21 March 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: I Think the Word is Prickily

CHIAVARI, Italy – As you all know by now, just about everything you eat, drink, smell, touch, hear and see in Italy has a story. Some stories are long, other’s like today’s story on artichokes, are not. It’s a short and thorny tale – if you’ll excuse the pun – of unrequited love, the love of Zeus, the king of the Gods, for the beautiful nymph Cynara.  She was young, blonde and beautiful with deep green eyes, and he, well he was, shall we say, resistible.

Cynara, Cynara, Is it Really You?
But the mythological Greek King of the Gods was not to be trifled with. He took his revenge by turning the capricious and flirty nymph into a thorny plant.  He colored the plant green, reminiscent of Cynara’s eyes, and gave it prickly thorns and a prickly center as reminders of the deep and jealous pain he suffered by her rejection.

We are reminded of this story every day as this is artichoke season in Italy. The market stalls are piled high with leafy artichokes of every type, long and skinny ones with thorns, without thorns, with purple-ish leaves, without purple-ish leaves, and  fat, round ones too.  Artichokes are generally known as carciofi in Italian, except in Genova where they are called artichoke in Genovese dialect, which is pronounced “are tee cho kay”.  Sound familiar?  Artichoke comes from the Arabic al-kharcuf, and before that from the Persian al’d’ishuk, which means earthy and prickly – prickly being the best, and most used word to describe this delicious vegetable.

A Variation on the Theme
The plant known as cynara scolymus in Greek – cynara for our blonde beauty and scolymus, which is Greek for prickly – there’s that word again -  grew wild in the Mediterranean thirty thousand years ago. Food anthropologist Sergio G. Grasso likens artichokes to a woman.  ‘With its delicious center hidden under layers of prickly leaves, artichokes, like women, artichokes demand time and patience before giving something away,” he writes.   

My favorites are the fat, round ones called mammola that grown in and around Rome. They are the classic artichokes served boiled with butter or Hollandaise sauce outside of Italy, and served either with a parsley, garlic, and breadcrumb filling or deep fried “alla Giudea”.  The expression "alla giudìa”  doesn’t really refer to kosher dietary laws, but to a style of cooking – in this case in the style of Jewish cooking – meaning to deep frying in oil which is part of Jewish culinary tradition.  

You’ll find a number of web sites, both in English and Italian, offering recipes using artichokes, but if a trip to Rome is in your future, here’s a short list to print out and save of the best places in Rome to eat ‘carciofi alla Romano’ and ‘alla Giudea’.

Restaurant  Paris
1) In the heart of Trastevere, this family run restaurant specializes in Roman cuisine, starting with artichokes. Following antique recipes and traditions, they use only fresh, local ingredients whenever possible, including the fat, mammole artichokes that grow in the fields just outside of Rome. The culinary results are dazzling.

Prices start at: 13 € - Piazza di San Callisto 7a - 06/5815378

Vecchia Roma
2) This restaurant may be called Old Rome, but in the kitchen there is a young and passionate cook named Rossella.  Rossella, who is the daughter of Tonino, the owner, prepares her own inspired version of classic ‘alla Romano’  artichokes as well as ‘alla giudia’ . Vecchia Roma, which has been around since the late 1800’s, is located near the Basilica of Santa Maria in Capitoline Hill.

Prices start at: 5 € - piazza Campitelli 18 – 06/6864604   

3) Take a tip from the locals. Put the menu aside and ask your waiter what’s cooking today. If they tell you carciofi alla romana, you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s a double jackpot  if you manage to get a table on the wrap-around terrace. Either way, you can’t go wrong with this local favorite. Here's another tip: Because this place is so poopular with the locals, you might want to get there a little early, say 7 PM. You'll have a better chance at getting a table.

Prices start at: 3,50 € - piazza dei Ponziani 7 – 06/5818355
Armando al Pantheon
4) The name says it all. In the shadow of one of Rome’s most famous landmarks, Armando’s menu reads like a ‘what’s hot’ in Roman cuisine. When they are in season, the artichoke dishes Armando’s son Claudio whips up draw Romans like honey bees to a field of flowers. Need I say more?

Prices start at: 5 € - Salita de’ Crescenzi 31 – 06/68803034

La Campana 
5) La Campana has been around since 1518, making it one of the oldest locandas in Rome.  Located near Piazza Navona, in the heart of Old Rome, the classic Roman dishes on it’s menu include offerings from their private vegetable garden. It was one of Caravaggio’s favorite eateries, back in the day when it was owned by Pietro la Campana.  

Prices start at: 6 € - vincolo della Campana 18 – 06/6867820

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