Antipasto: Rome - Carciofi alla Giudia (Roman Jewish-Style artichokes)
Artichokes are taken seriously in Rome, and I learnt that buying them whole rather than 'puliti' (cleaned), is a way to gain great respect. 500 carciofi are sold on an average weekday at Massimo's stall in the Campo de' Fiori; and brothers Daniele and Lucio reported selling around 800 one Saturday. Heaving baskets of them line the streets in front of the restaurants for tourists around the Pantheon, and if you hang around at the mercato di Testaccio long enough, locals are bound to pass on their secrets on how best to eat them. I had more than my fair share as I ate my way across Rome – losing count of how many carciofi I consumed over my three weeks there this spring. Braised 'alla Romana' with that morning's burrata at Armando al Pantheon (thrice); sott'olio, and with pasta and tiny prawns; but I kept coming back to 'alla Giudia' at Piperno and Da Enzo (below right).
For carciofi alla Giudia, ideally you will use carciofi Romaneschi (Romanesco artichokes) which have 'Protected Geographical Indication' status, meaning they are strictly tied to the area they are produced. Massimo even went so far as to tell me, 'per I carciofi alla giudia tu hai bisogno di quelli di Tarquinia, meglio se da Ladispoli' (for carciofi alla Giudia you need artichokes from Tarquinia, they will be better than the ones from Ladispoli).
It's my observation that every Roman buying their carciofi at the market will reject at least a few of those offered to them by the stall-holder, 'they are too morbido (soft) or vecchio (old)'. For those not fortunate enough to be in Rome, look for firm, tight buds, ideally harvested a short time ago and without a hairy choke in the middle to contend with. Once you have the preparation out of the way they couldn't be simpler - just a couple of baths in some hot oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.
Prepare acidulated water by filling a large bowl with cold water and squeezing in a couple of lemon halves, then work on the artichokes. Begin at the base, removing the tough, outer petals until you reach the more tender ones closer to the centre. Trim the stem leaving 4-5cm and using a small paring knife, peel it back revealing its paler inner part. Holding the artichoke by the base, begin cutting away its top half on an angle so that the centre forms a little curve (see photo above and video at the end of this post). Rub all surfaces with a cut lemon and leave to sit in the bowl of acidulated water while you prepare the remainder.
Fill a medium saucepan with enough oil to completely submerge the artichokes and heat to about 140-150C. Cook the artichokes in batches for about 10-15 minutes, rolling them around the pan occasionally until they are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
Remove and drain face down on paper towel and continue until all the artichokes are cooked.
Once they are completely cool, beat each artichoke on a wooden board, opening out the petals as you do. Splash them with ice-cold water and season generously with sea salt before returning them to the oil – this time a little hotter at about 170C. Cook for a further 3-4 minutes, or until they are a deep, golden brown.
Serve immediately with another sprinkling of sea salt, wedges of lemon and a glass of Frascati.