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Peeling Back the Layers of Italian Jewish Cuisine

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the artichoke

by
Marcia Friedman
October 20, 2021
TonalLuminosity/Flickr
TonalLuminosity/Flickr

It’s only fitting that my Jewish boyfriend Daryl introduced me to the artichoke. Even though I was part-Sicilian, I had somehow never eaten one. I saw little culinary potential in the daunting, thorny bulb. Turns out, my Sicilian forebears also had to be convinced by their Jewish friends and neighbors that the artichoke offered much more than met the eye.

Daryl also introduced me to another thing I would grow to love and adopt as my own: Judaism. Becoming a Jew by choice motivated me to connect to Jewish culture and history, and to do that, I started exploring Jewish food. Almost immediately, that awakened in me a desire to better explore my Italian heritage as well—because a part-Sicilian who didn’t know artichokes clearly had a few things to discover beyond her Italian-American favorites of meatballs, lasagna, and cannoli.

I began tracing the intersections of Jewish and Italian food. I started near home. Jews and Italians shared an immigrant experience in coming to the United States, notably living side by side in the Northeast. American Jews developed a fondness for Italian food—the Jewish New York-style cheesecake likely evolved from the Italian ricotta cheesecake.

Following food traditions naturally next led to Europe. The Eastern European Jewish foods that bear resemblance to Italian delicacies revealed cross-pollination across the region. I gravitated to recipes like mandelbrot (biscotti), kreplach (ravioli), and mamaliga (polenta), all dishes likely influenced by migration and trade. Of course, the ultimate intersection of Jewish and Italian tradition happened in Italy.

My first trip to Italy with Daryl brought the connection vividly to life. Upon landing in Rome, we headed straight to a charming restaurant, ready to dive into the best local Italian cuisine. To be honest, we were thinking pasta. When we asked our server what the specialties were, she replied in her beautiful Italian accent, “artichokes Jewish-style.” At that moment, the artichoke re-entered my personal narrative, in the form of a mouthwatering version of the famed deep-fried artichoke recipe, carciofi alla Giudia.

Like the artichoke, Jewish-Italian history involves quite a few layers. The story goes all the way back to around 600 BCE as Jewish traders, merchants, and exiles from Judea started arriving in Sicily. Relatively speaking, Jews thrived there and were accepted by the general population. By some estimates, their numbers approached 100,000 through the 14th century, before Sicilian Jews were expelled by Spanish rulers in 1492.

The foods of the Sicilian Jews set them apart. Kosher rules and prohibitions of cooking on Shabbat greatly shaped their food culture as did the fact that many were quite poor. Meat was frequently out of reach, and local, inexpensive produce often dominated the cooking. When Arab conquerors introduced new foods like fennel, eggplant, and artichokes, the general population eschewed them. Jewish cooks not only embraced them, they also developed many mouthwatering ways of preparing them, earning these items the moniker “Jewish vegetables.”

The artichoke became a staple. Italy’s Jews incorporated artichokes into soups, risottos, and omelets. They slivered and fried them truffle-style, and stuffed them with meat or seasoned breadcrumbs. Artichokes became traditional on Italian Passover tables, as the holiday coincides with the arrival of spring’s crop of artichokes.

Why such love? Author and chef Joyce Goldstein writes about asking a woman in an Italian market about this, saying the woman replied that artichokes are bitter and that’s part of our Jewish heritage. I think that’s only one part of the story, though. The bitterness of artichokes tempers when they are prepared well—and that represents the Jewish experience, too. Over and over through the centuries, Jews faced bitter circumstances and made the most of them. For me, that’s the more symbolic part of the artichoke’s outsized presence in the culinary repertoire.

Gradually, Jewish cooks helped their Sicilian neighbors discover the artichoke’s potential as well. And when the Spanish expulsion pushed Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish exiles from Spain north through Italy, they carried and spread their love and recipes for artichokes throughout. Roman Jews, who specialized in frying partly due to limits on ovens, created the famed deep-fried artichoke preparation that endures to this day as a testament to Jewish influence on Italian cuisine.

Although I find carciofi alla Giudia irresistible, stuffed artichokes became a more meaningful recipe for me personally. I marvel at Jewish and Italian cooks looking at something as preposterously challenging to stuff as a tightly wound flower bud and making it work. Sicilian nonnas pride themselves on their stuffed artichokes while at the same time, enticing recipes adorn Jewish-Italian recipe collections. The recipe speaks a universal language of ingenuity. But it also requires engagement and making it your own, two qualities that also nicely symbolize Judaism for me.

Prepping the artichoke for stuffing involves some labor of love—pulling back the tough leaves and trimming pointy ends to reveal the parts to savor. The filling varies to your personal taste. It can be meat or breading along with herbs and seasonings of choice. I like making this a vegetarian dish and I incorporate red pepper—a hint of heat that adds dimension and evokes the warmth of the Mediterranean and a long shared experience. And representing the idea that the artichoke has given me so much inspiration, I let stuffing overflow into the cooking liquid, where it becomes an amazingly flavorful spread that adds even more enjoyment to the dish.

In the United States, artichokes can be found most of the year, but the main crops arrive in the spring and the fall. In the fall, stuffed artichokes are particularly resonant for Sukkot traditions of stuffed vegetables symbolizing plenty. But I don’t need an excuse to enjoy them, stuffed or any other preparation. Besides their unique flavor, they thread through my personal Jewish history as well as the Jewish history in the land of my Sicilian family.

At a recent auction of décor from a favorite Mediterranean-style restaurant that was closing, one item called to us above all the rest. We won it—and now a pair of green ceramic artichokes, happy reminders of many meaningful turning points and connecitons, sits in our dining room. The artichoke retains its place in our Jewish-Italian story, evermore.

Marcia Friedman is the author of the cookbook Meatballs and Matzah Balls: Recipes and Reflections from a Jewish and Italian Life and she also blogs about the intersection of Jewish and Italian food and life.

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