ROME—Nothing says Jewish-Roman cuisine like carciofi alla giudia, or artichokes prepared in the Jewish style. They’re a fried staple found in every kosher restaurant in this city and across Italy.
The vegetable, which comes into season in late February here and remains part of the Roman pantry until early summer, is also found on logos and menus and used to decorate outdoor tables in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, which houses Europe’s oldest Jewish community. The flowerbud-shaped green bulb is a springtime favorite in most other Roman restaurants as well, offered in either the crispy Jewish style or the oil-soaked alla Romana. It is served as side dishes, starters, in pastas, and often spotted piled high in the city’s produce markets.
But late last week, Yitzhak Arazi, Israel’s chief rabbi in charge of kosher imports, who generally sets the pace for the entire kosher world, warned in an interview with Haaretz that artichokes aren’t really kosher after all and immediately banned all imports. He did not differentiate between those grown in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries and those grown specifically for the Italian market—but he did refer to the way Rome’s chefs prepare their beloved vegetable for the Jewish community.
“The heart of the artichoke is full of worms, there’s no way you can clean it,” he said, adding that the Roman Jewish style of frying the vegetable makes it even more difficult to get the pests out. And because worms, along with reptiles, amphibians, and most other insects except certain types of locusts, are not considered kosher, eating the Roman-prepared artichokes is now off-limits for observant Jews who want to stay kosher. “It can’t be kosher. This isn’t politics, it’s Jewish religious law.”
While the thought of worms embedded and cooked among the leaves of the carcofi alla giudia or any artichoke is also pretty unappetizing for non-Jews, it is not forbidden and they will not be pulled from any non-kosher restaurants in Rome any time soon. But those kosher restaurants that cater to the city’s Jewish communities and kosher visitors now have to decide what to do about their favorite delectable green orb.
On a rainy Monday lunch time along the Via Portico d’Ottavia that slices through the heart of Jewish Rome, no one had removed their artichoke shrines or scratched the item off the menu. A waiter at the Antico Ghetto Ebraico Sheva, which serves food from kosher and non-kosher menus that is prepared in separate kitchens, did say its management is thinking about moving artichoke dishes to the non-kosher side. “It’s something we are considering,” he said, though they had not yet made the decision.
Maria Lanzano, an elderly Jewish customer who was eating a carciofi alla giudia artichoke as an appetizer, said she wouldn’t change just because of a “diktat from Israel.” She said generations of Jews have been eating Roman artichokes for centuries with no spiritual or other problems. “A kosher food can’t lose its certificate,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
In an investigation by Corriere Della Sera in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, several sources said the artichoke ban should not affect the Roman-grown artichoke, which has a shorter stem than those grown in Israel and Middle Eastern countries. The shorter stem apparently prohibits worms and parasites from wriggling in among the leaves. Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, and Ruth Dureghello, the president of the Roman Jewish community, have not made a public comment on the ban, but they posted a photo on a Rome Jewish community Facebook page showing them washing and preparing carciofi alla giudia to celebrate Passover.
Journalist Filippo Piva, writing in Wired Italy, brings up another concern. Last year, Italy, along with other European nations, signed a decree that allowed restaurants to serve “novelty foods” like insects with prior written permission from a ministry of health body. He writes that none of the Jewish restaurants serving any type of artichoke in Italy have so far applied for permission to serve bugs, so, if this Israeli-led ban really does mean there are critters in the vegetable, then “countless Roman restaurateurs are breaking the law.”