Monday, April 9, 2012

Carciofi alla Giudia-Jewish Artichokes in Rome

With such a richness of classical sights to savor, it is too easy to miss out on Rome’s other fascinating histories. Peoples from all corners of the empire made their home here, and the city’s Jewish population traces its presence back two millennia. Their chefs can take credit for one of Rome’s culinary highlights – carciofi alla giudia, delicious fried artichokes.
 Against the backdrop of its imperial Roman past and the Italian Renaissance, the Italian capital is very much alive and moving with the times, ever more international in flavor. It has a vibrant Film Festival, a modern auditorium by Renzo Piano, and MAXXI, a spectacular new contemporary art museum designed by Zaha Hadid.

However, the Eternal City’s bottom line has changed not one iota. The stereotypes still run true, with scooters zooming along impossibly busy streets, flocks of robed nuns and priests everywhere, noisy neighborhood markets, and the dolce vita very much in evidence. The city’s host of neighborhood trattorias could have been plucked straight from Italian films of the 1960s, when a mezza porzione (half a helping, and therefore cheaper) was commonplace. Down-toearth and run by no-nonsense waiters, these trattorias serve exclusively traditional fare, rich, delicious, and tomatoey, like coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtail) and spaghetti all’amatriciana, with tomato, onion, chili pepper, and tangy cured bacon.
 One item offered nonstop from October through to June is the typical plump, round Roman (or globe) artichoke. These are usually cooked in one of two ways, each radically different but both avoiding the tiresome ritual of scraping the flesh off the leaves. Carciofi alla romana entails slow-braising artichokes in garlic and parsley with a dash of broth. Soft as butter, they are a divine eating experience, as the whole artichoke can be simply sliced and eaten. A different and unusual technique is used for carciofi alla giudia (“in the Jewish way”); the artichokes are squashed “face down” to flatten and tenderize them, then fried in olive oil. The magic happens as the outer leaves turn deliciously crisp and golden. These crunchy delights are best eaten sizzling straight out of the pan.
The handsome artichoke is related to the wild thistle and hails from the Middle East. It made its appearance in Italy as an edible vegetable in the 1500s, but its origins can be traced farther back to another classical civilization – ancient Greece. Myths hold that mighty Zeus was infatuated with the exquisite nymph Cynara, but her capricious behavior made him insane with jealousy, so he turned her into a tough, spiky green plant. However, he did give her a sweet heart, and the “heart” of the artichoke, marinated in oil and herbs and served as antipasto or on pizza, is in fact probably better known throughout the world than the leaves lovingly embraced by the recipes of Rome.
Artichokes Around Italy
 The artichoke is highly prized in regional cuisines around Italy. Varieties of the vegetable are used in Cynar liqueur and even in tantalizing ice cream. Sardinia boasts the yellowish spinoso sardo, eaten raw with oil in springtime when fresh and tender. This is also peak time for prized tiny purple castraure, a variety jealously cultivated on Sant’Erasmo island in the Venice lagoon. These artichokes have a distinctive bitter tang due to the salt content of the soil.
At the end of the artichoke season when the head becomes bristly, market stands across northeast Italy pare off the top and sell thick fondi disks, kept in water and lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown.
The Best Places to Eat Carciofi alla Giudia 
Da Giggetto
You’d be hard put to find a more pleasant place to have dinner on a balmy summer’s evening in Rome than this venerated trattoria in the city’s ancient Ghetto district, not far from the banks of the Tiber River. “Giggetto” was the nickname of Luigi Ceccarelli, a returned WWI serviceman who began this well-reputed trattoria back in 1923, and the current manager is his grandson. Dining is alfresco from spring through fall, a memorable experience as the tables are set up between shiny stone columns belonging to the Porticus of Octavia, steeped in history. Inside, old brick vaults and arches dangle with braids of garlic and dried herbs over spacious rooms. A bowl of plump globe artichokes in the entrance informs diners that the traditional Jewish-Roman dish – golden, crisp carciofi alla giudia – is available. Another typical offering here is filetto di baccalà, fillet of salt cod, battered, fried, and served hot with lemon. Via Portico d’Ottavia 21/22, Rome; open 12:30–2:30 PM & 7:30–11 PM Tue–Sun;
Also in Rome
With long lines outside its otherwise inconspicuous entrance, Sora Margherita (+39 06 687 4216; inexpensive) is a tiny trattoria in the Ghetto. Once inside, you’ll be elbow-to-elbow with other guests. However, it is well worth the wait – nobody ever complains about the food, especially the antipasto, which includes carciofi alla giudia, given rave reviews by guests new and old.
Also in Italy
The island of Sant’Erasmo in the Venetian lagoon is a giant vegetable garden, which has supplied Venice with flavorsome fresh produce since ancient Roman times. The menu at Ristorante Cà Vignotto (+39 41 24 44 000; moderate) on the island is dictated by the seasons, with winter to spring bringing the best castraure artichokes. With a bit of luck, their divine gnocchi with crab will be on the day’s menu as well.
 Around the World
Roman-style crisp-fried artichokes are one of the signature dishes of flamboyant master-chef Sandro Fioriti at his newest restaurant, Sandro’s (; expensive), which attracts a cultlike following among New Yorkers. Another house specialty is spaghettini al limone, which can be varied with a melon or tomato sauce.
 A Day in Rome
Central Rome, which holds the city’s classic sights, is surprisingly compact and walkable, but you need to plan your time carefully to make the best of your day.
Go to the Colosseum and explore the stone tiers where spectators witnessed the ghastly blood sports of ancient Rome. Alongside is the Forum, with temples and public buildings, headquarters of the far-reaching Roman empire. Then walk through to Campo de’ Fiori for its lively morning market and cafés.
Head over to the forbidding Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. Designed for Emperor Hadrian as his mausoleum, over time it became a prison and even Papal apartments. Follow the broad Via della Conciliazione to the vast paved square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica; the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel make a superb conclusion.
Pick a spot on Piazza Navona, resplendent with its gushing Baroque fountains by Bernini, for a magical alfresco dinner.
 Rome has two airports: Fiumicino has an express train to Termini central train station; while smaller Ciampino has a direct bus.
 Hotel Panda (inexpensive) is a family-run hotel near the Spanish Steps.
 Daphne Trevi (moderate) has two locations downtown.
 Buonanotte Garibaldi (expensive) is a hidden oasis within the Trastevere district.
 Via Parigi 11; +39 06 488 991

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