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Rome: City of Artichokes

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3g52YuMvwRY

One of the things you hear often when Italian food is described is that it’s seasonal. When a particular vegetable comes into season, you’ll see it in every market and on every menu – it’s a bit overwhelming, and yet it’s easy to see why people would get so excited about an ingredient they only see briefly every year.

Visitors to Rome in the spring, for instance, will be hard-pressed to avoid artichokes. Thankfully, there are a couple of varieties in the way they’re most often prepared, so you don’t risk getting artichoked-out quite so easily.

Cultivating and eating artichokes is nothing new – their consumption has been documented for more than 3,000 years and they were well-loved by the Ancient Romans – but it wasn’t until the 15th century that their popularity began to spread throughout Italy and then the rest of the world. Today, artichokes are grown in almost every Italian region, and Italy produces roughly 2/3 of the artichokes the world consumes. No city in Italy is more closely associated with the artichoke, however, than Rome.

The artichokes – carciofi in Italian – grown around Rome are famous for their quality, and they’re typically prepared one of two ways – carciofi alla romana or carciofi alla giudia. The former, Roman-style artichokes, involve slow-cooking whole bulbs that have been trimmed and seasoned well with a combination of parsley, mint, garlic, and olive oil. The latter, Jewish-style artichokes, involve deep-frying the entire bulb twice so that individual leaves are crispy but the heart stays tender. Carciofi all giudia are still found mostly in the Jewish ghetto area of Rome.

Especially prized are the first artichokes of the season, known as cimaroli, which are bigger than the ones that come later in the season but are (perhaps counter-intuitively) more tender. In fact, the cimaroli tend to have small-to-nonexistent chokes, making them even easier to eat.

Throughout the artichoke season in Italy, you’ll see piles of them at outdoor markets and lots of dishes including artichokes featured on menus. Indulging in some local carciofi while you’re in Rome allows you to dine (in a way) on history – but for pure visual entertainment, find a market stall where a vendor is deftly trimming whole artichokes. The thorny tips are removed and the stems peeled, leaving you with what look like roses with oddly-thick petals and stems. The finished products are aesthetically pleasing, but it’s the knife skills of the people who trim the artichokes that’s most remarkable.

(The video included in this post is just a sample of what you’ll see.)

>> Have you tried artichokes in Rome? Which cooking method do you prefer? Don’t miss Gabriele’s recipe for fried artichokes, and this post about cleaning artichokes and cooking them Roman-style is helpful, too.

Visitor’s Information: What to Know if You Want to Go
Rome is Italy’s capital and home to its largest airport, but finding cheap airfare to Rome isn’t always as easy as you might expect. Sometimes you might find better deals to other international airports in Italy – either Milan or Venice – or even elsewhere in Europe.

If you find a killer fare to another European city, don’t give up hope of a Roman holiday – go hunting for budget airlines that fly to Italy from that European hub, and you could end up with a cheap ticket on one of the many discount airlines on the continent. This kind of itinerary is bit more of a juggling act logistically, but it can save you quite a bit.

Once in Rome, some of the keys to not being overwhelmed by the city are to pace yourself, focus on the sights in an individual neighborhood before moving on to the next one, and get familiar with taking the buses in Rome.

There’s an incredible proliferation of budget-friendly accommodation around Termini Station in Rome, but that neighborhood leaves something to be desired (for most people) in the charm department. Lodging in the city is expensive, however, so if you’re on a budget but don’t want train-station ambience, do your research and book your Rome hotels well in advance (especially during the high season).

One of the most popular food markets in Rome is in the Campo dei Fiori, which fills with food vendors in the early mornings. Even if you’re not shopping for produce, it’s a great place to wander and soak up local color – especially during artichoke season, when you might get to see someone trimming the bulbs.

>> Want to learn about other Roman treats to indulge in when you visit the Eternal City? Drool over the options in this “Eat Your Way Around Rome” article.

photos by: blucolt, cameronparkins, jonny.hunter, pdbreen