A food fight has broken out in Italy over one of the Roman-Jewish community’s most beloved dishes, carciofi alla giudìa (Jewish-style artichokes), which Israel’s Chief Rabbinate rejects as nonkosher.
The deep-fried vegetable comes out with irresistible, crunchy leaves, making the dish a perennial on Roman tables at both Passover and all-year-round. A few months ago, though, Israel’s Rabbinate banned imports of a ready-made version of the dish, ordering its immediate removal from shelves.
The problem? Insects and worms might reside within the vegetable (which is not to be confused with the Jerusalem artichoke), thereby making it nonkosher. Speaking to Haaretz, the Rabbinate’s Import Division head, Rabbi Yitzhak Arazi, put it more bluntly. “The heart of the artichoke is full of worms, there is no way you can clean it. It cannot be kosher,” he explained, adding, “This is not our policy, this is Jewish religious law.”
In compliance with the Rabbinate’s guidelines, members of the Jewish community in Milan asked Rome’s famous restaurant chain, Ba’Ghetto, to remove the dish from the menu at its new Milan branch, which opened at the end of March.
Removing the signature dish from a restaurant renowned for its Roman-Jewish cuisine led to some awkward conversations between customers puzzled at not finding it on the menu and embarrassed hosts. When the restaurant manager negotiated a revised version of carciofi alla giudìa being on the menu, disappointed restaurant patrons commented that it was not the same.
Roman Jews were shocked by the move and felt their deep-rooted culinary tradition was coming under attack.
The controversy was further stirred last week when Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, and the Jewish community leader, Ruth Dureghello, were seen busily peeling artichokes in a pre-Passover video greeting to the community.
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“At the outset of Passover, the debate over the kashrut of our traditional carciofi alla giudìa became the trending topic within the community and on the Facebook groups used by our members,” the former president of Rome’s Jewish community, Riccardo Pacifici, told Haaretz this week. “When the video of the chief rabbi and the president peeling artichokes appeared, it was obvious to us it was a reference to the controversy.”
Contacted by phone by Haaretz, Dureghello and Di Segni declined to comment.
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. But that doesn’t mean the Israeli Rabbinate’s guidelines don’t influence the Diaspora.
Rabbi Ariel Toaff – the son of Elio Toaff, who was Rome’s chief rabbi for some 50 years – now lives in Tel Aviv and used to buy imported carciofi alla giudìa. “But a few months ago, my retailer said he had to stop importing the artichoke dish if he wanted to keep his certificate from the Rabbinate,” he told Haaretz.
Toaff was “outraged by the ban,” he explained, since in Rome “at every seder you find artichokes on the table because their round shape is symbolic of the continuation of life.”
He said he has found carciofi alla giudìa recipes dating all the way back to the 16th century. When he took to Facebook to protest the ban, people who followed him called for a petition against the Rabbinate. Others accused it of corruption, suggesting that certificates for food producers to access the market in Israel are not exclusively based on religious concerns.
This isn’t the first time strict kashrut rules have threatened Rome’s culinary culture.
“We already had to give up the ciambellette,” Toaff said, referring to the ring-shaped donuts that were once ubiquitous in Rome’s Jewish homes during Passover. However, concerns over how “kosher for Pesach” they were meant that production was restricted to a few carefully monitored bakeries.
This is not a step the community is prepared to take for its signature artichoke dish. Not only does it represent an ancient tradition, it is also one of the most popular dishes in the Jewish Ghetto quarter’s restaurants, and a ban would impact their business. “Those banning it know nothing about the tradition,” Toaff complained.
Ilan Dabush, who manages Ba’Ghetto’s four restaurants in Rome, is definitely struggling with the ban. While he serves up carciofi alla giudìa in the capital, he is now negotiating to get it back on the menu in the Milan restaurant.
“The community in Milan seems to have more stringent standards,” Dabush sighed. “However, I might be able to serve the dish if I follow their request to completely clean the artichokes, pull them into pieces and fry them separately, and then reassemble them. Of course it’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be the same, but what can you do?” he asked.
However, the artichoke twist in Milan is still unlikely to be accepted in Israel by the Rabbinate, which consider the heart of the artichoke nonkosher by definition. The Orthodox Union in America also does not allow artichoke hearts into OU-sanctioned restaurants due to the difficulty of checking for insects.
Still, there are a few Italian kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv that dare to serve the dish – praying that inspectors from the Rabbinate won’t stop by for dinner.