.
Later in the week, I make my way there. From 1555 to 1870, this four-block stretch in the centro storico, the old city center, next to the flood-prone Tiber River, was a gated labyrinth of cramped quarters where, by papal decree, Rome’s Jews were ordered to live.
The ghetto was liberated during Italy’s 19th-century unification, its hovels destroyed and the area gradually rebuilt. The neighborhood today supports a strong and active Jewish community. It is also home to cucina Ebraico-Romanesca, a delicious, distinctive culinary tradition. “It’s cucina povera” (poor people’s cuisine), Daniela had explained to me, “created by housewives who used what was available and cheap, including artichokes.”
On my visit to the ghetto (or ex-ghetto, as some prefer), I walk past new places hawking kosher meals and head for an old-school classic, Hostaria da Giggetto, run by the Ceccarelli family since 1923. A tower of carciofi stands at the doorway to honor the season. I’m greeted by Mamma Lidia, a signora with finely coiffed hair. “Carciofi are the pride of our kitchen,” she says, seating me at an outside table, where I’m surrounded by Roman families out for a leisurely lunch. Out the trattoria door comes the tantalizing aroma of freshly fried artichokes, and two exuberant waiters in immaculate black vests emerge to plunk down plates of carciofi alla Giudia at every table. In imperial days, so much artichoke eating would have been the start of a night of sensual pleasures. Today, Rome’s appetites might be more temperate, but the annual gorging on carciofi remains a delectable celebration.
Recipe from Trattoria da Giggetto
4 large artichokes with stems, preferably Romaneschi
Extra virgin olive oil for frying
Salt to taste
*Special equipment: Deep-fry thermometer
1. Cut the lemon and squeeze its juices into a large bowl of water. To prevent your hands from turning black as you prepare the artichokes, rub them with the cut side of the lemon halves.
2. Remove the tough outer leaves from the artichokes, to get to tender, pale green leaves. With a sharp paring knife, cut off thorny leaf edges, cut the stem down to about an inch, and remove the choke with a melon ball scooper.
3. Let the artichokes sit in the lemon water for about a half hour.
4. In a large, heavy saucepan, pour in olive oil two inches deep, and warm on medium heat to 265 degrees. Salt the artichokes and add them to the pan, turning them until all sides are browned, about 20 minutes.
5. On a work surface lined with paper towels, spread open the artichoke from the center, like the petals of a rose. Turn them stem side up and let them drain for two hours.
6. Reheat the oil to 340 degrees. One at a time, hold the artichoke by the stem with tongs and immerse it in the pan for three minutes, pressing it against the bottom to keep the leaves spread open. Fry until leaves are gold and crisp.
7. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm.
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