One of the sure signs that spring has arrived is the availability of locally grown artichokes. Each year, along the coast about an hour’s drive from Rome, the Romanesco Artichoke Festival of Ladispoli has been celebrated since 1951 during the month of April. The event provides a festive entry to the Italian spring and ushers in the tourist season.
The festival was created to broaden the appeal of the most popular member of the thistle family, which is proudly cultivated in Ladispoli, located on the Tyrrhenian Sea, nestled between the Tolfa Mountains and Lake Bracciano.
The slightly sleepy seaside resort boasts black volcanic sands and Etruscan remains and the festival is decidedly old school. If anything, it is a fine representation of the humble artichoke, but the attendees and participants are nonetheless enthusiastic, with creative presentations of the vegetable and delicious free samples for all. For three days, the city sets up 100 stands along the main streets while local restaurants offer menus with artichoke-based dishes. The event ends with a fireworks display on Sunday night.
The historical background of the Romanesco artichoke goes back to the Etruscan people during the 4th century BC. For hundreds of years this traditional Roma artichoke had been consumed by peasant families. But after the Second World War, its popularity increased significantly and inhabitants began to more widely cultivate it, primarily in the area of Ladispoli, Castellammare and Campagnano.
Each year sees a program which includes a conference on the economics and cultivation of the artichoke, a cooking contest for the best artichoke-based recipe and musical bands that come from all over Italy. Arguably, the best-loved attractions are the wedges of fried artichokes that are handed out to all attendees. In past years, the town’s main piazza was decorated with fantastic artichoke sculptures and the vendor that displays his chokes in the most creative and artistic way is awarded a prize.
This festival features both the enormous round artichokes called cimaroli and the cone-shaped violet-leaved violetta variety that come from the surrounding countryside. Each are extremely tender and without thorns or chokes which can be cooked numerous ways and are served with the famous breads of Sezze during the festival. Especially renowned are carciofi alla Romana, seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper and mentuccia, a delicate herb of the mint family and carciofi alla giudea, which are fried until they are crispy outside, tender inside and resemble a large chrysanthemum.
Best of all perhaps is that before, during and after the actual event, local restaurants serve special menus that feature an assortment of artichoke-based food. The festival is well worth a visit if you are curious about how many different ways the famous vegetable can be prepared and praised.