Carciofi alla giudia, or Jewish-style artichokes, are one of the signature dishes of Roman Jewish cooking and a very popular dish in Rome. I have rarely seen this dish in Italian restaurants in the US, perhaps because it is a bit tricky to make, or because it can’t be made ahead, or because of the quality of artichokes here–it is a dish that relies almost entirely on the taste of the actual artichoke–there’s no way to dress it up with other ingredients to make it taste better.
Anyway, you begin by trimming an artichoke in the typical Italian way, cutting off all the inedible bits (including most of the leaves), peel the stem and scoop out the choke. Then you spread the artichoke out as much as you can by hand—to do this successfully, you will need fresh and rather young artichokes that are ‘flexible’. You then fry the artichoke gently in extra-virgin olive oil, starting on the sides:
As the artichoke softens, place it ‘face down’ in the oil, little by little pressing it down until it spreads out almost flat and the artichoke is tender. To check for tenderness, pierce the artichoke at its thickest point with a paring knife. If you can remove the knife from the artichoke without picking it up, it should be done.
Now, just before serving, comes the tricky part: dip you hang in lukewarm water and sprinkle it into the frying pan to provoke a splattering, covering the frying pan very quickly to prevent the oil from splattering all over the stovetop (and the cook!) When things have died down, you’re done. The result is a lovely open “flower” whose taste is indescribable and whose texture is an amazing mixture of crispy and soft.
If you are ever in Rome, the place to eat carciofi alla giudia is an area referred to as the “Ghetto”, which had traditionally been the Jewish section of town. (I lived right next to the Ghetto for the first six years or so of our time in Rome, in small square named piazza San Paolo alla Regola.) There are a number of places that specialize in Roman Jewish cooking, which has a long history—Jews have lived in Rome for over 2000 years, since the days of the Empire. It is an interesting cuisine.
The ghetto itself has an interesting history. Starting in the year 1500 Jewish Romans had to live in a particular walled in area of town, which was called the ‘ghetto’ (hence our word). They had to be back by sundown, at which time the gates were shut. And on Sundays, they were forced to go to Mass in a local church and hear about how they were responsible for killing Christ and were sure to go to hell if they did not convert to Christianity. (But I guess there were worse places to live if you were Jewish.) Anyway, thankfully all that came to an end in the mid-19th century. The wall was torn down long ago and today the ghetto is actually a rather tony area, located as it is right in the center of town. An enormous (and rather pompous) synagogue was built around the turn of the century and today serves as the center of the Roman Jewish community. The church is still there, by the way, and it is located among some of the most interesting and accessible ruins in Rome, the remains of the Portico d’Ottavia (see photo above). Right next to the Portico is the most famous of the Roman Jewish restaurants, called Giggetto. It’s very touristy but the food is actually quite good. Down the same street a bit is the Taverna del Ghetto, which is the place the locals go (or at least they used to; a friend to whom I recommended the place came back telling me that it is now overrun with American tourists…)
It can be hard to get good artichokes in the US. Try to find ones that have leaves still tightly bound together. If the artichoke leaves are open and spottled, then don’t buy it, it’s too old. Unfortunately, that describes about 90% of the artichokes you’ll find in the supermarkets here, at least outside California.
There are other great ways to enjoy Italian-style artichokes, like carciofi alla romana, the other signature Roman artichoke dish, or cut into wedges and deep fried, the way Angelina used to make them. If you are lucky enough to find really fresh, baby artichokes, they are lovely cut into thin slices and eaten raw in pinzimonio—dipped in olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper.