Diff'rent Artichokes for Diff'rent Folks?

As 'Artichoke War' Intensifies, Rome Jews Fight Israeli Rabbis Over Classic Dish

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate considers Italian-Jewish community’s carciofi alla guidia nonkosher, but Rome Jews say their artichokes are tighter and more compact than the Israeli version, thus preventing insects and worms from infecting them

Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes).
Francesco Cerra

Forget the U.S.-China trade war, the Italian media has spent the weekend obsessing over a different conflict: the “artichoke war.” Its interest follows a recent Haaretz report that Israel's Chief Rabbinate has banned a ready-made version of the Roman-Jewish community’s specialty dish, carciofi alla giudìa, from Israeli shelves.

A meme about the ongoing 'artichoke wars' between Roman Jews and Israeli rabbis.
Facebook screenshot

The Rabbinate considers the dish nonkosher because insects and worms might reside within the heart of the multi-leafed vegetable (not to be confused with the Jerusalem artichoke), thereby making it unacceptable under Jewish religious law.

But carciofi alla giudìa (Jewish-style artichoke) is a hugely popular dish among Rome’s Jewish community, being based on a recipe dating back to the 16th century, and the community has no intention of conforming with the Rabbinate’s regulations. However, the Jewish community in Milan asked a local restaurant specializing in Roman-Jewish cuisine to leave the original recipe for carciofi alla giudìa off the menu, or at least change it in compliance with the Israeli guidelines.

Shortly after Haaretz broke the story last Wednesday, Italian journalists headed en masse to Rome’s Jewish Ghetto area – where most of the restaurants serving carciofi alla giudìa are located – to get, well, the dish on the dish.

According to leading Italian daily La Repubblica, Roman Jews defended their specialty dish by noting that artichokes in Israel and Italy are not the same.

“Our artichokes are tighter and more compact than the ones in Israel, which prevents insects and worms from dwelling inside,” a source told La Repubblica, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Roman Jews know exactly which ones to choose and how to cook them for them to be legitimate,” the source added.

Many other made similar claims that the Roman artichokes used for carciofi alla giudìa – such varieties as mammole, romaneschi and cimaroli – are not susceptible to bugs or worms.

“I’m 80 years old and have never seen a worm in an artichoke,” cook Italia Tagliacozzo told Italy’s biggest-selling daily, Corriere della Sera, on Saturday.

Although Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, preferred not to comment on the matter, some Italian news outlets pointed out that he included a recipe for the dish in a book he published in 2010. “We are the people of the artichoke, not only the people of the Holocaust,” wrote Di Segni in a passage from the book quoted by La Repubblica.

Jewish cooks interviewed by the Italian press said the methods they use to clean the artichokes remove the risk of accidentally serving “nonkosher meat” in the form of bugs or worms, which is the reason Israel’s Rabbinate (and also America’s Orthodox Union) deem the dish nonkosher.

“We’ve been eating this dish prepared this way for 600 years. I’m a little worried about the souls of all the people who have been eating it over the centuries – I hope nothing bad happens to them,” joked Umberto Pavoncello, manager of Nonna Betta, a kosher restaurant in the heart of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto area, speaking to French news agency AFP.

In a second interview given to the Italian news agency ANSA, Pavoncello said it would be “blasphemous” to deprive the Rome community of its signature dish.

Such a risk is negligible, however. The media frenzy around the “artichoke war” largely ignores a crucial passage in the initial Haaretz report, which noted that Jewish communities around the world are able to set their own kashrut policies – as long as products prepared under their supervision are not intended to be exported to Israel.

While Roman Jews shared memes on social media showing the Jewish-style artichoke and the words “Je suis carciofo” (a play on the “Je suis Charlie” meme after the terror attack on the French satirical magazine’s offices in January 2015) and jokingly asked whether they should give up membership of the Jewish community in order to be keep eating the Jewish-style artichokes, few recognized that the Rabbinate’s authority does not extend beyond Israel’s borders.

“The influence of the Rabbinate on communities around the world on the issue of [what is] kashrut is purely inspirational, and its decisions are not binding for them,” said Rabbi Shneor Revach, who runs a kashrut laboratorial consultancy and sometimes advises the Rabbinate. “The Rome community should not worry,” he concluded.