To make carciofi alla giudia, the fried artichokes that Roman Jews have prepared for centuries during the thistle’s spring harvest, cooks start by plucking the tough bracts off a bunch of very fresh blooms. Next, they trim and strip the stalks of their fibrous skin and carve the blossoms to expose their inner cone of tender, chartreuse leaves. Then they deep-fry the artichokes a few at a time—twice. Once to soften up the vegetable’s dense heart, and again to make the petals unfurl and crisp.
It’s a lot of ceremony for a simple primo, but according to Joyce Goldstein, chef and author of several books, including Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (1998), the fuss was intentional for Renaissance-era Jews. When they were banished to the ghetto along the Tiber River and stripped of their livelihoods, they made the very best of what they could get—which, food-wise, was mostly produce.
“The vegetables were like a festival of food,” Goldstein said, “and you wanted to make each one sort of special so that you didn’t feel you were being neglected, you know? You had the good stuff.”
From the Ghettos Came Resiliency—and Friggitorie
Jews have been frying foods, especially vegetables, around the Mediterranean for the better part of a millennium, but it was from within the walled confines of central and northern Italy’s Jewish ghettos that they honed and popularized the craft. First banished from southern Italian ports during the Spanish Inquisition and then forced by Pope Paul IV to live in cramped quarters where they were barred from most occupations, Jews became street vendors—many of whom, especially Sephardim, sold crispy, salty fritto misto such as artichokes, cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, and oily fish. Rome’s old ghetto, a dense, four-block neighborhood that hugs a bend in the Tiber River, became a particular hub for these friggitorie and remains the epicenter of cucina ebraica romana (Roman Jewish cuisine).
The payoff really was spectacular. For cooks, carciofi alla giudia became an architectural showpiece: a bouquet of blossoms so dramatically splayed and browned, they looked like copper-dipped chrysanthemums. For eaters, it’s always been fried food nirvana: crunchy, crispy, and creamy from petal to heart, with nothing but salt and a spritz of lemon juice amping up the vegetable’s sweet, nutty, delicate savoriness.
“The first time you eat one of these artichokes, it is so delicious, you will want to cry,” Goldstein raves in her book. It’s also one of few preparations that doesn’t require dismantling the artichoke leaf by leaf at the table; thanks to all that aforementioned pruning and peeling, everything is edible.
The only real hang-up to replicating the dish in the States is the artichoke itself. Common Italian varieties such as the mammole (sometimes called cimaroli) are thornless and mature before the hairy choke develops, saving cooks and diners the trouble of dodging it. But the globe (sometimes called French) plant grown in the United States is a veritable fortress of a vegetable, with imposing spine-tipped bracts and a choke that develops by the time the vegetable is large enough to harvest. Those botanical hurdles didn’t dissuade me from trying, though; the stunning visual and potato-chip crunch of the leaves would be worth it.
Shopping: Fresh Enough to Fry?
Very fresh artichokes are a must when frying. They should feel heavy for their size and boast bright-green, tightly closed leaves. Squeeze them gently; they should squeak a little. Avoid drab artichokes with loose or dry leaves, which will fall apart and literally lose their bloom in the hot oil.
Cut to the Core
Artichoke prep is a bit like wood carving, where the cook whittles away the raw, rougher exterior to make something clean and usable. The spiny bracts go first, the goal being to remove enough of them that the color at the base of the leaves fades from dark to light green. After trimming and peeling the stem, you carve away the tops of the inner leaves, which many Italian cooks do by “turning” the artichoke with a coltello da carciofi curvo, a paring knife curved like a bird’s beak, until the vegetable resembles a tight rosebud. I found turning tricky to do, so instead I switched to a chef’s knife and made four angled cuts that exposed the artichoke’s tender core.
The choke is burrowed in there and incredibly dense when raw, so my options were to chisel it out—and inevitably lose a lot of precious leaves in the process—or halve the artichoke lengthwise to expose it and then dig out each portion. Severing the blossom wasn’t my first choice, but it made the surgery much easier while preserving almost all the leaves—and the dish’s striking aesthetics. Then I waited until after the first fry to remove the choke. At that point, it was soft enough to scoop out with a spoon, but the leaves still clung tightly to the core. (Don’t use anything less than superfresh artichokes; when I used older ones, the thistle fell apart during frying.)
Fry, Fry Again
Fried food has always been popular in Jewish communities and olive oil a default fat since it was a local and kosher alternative to lard and butter. Most contemporary recipes for carciofi alla giudia still call for it exclusively, but after a few fry tests I opted to replace most of the 2 quarts of olive oil I was using with canola oil. The cost savings were huge; good-quality extra‑virgin olive oil can cost upwards of eight times more per ounce than canola oil. And I preferred the more neutral flavor of the oil hybrid, which imparted just enough fruitiness to the artichokes without obscuring their delicate flavor. (Another cost-saving benefit: You can strain and reuse the oil multiple times.)
Twice Fried ⇒ Three Textures
Carefully trimmed to expose the cone of inner leaves and fried twice, carciofi alla giudia boast stunning textural contrast. The first fry, which is more of a lazy, low-temperature oil poach, renders the vegetable’s heart creamy and tender. The second fry is hotter and faster: a flash in shimmering oil that gives the thicker outer leaves kettle-chip crunch and the thinner interior ones lacy, LAY’S‑like crispness. (The first fry can be done in advance, making these great for parties since all you need is a 1-minute fry on serving day.)
The first fry is really more of a long, lazy oil poach, its goal being to soften the artichokes before the second, hotter fry crisps them. So I poured the oils into a large saucepan and didn’t let the temperature tick above 275 degrees. Ten or so minutes later, when the artichoke hearts were tender and the leaves were just starting to brown, I fished them out and carefully scooped out the chokes. Then I upped the heat so that the oil hit 350 degrees and carefully lowered two halves into the pot cut side down, gently pressing with my spider skimmer to spread the leaves and keep them submerged.
Barely a minute later, I had a pair of bronzed blossoms with the most fantastic textural spectrum: luxuriously creamy hearts surrounded by leaves as lacy and brittle as LAY’S Classic Potato Chips and an outer layer of thicker ones that crunched like kettle chips. I repeated the frying with the other halves, piling them on a platter and sprinkling them with salt and lemon juice. They were gobbled up in minutes, the way all the best fussed-over cooking projects are.