Carciofi alla giudia, or Jewish-style artichokes, are one of the signature dishes of Roman Jewish cooking.
Even if a lot of Roman cookery—especially the pasta dishes like cacio e pepe, carbonara and amatricana—have become international staples, other iconic Roman dishes, especially the vegetable dishes like this one, remain stuck in relative obscurity. But they’re well worth getting to know.
In Italy carciofi alla giudia are essentially a restaurant dish. But chances are if you want to it enjoy elsewhere, you’ll probably need to make it at home.
You use a type of globe artichoke the Romans call carciofi romaneschi or more colloquially mammole. That’s a lucky thing for us Americans, since globe artichokes are the only kind you’re likely to find here in the US. (And perhaps elsewhere?) Although there are some differences—mammole tend to be smaller, for one thing—our larger globe artichokes work tolerably well with a few adjustments in the traditional recipe.
Carciofi alla giudia are nothing more or less than deep fried artichokes. The recipe is simple, but it takes some skill to accomplish, albeit nothing that a home cook can’t easily master. First, there’s the trimming of the artichoke, a skill that requires some care and practice. Then, like making pommes frites aka French fries, you fry the artichoke in two stages: at low temperature to soften it, then in hot oil to crisp it up. The result is a lovely golden “flower” whose taste is unique and whose texture is an amazing mixture of crisp on the outside and soft within. Just a light sprinkle of salt and you’ll be in culinary heaven.
Carciofi alla giudia are generally considered antipasto, but they’re satisfying enough to serve as a light (vegan) main course. One per person is the usual serving size.
- 1 globe artichoke, as fresh as possible
- Vegetable and/or olive oil
And a lemon for prepping the artichoke.
Prepping the artichoke
Begin by trimming the artichoke. You start at the base of the artichoke, peeling off the toughest, dark green outer leaves. At this point, your artichoke should look something like this:
When you get to these inner leaves, thinner and lighter colored at their base, stop peeling and start trimming off the darker green tops of the remaining leaves lying underneath with a paring knife. Trim the stem of its tough exterior. When you’re done, you should wind up with a specimen that looks something like this:
Immediately rub the artichoke all over with the cut side of a lemon, then submerge it in acidulated water until you’re ready to fry.
Heat abundant the oil in a large pot to about 120-150C/250-300F. The oil should be deep enough that the artichoke can float in it and bubble up very gently around the artichoke as it fries.
Drain the artichoke and pat it perfectly dry. Place on its side in the oil. Let it cook on all sides, turning it from time to time, until almost tender. The artichoke will have slightly browned and its outer leaves begun to open, like so:
Depending on the size and age of your artichoke, this initial fry should take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. You can test for doneness by inserting a paring knife in the stem and body of the artichoke. If you meet only minimal resistance, it’s done. Remove and drain on paper towels.
When the artichoke has completely cooled, take a fork and separate the leaves outward so as to ‘open’ the artichoke up into something resembling a flower:
Now heat your oil until quite hot (180-200C/350-400F). Holding the artichoke with tongs, dip the artichoke face down into the hot oil. It should immediately bubble up, this time in a very lively fashion, around the edges of the artichoke. Let the artichoke fry for 2-3 minutes or so, until the leaves have opened even more and the face of the artichoke is a lovely golden brown.
Drain the fried artichoke well, face side down, on paper towels or a rack.
Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with salt.
You should try to find as good an artichoke as you can find for making carciofi alla giudia. Fresh artichokes are a spotless green, with their leaves still tightly bound together. (In Italy, they often have a beautiful purple tinge but I’ve never seen those elsewhere.) On older artichokes, the leaves are open and spottled. Unfortunately, as I’ve said before, that describes about 90% of the artichokes you’ll find in the supermarkets here in the US, at least outside California.
That said, this recipe is fairly forgiving. Deep frying is an almost magical process that really makes almost anything taste good. As the Italians say, fritte son bone anche le scarpe—even shoes taste good fried. So even if you can’t find the freshest artichokes, don’t let that stop you from enjoying this dish!
Recommended frying temperatures vary quite a bit, although the basic rule—low temps for the initial fry and the high temps for the second—is a constant in most recipes. If you’re working with larger artichokes, I’d go for the lower part of the range for the initial fry (i.e. 120C/250F). That will provide ample time to cook through without browning too much on the outside.
There are some Italian recipes that call for frying the artichoke in one go at a moderate temperature (around 170-180C/325-350F) for 10 minutes. Feel free to go that route if you are cooking with younger, more tender chokes, but I wouldn’t recommend it for large globe artichokes.
