Romancing the Roman artichoke in a bohemian heatwave

An abundant display of public affection can be found on every street corner, grassy garden or fountain edge in Rome. The narrow medieval lanes have a mysterious quality and often a romantic hand in hand stroll can lead to breathtakingly beautiful discoveries, like walking through a living breathing open air museum. Is it any wonder then that "Roma" spelt backwards is "Amor" or that it is the city where the Romantic poets unfortunately expired. 

Indeed, the celebrated Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, were the subject of flirtatious banter between Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann and the handsome Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday - where love, life and romance are affirmed on a Vespa ride through the streets of Rome.

While you may not equate a cemetery with romance (or indeed Rome for that matter), the Protestant Cemetery in Rome is extraordinarily beautiful. Keats is buried here and at his death, Shelley said of Keats' burial place and adopted city of Rome, "it might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place." 

The gardens of the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio 
The cemetery also became the final resting place of Shelley and of many painters, sculptors, authors and writers. Filled with towering cypress tress, fragrant herbs and flowers the cemetery sits under the shadows of the Pyramid of Cestius and Rome's ancient Aurelian wall.  There are a great number of elaborate and beautiful monuments within the cemetery and many make tribute to enduring love stories, such as William Wetmore Story's The Angel of Grief. The most prominent American sculptor in Rome for 40 years, Story designed this beautiful sculpture, as a monument to his wife. It is also where he chose to be buried. 

The Angel of Grief and the gardens in the Protestant Cemetery 
If you make a trip to the cemetery you will be following the footsteps of many of the 19th and 20th centuries most prominent authors, for who this was a site of pilgrimage. This is where Henry Miller's fictional character, Daisy Miller came to be buried after catching 'Roman Fever". It is also the site which Oscar Wilde decreed to be the "holiest place in Rome." Rome aside, Italy itself popular with not only Keats and Shelly but also Lord Byron and many other English writers, came to be known as the "Paradise of the Exiles." It was warm, inexpensive, informal and jammed packed with art and culture at every turn - a far more attractive prospect for this rabble of bohemian aristocrats compared with their chilly homeland. 

Keats' Grave and the gardens and urns above Shelley's grave
If all of that love, death and romance has worked up your appetite, then you should continue your bohemian adventure into "Il Ghetto" to feed your amour the delicious petals from carciofi all giudua (crispy fried artichokes) and sample some other mouthwatering morsels from the tradition of hybrid Roman-Jewish cuisine. 

Il Ghetto 

On our recent "grand tour", Mr K and I made our way to the Ghetto, the area where the Rome's Jewish community were forced to live in a flood prone, ramshackle, cramped state of poverty until the late 1800s. However, from poverty and persecution came a wonderful culinary tradition that bought together the best Roman ingredients with traditional Sephardic (Spanish) and Libyan cooking. 

Il Ghetto 

Not easy to find and hidden behind a rather fetching red beaded curtain, Mr K and I discovered one of the smallest, very casual, hidden local gems in Il Ghetto, "Sora Margherita". After a hearty and robust greeting at the red curtain by the proprietor, Mr K and I were whisked within and seated next to a lovely older French couple who looked just as bamboozled as us by the warm greeting and frenetic activity within this tiny restaurant. 

Sora Margherita in Il Ghetto 

The walls are plastered with reviews - both from overseas visitors, locals, magazines and newspapers. There is a chalkboard menu on the wall with daily specials but apart from this, the provision of a traditional menu seems to be optional at Sora Marghertia - some tables got them and some didn't. Thankfully Mr K and I knew a little about the local food to ask a few questions of our charming host and ordered, with her approval, a crisp, chilled frascati, the carciofi alla giudia (fried artichokes), filetti di baccala’ (fried cod fillets), fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella), and aliciotti e indivia (anchovies with endive). In true when Harry Met Sally style, the French couple next to us decided to follow our lead and they had what we were having. 

The backdrop to our meal was very colourful and characterful. While Mr K and I nibbled at our artichokes upside down, the way the had been served, the French couple next to us had trimmed their artichoke stems and turned them up the correct way. Happily and without any inhibitions (or any word of French), out host rushed up to our dining companions and cheerfully grabbed their artichokes and flipped them back upside down, muttering a tut tut and smiling, suggesting in Italian that this was the way they should be eaten. A quick slap on Monsieur's back - and our host was off back to the kitchen. Monsieur seemed to find the whole experience rather charming and as he said "Italian", but Madame, who looked like she had just sucked a lemon, did not. Mr K and I tried to muffle our fits of giggles - which I think had been enhanced by the heat and the frascati. 

Inside Sora Margherita and the fried artichokes 

A chilled Frascati and the zucchini flowers stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and anchovies 

The food we ordered at Sora Margherita was absolutely delicious and we will definitely venture back on future visits to Rome. Our appreciation was not in isolation and this little gem is also a favourite amongst the local Roman foodie crowd.  While on our visit we were able to get a table without having to wait, I would definitely recommend making a booking if you are planning to visit if you want to avoid having to wait on the outdoor seats in the blistering Roman summer heat. As we left, there were a large number of people waiting for tables and starting to wilt in the heat. Also, a word of warning to the wise, if you are not a fan of the deep fried, this might not be the place for you - also don't expect a "casual" bill at the end of the meal. Our bill was around a fairly reasonable 50 euro, however, some of the restaurants patrons were not too impressed with the size of their bill on leaving.... 

Views from Sora Mirella 

After lunch, if your imagination is still inspired by the Romantic poets (and the frascati) then you should shelter from the heat of the afternoon sun at the Keats-Shelly Memorial House.  On route however, (and especially if you held off on ordering dessert), you may wish to stop by Sora Mirella to cool down with a grattachecca (traditional Roman shaved ice). One of the last authentic grattachecca kiosks left in Rome, Sora Mirella has tables by the Tiber, shaded by ancient Roman pine trees and offers the heavenly combination of crunchy ice, syrup and fresh fruit. The Monterosa is popular with the locals (strawberry and banana with a spritz of lemon) and the Preziosa (fresh raspberries, blueberries and strawberries) was absolutely to die for. This is a great spot to pull out your sketchbook and capture the locals. 

The Preziosa grattachecca and Sora Mirella kiosk 

The Keats-Shelly Memorial House is located right next to the Spanish steps. While there is a throng of tourists, gypsies and pesky rose sellers outside, the Keats-Shelley Memorial house has surprisingly few visitors. Indeed, we nearly had the place to ourselves.  The mood of the room where Keats spent the last few months of his life is very somber, but the rest of the apartment has an incredibly peaceful and positive aura. The views from the reading room out to the Spanish steps are extremely beautiful and take you back in time.  While we were visiting there was also a fantastic exhibition, "Illustrating Keats", which bought together images from all the major illustrated editions of John Keats’s poetry, from 1856 to the present day. 

Inside the Keats-Shelley Memorial House and a view out to the Spanish steps 

A detail from the Spanish Steps

Storm clouds rolling in over the Spanish Steps 

As you exit the Keats and Shelley house, in probably a reflective mood, there is no better spot to savour a view of the Spanish Steps as the sun sets, with your loved one, than at Il Palazetto wine bar. The small terrace, which only seats about 30 people, overlooks the whole of the Piazza di Spangna. The bar offers an excellent wine list and stuzzichini (light snacks) and the staff are extremely friendly and helpful. We didn't order any food, apart from a small dish of olives and our charming waiter suggested a light, local red wine which completed our mood and the dusky evening light perfectly. ll Palazetto was an incredibly romantic spot, definitely a place we will return to - and definitely one I would recommend if you are out to woo your amour.... 

A local red wine and olives at Il Palazaetto 

Night view of the Spanish Steps from Il Palazetto 

While Rome offered us lots of romantic moments, the kind locals also shared with us an abundance of wonderful Roman recipes including two for the famous local Roman artichoke dishes. For me there is something very, very Roman about the artichoke. Maybe it is because the artichoke often looks like a giant pine cone and Rome is absolutely dotted with those ancient trees? Historical accounts also suggest that wealthy Ancient Romans feasted on artichokes prepared in honey and vinegar, seasoned with cumin, until the fall of Rome, when they became scarce until Catherine de Medici bought them back into vogue during the Renaissance. 

