On Sunday, my best friend Jennifer, her brand new husband Fabio, some of his friends, and my other friend Lauren all piled into two cars and headed west from Rome to a beach town called Ladispoli. The beach here is nothing special (if you want to go to a beach near Rome, I recommend Sperlonga), but in April every year, Ladispoli hosts Il Sagra del Carciofo – The Artichoke Festival.
Sidebar: one of my nerdy loves is figuring out the origin of city names. I knew polis meant city, but Ladis? We scratched our heads. Well, I just looked it up for you folks, and it was named for the city’s modern founder, Ladislao Odescalchi.
I am a huge fan of sagre. Pick food, any food, from everyday necessities like wine and pasta to extremely town-specific specialties such as ‘nduja (spreadable, spicy sausage), every edible item in Italy has a sagra to celebrate it in some little town. Last summer I attended several of them, evening after evening, in the mysterious, wild, deepest south of Italy – Calabria. The sagra of the tuna. The sagra of the eggplant. The sagra of candied nuts. And the aforementioned ‘nduja. (That’s not a misspelling – it’s a dialect of Italian).
This was my first sagra outside of Calabria and I was particularly pumped up about it because artichokes are probably my favorite vegetable. I’m not a big vegetable fan. My poor mother tried her best to get my sister and me to eat our peas, but we just stared hopelessly at our plates and prayed they would somehow turn into gummy bears. But an artichoke – well, it doesn’t seem like a vegetable you know? Especially in Italy, where I can usually find them deep fried, or chopped and added to pizza, or swimming in olive oil and garlic.
We were lucky with parking because it seemed like half of Rome was there. The whole idea of the festival is that you walk around from booth to booth, grazing, trying everything. We tried the deep-fried artichokes (carciofi alla giudia), pan-fried artichokes, artichoke lasagna, and a few non-artichoke items like olives, fried smelts and squid, and a single porchetta sandwich that was passed around and shared between about 10 people. We also had lots of little plastic cups of wine, so small I thought I hadn’t seen cups this size since the last time I was told to rinse at the dentist’s office. When I couldn’t eat any more friend stuff, I had an ice cream cone, naturally.
The people-watching was totally choice, with husky ladies in traditional Italian dresses eating with their hands and laughing – they reminded me of the lady Lucy fights with in the grape-stomping episode of I Love Lucy – and random bands playing folk music would spring up out of nowhere.
Maybe this is blasphemy, but the sagra reminded me a lot of a county fair in Georgia or Texas. Minus the livestock. Booth after booth of food, arcade games and stuffed animals, and traditional music. The difference is that we’re there celebrating the beauty and usefulness of the artichoke, people, not fried Oreos or something, and that’s what makes it so Italian. This country, with all of its problems, always gets the basic things right.