Ladispoli’s ‘sagra’ is no choking matter

The annual artichoke festival of Ladispoli: a chaotic, noisy, messy weekend dedicated – despite the funfair atmosphere and market stalls – to the serious adulation and veneration of that leafy green globe.

Prize-winning 'chokes

It all began in 1950, when the comune of Ladispoli – then a small town with less than half today’s population and impoverished in post-war Italy – wanted to attract trade and business. Local legend has it that the idea for the ‘Sagra del Carciofo Romanesco’ was hatched by a group of young friends over a late-night dinner in La Tripolina, Ladispoli’s historic restaurant in piazza Rossellini. Corrado Melone, who went on to become a prominent local author, was discussing the forlorn state of his beloved town with friends and, as they picked over a plate of delicious fried artichokes, they struck on the idea of promoting their strongest asset.

Sixty-one years later, the rest, as they say, is history.

But these days many Ladispolani make a point of escaping – and who can blame them? More than 100 market stallholders set up their wares all the way down the main streets – viale Italia, via Odescalchi and via Ancona – while thousands of day trippers descend on the small seaside town.

The inspiration, be-all and end-all of the 'sagra del carciofo romanesco': the unique and wonderful fried artichoke (in a thin flour-and-egg batter)

Over the attractions of the stalls selling everything from plastic tat to vacuum cleaners (the legendary Folletto, no Italian household is without one), the town council is fighting to keep the focus firmly on Ladispoli’s ‘king of crops’. They are served up in many guises: fried artichokes in batter are a favourite but other forms include deep-fried ‘Jewish’ artichokes, artichoke pizza (on sale at Il Fornaio on viale Italia during the festival) and artichokes ‘alla romana’ (cooked in olive oil with garlic and ‘mentuccia’).

Local restaurants offer special artichoke menus for the three days of the sagra – I was particularly tempted by ‘choke-related offerings at Obbligo di Scarpetta but we finally sat down for lunch at Fronte Mare on Saturday. The menu started well for Dan with a ‘tris’ of artichoke antipasti – including an artichoke ‘frittata’ – while I opted for an artichoke soufflé, which was seriously tasty and light. Next for Dan was orecchiette with artichokes and octopus. His verdict: ‘Hmm, where’s the octopus? And, come to think of it, where are the artichokes?’

They were obviously having a very busy day, so we were quite understanding and kept the faith since our friends had eaten very well there a few days earlier. My artichoke-filled ravioli in pecorino sauce were good. Dan’s set meal concluded with scorpionfish (‘scorfano’) with artichokes and potatoes… good apart from the under-cooked potatoes.

We may have been a little disappointed by the food (we will give them a second chance another time when there aren’t 20,000 extra people in town) but having a lazy lunch with white wine on a hot spring day, watching people walk by and the sea twinkling in the sun – well, the food would have to have been a lot worse to spoil the enjoyment.

One of the prize-winning artichoke sculptures - this one is 'Garibaldi' on an artichoke horse.

On the Sunday morning of the sagra, there is one of the most bizarre artichoke-inspired spectacles you could ever wish to behold. Local producers fuse their finest ‘chokes with their wildest imaginations to produce…. artichoke sculptures. They are peculiar child-like forms representing animals (this year there was a patriotic horse… the scarecrow-like Garibaldi on the horse’s back was pretty scary, but in the past I’ve been particularly impressed by an artichoke peacock and a crocodile), vehicles (ferrari and ducati are popular) and household objects such as clocks, cakes and umbrellas. Each year I live in hope that someone will have the balls to create an artichoke Berlusconi. So far I’ve been disappointed. I swear I will do it myself next year, spelling out the words ‘Bunga Bunga’ underneath with artichokes.

All in all, the Sagra del Carciofo Romanesco is a bit of a disappointment: many locals don’t buy the artichokes on sale because they believe that farmers give them too many chemical fertilizers to make them big and beautiful (Dan’s aunt never tires of telling us about the toad the size of a football found in a field of carciofi, it had evidently eaten a fertilizer pellet). What with the odd (and somewhat tame) artichoke sculptures, the commercial and tacky market stalls and the uncertain food offerings, there is some way to go before the festival can build its reputation on organic, nutritious local farmers’ produce and culinary excellence.

Raw artichoke salad with parmesan is one of the highlights of the artichoke-fest

Perhaps the only person who has really understood the spirit of the artichoke festival is our neighbour Marina – she also happens to be a professional chef. Each year she invites friends and family over for an artichoke-inspired lunch, using organic ingredients from her father’s farm. The menu this year included artichoke lasagne, raw artichoke salad with parmeggiano, ‘Jewish’ artichokes (deep-fried) and battered artichokes (tons of them). It was quality food, from a small local organic farm, cooked by someone who really knows what she’s doing – surely that is the spirit of a local food festival?

I hope Marina’s philosophy will catch on soon. Until it does, I will content myself with figuring out how to get a create a likeness of Berlusconi for next year.

Viale Italia, Ladispoli's main thoroughfare, lit up with market stalls for the 'sagra del carciofo'. Photo by Daniele Latini

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