WHEN IN ROME
The Delicious Roman Artichoke: From Jewish Ghetto to Italian Icon
The Roman artichoke has become a staple of Roman diets, but the beautiful vegetable was once considered the lowly option for 16th-century Jews.
All roads may lead to Rome, but the best route is via la gastronomía. Every spring, without exception, artichokes begin to appear in farmers’ markets across the city before arriving at their final destinations, Roman kitchens.
Artichokes have long fascinated gourmets. Acclaimed British food writer Jane Grigson described the artichoke “as an edible thistle” in her 1987 Vegetable Book, her eponymous literary dictionary of vegetables.
While Grigson was correct about the edible thistle part, the Roman artichoke is actually the only one of its kind that is entirely edible. That’s not the only unique quality of the vegetable.
“The Roman artichoke is the most different in flavor and form in Italy and the world,” says Rome-based food writer Katie Parla.
She’s absolutely right. The artichoke of the Eternal City is a true standout among the familia.
Unlike other artichokes that tend to have a spiny choke, the carciofi romaneschi have fine fibers. Everything from the outer purple leaves to the heart and to the stem is edible—and strangely delicious.
The gambo, otherwise known as the stem, is considered the Roman artichoke’s finest attribute. While other varieties tend to be prickly, the Roman artichoke’s gambo has a fine fiberous skin. When peeled, it reveals a pale green interior that can either be eaten raw or cooked.
Roman artichokes have been on Italians’ menus since the 16th century, though not in the way one would imagine.
Thanks to the city’s Jewish population, people realized the thistle was edible, paving the way for it to become a staple of the Roman diet.
Rome’s Jewish community was confined to a squalid walled district along the Tiber River near the Via del Portico d’Ottavia until the Ghetto prohibitions officially ended in the 19th century. Access to food was limited—except for artichokes. Jews were restricted in their employment opportunities, but they could work as food vendors and use the largely overlooked artichokes.
As a result, the local artichoke became an important component of the Jewish cuisine. The community developed its own ways to bring culinary intrigue to the all-but-ignored vegetable. Jews began preparing the Roman artichoke in a number of ways, most famously frying them in a dish known as carciofo alla giudia, which translates to “Jewish-style artichoke.”
While the local artichoke has remained inextricably tied to the city’s food culture since then, dietary tastes have evolved in the past couple of centuries.
While the Roman variety of artichoke used to be grown in and around the city, now it’s cultivated in neighboring Ladispoli and Cerveteri, which are about 30 miles south of the city.
Tourist demand has affected artichoke consumption, as well. The Roman artichoke is historically synonymous with the winter and spring cuisines of the city, but they are now served year-round. Certain chefs claim to use authentic carciofi romaneschi, even though they sometimes mix in French and Sardinian varieties.
Yet, despite the modern culinary twists, the dominating Roman artichoke dishes are still carciofi alla giudia and carciofi alla romana.
While carciofi alla giudia is fried and pressed, carciofi alla romana is the lighter version. The artichoke’s leaves are stripped off, drizzled in olive oil, and stuffed with mentuccia—a blend of mint and parsley.
The carciofi alla maticella, ember-roasted artichokes, are the rare gems. The dish is difficult to find in most restaurants because chefs rarely take (or have) the time to roast them this way.
When it comes to food, Romans have one of the best palates in the world. Flavor is key, but the local culture is also deeply concerned with the way food is processed. Romans have found a number of ingenious ways to utilize the artichoke, including in rustic local digestifs, which only add to their charm and longevity.
Parla has noticed significant changes in the Roman artichoke’s availability and production over her 12 years in Rome. “The mobile artichoke vendors have disappeared and now artichokes are sold in market stalls and supermarkets,” she says. While the greater accessibility is a boon for those craving the delectable vegetable, it detracts from the gustatory anticipation.
With the spike in demand for artichokes year-round, Parla says she has also noticed an unfortunate bastardization of the local thistle. Unfortunately, the city abounds with over-fried and over-cooked artichokes in the vegetable’s off-season.
Parla remains partial to carciofi alla romana. “As much as I adore the deep-fried Jewish-style version, the subtle sweetness and tenderness of the cooked heart and stem is the finest expression of the carciofo romanesco,” she admits.
When in Rome, right?