Oct 16, 2023
Carciofi alla Giudia: Rome’s Jewish
Although I was born and raised in Italy, specifically within Milan’s Jewish community, I had never tasted the quintessential Jewish dish of carciofi alla giudia (“Jewish-style artichokes”), until
Although I was born and raised in Italy, specifically within Milan’s Jewish community, I had never tasted the quintessential Jewish dish of carciofi alla giudia (“Jewish-style artichokes”), until years after moving to the United States in 2005.
So, during my first visit back to Rome in 2017, I made it a point to dine at Ba Ghetto. This renowned kosher restaurant is famous for its Roman-Jewish specialties, especially the fried artichokes that have become a staple of cucina Ebraica-Romanesco (Jewish-Roman cuisine).
Let me be clear: the buzz surrounding this dish is entirely justified. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, carciofi alla giudia release an aroma that teases your palate long before your first bite.
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Let’s start with the basics. Carciofi alla giudia are deep-fried artichokes that are very simply seasoned with salt and, at times, a squeeze of lemon.
While there isn’t concrete written evidence, many culinary scholars believe that the dish was traditionally prepared for Passover. “That would make sense because of the overlap with the seasonality of the vegetable,” Jewish Italian food writer and photographer Benedetta Guetta, the author of Cooking alla Giudia: A Celebration of the Jewish Food of Italy, told me.
Even more specifically, the dish is thought to have originated in Rome’s Jewish ghetto between 1555 and 1870. During that era, papal decrees imposed restrictions on Jews, preventing them from enjoying certain “luxuries,” including ingredients available within their living quarters.
Artichokes were among the foods allowed for Jews. In addition, according to Ghetta, non-Jewish Italians were historically less familiar with the vegetable and therefore hesitant to consume it.
“The Jews were connected to the Arab world, and that’s likely how they knew about the ingredient and felt comfortable using it,” she explained.
The frying technique central to carciofi alla giudia, Guetta explained, likely traces back to the common Jewish profession within the ghetto.
Many Jews were street food vendors, one of the few professions they were permitted to pursue.
“They would sell scraps and bits and pieces of food that were fried,” which were relatively easy to prepare given limited cooking methods, Guetta said. This frying method also ensured the food appealed to a broad range of palates.
The kashrut laws, which prohibit mixing dairy and meat, also influenced culinary choices in the ghetto. Butter was largely eschewed in favor of olive oil, which is exactly what is used to fry carciofi alla giudia.
The dish might seem straightforward, but recreating it elsewhere can be a challenge — largely due to the specific artichokes that Italian chefs source in the country.
“Carciofi alla giudia are traditionally made with a specific kind of artichoke that’s grown in Lazio, a central Italian region,” Guetta said. “You can make the dish with other artichokes, but it just won’t come out the same.”
In Italy, chefs favor the mammola, a unique, round artichoke known for its delicate texture, unlike the typical tougher artichoke varieties. Guetta noted that many chefs freeze these specific artichokes, which grow only during the Spring, to use for the dish year-round.
To recreate the dish in the U.S., she recommends using purple artichokes, one of the softest varieties available. You should also trim away much of the outer leaves and stems — “otherwise they will be very hard and chewy,” Guetta said.
But the magic of carciofi alla giudia doesn’t solely lie in its ingredients or how they’re prepared. The deep frying is not just about taste — it’s about the sensory experience it evokes.
Of course, the fact that the artichokes are deep-fried makes them absolutely delicious. Yet, one bite reveals that there’s something more to it — it’s not just about the oil that the vegetable is drenched in.
Whether it’s the recommended squeeze of lemon before indulging or the combination of the soft interior and crispy exterior, carciofi alla giudia always hit the spot. This dish doesn’t only taste good — it’s a visual treat.
“We eat with our mouths but also with our eyes,” Guetta said of the Roman-Jewish delicacy. It’s no surprise, she added, that her publisher chose the dish for her cookbook’s cover.
To make carciofi alla giudia at home, try Guetta’s recipe below. But first, some advice: enjoy them immediately after preparation. Don’t treat them as a side dish but savor them as their own course. Squeeze a bit of lemon on top or eat them plain. Dive in — you’re in for a treat.
Originally Published Aug 17, 2023 05:54PM EDT
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