Traditionally, you fry carciofi alla giudia in olive oil. These days vegetable oil is the more usual choice. Olive oil provides incomparable flavor. (It’s a misnomer that olive oil has too low a smoke point for frying, but that’s the subject of its own post.) That said, the price of olive oil being what it is, I usually split the difference and use mostly vegetable oil, adding a good pour of olive oil for flavor.
A video demonstration
And if this all feels a little intimidating, here’s an excellent visual demonstration that shows you just how simple the dish actually is to make:
Making carciofi alla giudia ahead
Since you serve carciofi alla giudia at room temperature, they are an ideal make ahead dish. But not too far ahead or they lose their crispness. What I like to do is make them up through the initial fry, then give them that second high temperature fry shortly before serving.
Eating Artichokes in Rome and The Ghetto
If you are ever in Rome, the place to eat carciofi alla giudia is an area referred to as the “Ghetto”, Rome’s traditionally Jewish quarter. I lived right next to the Ghetto for the first seven years or so of my time in Rome, in small square named piazza San Paolo alla Regola in the building pictured at the left. Our apartment was on this corner on the third floor, the one with the open shutters.
The Ghetto itself has an interesting history. And a long one. Jews have lived in Rome for over 2000 years, since the days of the Empire. Starting in the early 1500s, the city required Roman Jews to live in this walled in area of town, dubbed the Ghetto after a similar district that had been established in Venice. The residents had to be back by sundown, at which time the gates were shut. Thankfully all that came to an end in the mid-19th century, and the wall was torn down. (Of course, the Ghetto saw much worse during WWII.)
Today the Ghetto is actually a rather tony area, located as it is right in the center of town. An enormous synagogue built around the turn of the 20th century today serves as the center of the Roman Jewish community.
Across the street are some of the most interesting and accessible ruins in Rome, the remains of the Portico d’Ottavia and the adjoining Teatro di Marcello. And right next to the ruins is Rome’s Holocaust Museum.
Al Pompiere, a taste of old Rome
In recent years, like much of Rome, the Ghetto has been overrun with tourists. This apparently has had a negative impact on the local restaurants. Sadly for me personally, food experts like Katie Parla are now warning people off the most famous of the old style restaurants, Giggetto, where way back in the 1970s I had my very first carciofo alla giudia. And from what I hear the other restaurants that line the main street aren’t much better.
No need to despair, however. During my recent trip we went to Al Pompiere and ate very well indeed. I had a fine carciofi alla giudia. It reminded me just how delicious this simple dish can be—and inspired me to update this post, originally published in 2010. And on the whole the experience was, in fact, almost like stepping into a time machine. Only a few blocks from our house, we used to go to Al Pompiere fairly often.
On this latest trip, the old school atmosphere, food and service was just as I had remembered it. It’s a little hidden away, on the second floor of the Palazzo Cenci, a 16th century building with a colorful history. Being on the piano nobile, the ceilings of the restaurant are soaring and some feature old frescos. It’s well off the Ghetto’s ‘main drag’, which may be why Al Pompiere remains unspoiled.
Carciofi alla giudia
- 1 globe artichoke
- Vegetable and/or olive oil
- 1 Lemon for prepping the artichoke
- Begin by trimming the artichoke. You peel the stem, then starting at the base of the artichoke, peel off the toughest, dark green outer leaves.
- Trim off the darker green tops of the remaining leaves lying underneath with a paring knife. Trim the steam of its tough exterior.
- Immediately rub the artichoke all over with the cut side of a lemon, then submerge it in acidulated water until you're ready to fry.
- Heat abundant the oil in a large pot to about 120-150C/250-300F. The oil should be deep enough that the artichoke can float in it and bubble up very gently around the artichoke as it fries.
- Drain the artichoke and pat it perfectly dry. Place on its side in the oil. Let it cook on all sides, turning it from time to time, until almost tender. The artichoke will have slightly browned and its outer leaves begun to open.
- Depending on the size and age of your artichoke, this initial fry should take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. You can test for doneness by inserting a paring knife in the stem and body of the artichoke. If you meet only minimal resistance, it's done. Remove and drain on paper towels.
- When the artichoke has completely cooled, take a fork and separate the leaves outward so as to 'open' the artichoke up into something resembling a flower.
- Now heat your oil until quite hot (180-200C/350-400F). Holding the artichoke with tongs, dip the artichoke face down into the hot oil. It should immediately bubble up, this time in a very lively fashion, around the edges of the artichoke. Let the artichoke fry for 2-3 minutes or so, until the leaves have opened even more and the face of the artichoke is a lovely golden brown.
- Drain the fried artichoke well, face side down, on paper towels or a rack.
- Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with salt.