An artichoke-fuelled journey from Rome to Venice
THERE’S PLENTY TO SEE AROUND MY hotel, the stately Hotel Regina Baglioni in Rome. Situated on Via Veneto, the birthplace of “la dolce vita” as epitomized by Federico Fellini, it’s just steps from Villa Borghese, the Spanish Steps and the newly renovated Trevi Fountain.
But it’s spring in Italy and for me that means artichokes. I’m participating in Ultimate Italy, a 13-day journey from Rome to Venice, that’s one of the newest additions to Insight Vacations’ Luxury Gold collection. While my escorted tour will feature many highlights such as a cooking class in Tuscany, my hidden agenda is to pursue my passion for carciofi.
I’m not alone in my admiration for this globeshaped vegetable, beloved throughout Italy since at least the 16th century. Yet, with its sharp spikes, fibrous choke and leathery outer leaves, the artichoke is one of the world’s most intimidating vegetables. It is after all, a thistle. But it’s also one of the most rewarding.
My culinary pilgrimage begins across the Tiber River, where I spend some free time on a walking tour of the Trastavere district with Eating Italy. My hope is that our food tastings will feature an artichoke or two. I’m not disappointed. Our first stop, at Da Enzo, a tiny trattoria hidden on a cobblestone backstreet, features carciofo alla giudia, artichokes served “Jewish style.” Appearing like giant inverted sunflowers, they are wrapped in a crispy crust that yields an interior as soft as a ripe avocado. I don’t ask if we’re supposed to eat the stems, I just do, enjoying the slightly stringy, buttery texture. Too soon it’s all over and I get the terrible feeling I may never taste anything quite as good again.
Fortunately, back at the Hotel Regina Baglioni, I discover that other restaurants are also celebrating artichoke season. Our travelling concierge Daniele Nanneti recommends Peppone, a restaurant established in 1809 that’s just a few doors away. Accompanied by Anthony Rich of Insight Vacations, a fellow food fan pursuing his own Italian quest — in his case it’s spaghetti zucchine e bottarga, a fish roe meal his Italy-born grandfather made in New York City — we’re both thrilled to see our dishes listed on the day’s menu. We do as the Romans do and enjoy a leisurely lunch. I opt for tagliolini carciofi e mentuccia, tender pasta with artichokes and springtime mint. Then, I order artichokes — stuffed, as carciofi alla romana — as well. Who knows what the rest of Italy might hold?
In Florence, after marvelling at Michelangelo’s David with the tour’s art historian, I head for Mercado di San Lorenzo, the historic indoor food market. Encouraged by the crates of artichokes on display, I join the locals at a traditional steam table. Here, a plate of rigatoni with Bolognese sauce and a large bowl of steamed artichokes offer a satisfying midday meal. With each earthy bite I’m struck by how different these are from the reptilian-looking veggies I’ve battled with at home. I mash the tender stems to create a paste to slather on the crusty bread as though an olive tapenade.
More pleasures await at Villa le Maschere, a lateRenaissance estate complete with swimming pool, in the beautiful Mugello valley just north of Florence. Built in the 16th century and recently restored, this luxurious villa once served as a retreat for popes, sovereigns and nobility. Its
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CL0CKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Trattoria Da Enzo in Trastavere, Rome; Expect to see many varieties of artichokes in Italy in spring.