Jewish artichokes are a delicacy I was eager to try while in Rome. I’ve heard them described as delicate chrysanthemum-shaped with a crispy, salt-kissed taste. I knew I just had to try one given the opportunity. They are a big attraction in the restaurants of the old Jewish Ghetto. Also known as cardiofi alla giudia, artichokes were once a mainstay of the Roman Jews during times of scarcity and extreme hardship.
How could exquisite culinary delicacies evolve out of such extreme poverty and oppression?
Women of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV to sequester the Jews into one area, used what little they had to provide tasty meals for their families while also keeping them kosher. Artichokes, cheese, salt cod, and aubergines were cheap and used to create dishes that are considered gourmet cuisine today and served in fine dining restaurants throughout Rome.
The Jewish community began in Rome as early as 63 BC after the Romans invaded Judea and brought many of them back as slaves. Settling predominately on the east bank of the Tiber River, the walls (built in 1555) surrounding the ghetto kept them isolated for almost 300 years. The ghetto in Rome was one of the poorest in Italy. Desperately cramped, the Jews were forbidden to own property. They “were excluded from most professions except money-lending, dealing in old cloth and bric-a-brac, and selling food in the street. Many of them became friggitori-street vendors of deep-frying morsels, mainly of fish and vegetables for which they became famous,” describes Claudia Roden in her article “The Dishes of the Jews of Italy: A Historical Survey.”
The Roman Jewish Ghetto today is a maze of narrow winding streets, interesting shops, and several cute Kosher restaurants emitting delicious smells. Locals and tourists alike still flock to the old ghetto for carciofi alla guidia, Jewish style artichokes.
The Synagogue of Rome stands in the midst of the Jewish Ghetto where the original synagogue stood at one time. The ghetto is described as one of Rome’s most charming and eclectic neighborhoods, with restaurants serving up some of the best food in the city. The same little pieces of fried vegetables (artichokes, zucchini flowers and salt cod), and fried fish chunks that are now served as fritto misto in the finest restaurants of Rome were sold centuries ago by the friggitori for only a few coins.
Ironically, today’s Jewish Ghetto property, which during the ghetto oppression was considered very undesirable, is now some of the most expensive in Rome.
Have you visited the Jewish Ghetto in Rome and tasted a Jewish artichoke? What were your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you so please feel free to leave a comment.