ROME — I have always loved artichokes fried in the Jewish style, or carciofi alla giudia, a traditional dish of the Roman Seder. So on a recent trip to Rome, I hunted for them. Every chef I queried had the same answer, delivered with the same slightly weary shrug: You have to go to the ghetto for that.
The former Jewish ghetto is near the center of the city, on the banks of the Tiber. At one restaurant there, a worker carved away the tough parts of the artichokes until they resembled small balls of yellow and green. After frying, they were as crisp as a potato chip on the outside but tender at the heart.
I nibbled on just a few so I would still be hungry when I found my way to the penthouse of Paola Modigliani Fano, a home cook who lives just outside the ghetto in the 16th-century Palazzo Cenci.
Fano, a retired high school science teacher, greeted me with two gifts: a facsimile of Donatella Limentani Pavoncellos 1880 cookbook, La Cucina Ebraica della Mia Famiglia (The Jewish Cooking of My Family), and a coltello da carciofi, a knife for cutting artichokes.
Bring this back to America, she said with a laugh. You will need a knife that is very, very sharp.
Fano turned and trimmed the small and slightly purple Roman artichokes with an almost meditative rhythm. Because these were the first of the season and different from the American globe variety, there was no need to remove the choke.
She tapped the trimmed artichokes on the table to loosen their petals, then cooked them in oil, carefully spreading their inner leaves so that they would resemble golden chrysanthemums when returned to the oil, hotter this time so that they would sizzle and puff up.
When artichokes are in season, she cooks hundreds, freezing them after the first frying and refrying them for Passover and birthdays and family gatherings throughout the year.
When I cook artichokes, she added, I think of my grandmother, who taught me this great Passover tradition, passed down to me for generations.
2 tablespoons fine sea salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
Juice and rind of 2 lemons
8 American globe artichokes
2 or more quarts of olive oil, for frying
MIX salt and pepper in a small bowl. Fill a large bowl with water and add juice and rinds of lemons. Set both bowls aside.
USING a sharp paring knife, shave off the tough outer leaves of artichokes until you reach the tender pale green or yellow leaves and create a bulbous shape. Cut off at least an inch of the thorny top. Trim the stem near the heart, peeling off the outer green fiber and leaving about 2 inches of stem if possible. Immediately put the artichokes in the lemon water to prevent browning.
FILL an electric fryer or deep cast-iron enameled pot with enough oil to almost cover artichokes. Heat to 325 degrees. While oil is heating, dry artichokes well with paper towels. Tap the flat top of the cut artichoke against the table to loosen the leaves. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, rubbing in the seasoning.
FRY artichokes in batches. Cook, turning occasionally with tongs, for about 15 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces the stem at its thickest point. The outside should be bronzed.
REMOVE artichokes from oil and drain well, stem side up, on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Gently open leaves to remove choke (using a grapefruit spoon or melon baller) and encourage the leaves to spread. You can now freeze them or leave them out, stem side up, for a few hours until ready to finish.
WHEN ready to serve, reheat the oil to 350. Working in batches again, return artichokes, stem side up, to hot oil just to crisp. Drain well and serve immediately with a sprinkle of salt. Eat with your fingers.
Yield: 8 servings.