The story that captures my attention the most and links the artichoke to Rome concerns one Michelangelo Merisi, the great painter know as Caravaggio. Quick to anger, his temperament created great art but also got him into a whole world of trouble. Although it sounds like a great joke, historical records from 1604 recount what is known as "the artichoke case." Carvaggio had ordered a plate of eight artichokes for lunch - four fried in oil and the rest fried in butter. Wanting to know which were which, Caravggio asked the waiter who replied that perhaps he should smell them, which would enable him to tell the difference. Without another word, Caravaggio's famous temperament kicked in and he upended the whole earthenware plate over the waiter and then reached for a sword. The waiter very wisely bolted to the local police station. 

While I adored the carciofi alla giudia (which was probably very similar to the dish that Caravaggio upended on the poor waiter) I have to say I am not a huge fan of eating fried food too often - and I am also not a fan of deep frying in the kitchen. Hot spluttering oil is not my idea of a relaxing time in the kitchen. Happily, Rome also has another favourite artichoke dish - carciofi alla romana. A dish of artichokes stuffed with herbs and garlic, braised in white wine and olive oil. Perhaps Caravaggio should have ordered these and avoided that whole unfortunate incident!

Romans are very lucky in the fact that they can by pre cleaned artichokes for this dish from their local market. We saw huge buckets of freshly prepared artichokes, floating in lemon water at the Testaccio market, just waiting to be filled with this delicious mix of herbs. However, if you live any where other than Rome, the first step of this recipe is to clean your artichoke by removing the bitter hairy choke. 

Step 1. Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the lemon juice. Remove the stem of the artichoke, so that it can sit flat. Dip in the lemon water. Then remove the outer leaves of the artichoke (keep dipping in the lemon water) and trim about one inch from the tip. Pull out the inner purple leaves and scrape out the choke with a spoon.  When the choke is removed, place the cleaned and prepared artichoke in the bowl of lemon water. 

Step 2. Finely chop the mint leaves, parsley and 2 garlic cloves. Combine the herbs in a bowl with around two tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt, mix well. 

Step 3. In the centre of each prepared artichoke, place some of the herb mixture. Place the artichokes in a deep pot, sitting them up snugly so they don't fall over. If you kept the peeled stems when cleaning the artichokes, these might now come in handy for keeping them upright. Add the wine, boiling water (you could also use a cup of boiling vegetable or chicken stock) and remaining oil. At this point I also added the remaining garlic cloves (peeled) into the liquid. A home that has skordalia once a week expects a good garlic hit in most dishes. Cover with a sheet of greaseproof paper and a lid. 

Step 4. Simmer on a low heat for about 45 mins to 1 hour. Serve hot with a rustic bread and a Roman wine, such as a Frascati. 

The Non Catholic Cemetery in Rome (Protestant Cemetery) 
Via Caio Cestio, 6

00153 Roma
Monday-Saturday from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm 
Sundays and public holidays 9.00 am to 1.00 pm 

Sora Margherita 
Piazza delle Cinque Scole, 30  
00186 Rome, Italy

Sora Mirella
Lungotevere degli Anguillara (Ponte Cestio)

Keats and Shelley Memorial House 
Piazza di Spagna, 26  
00187 Rome
Monday to Friday 10.00 to 13.00 and 14.00 to 18.00
Saturday 11.00 to 14.00 and 15.00 to 18:00
Sunday Closed
Admission €4.50 Adults 

Il Palazetto Wine Bar 
Vicolo del Bottino, 8
00187 Roma


  1. Mrs M, such an enchanting post.... it takes me right there with you. I am going to bookmark it and enjoy it thoroughly (we have just touched down from a trip to Darwin). Love your work, as always xox

    1. Thanks Lizzy!!! Look forward to hearing about your adventures in Darwin - such a vibrant and dynamic place ; )

  2. Thankyou for that fantastic tour and beautiful photos. I will try that recipe when I come across some artichokes, I'm going to look out for them now.

    1. Hi Alicia, thank you for stopping by and for your lovely comments. There are a few artichokes appearing at markets now but there should be an abundance closer to spring!!

  3. I fell in love with Rome as soon as we reached there and immediately told Mr NQN that we just had to come back soon! :) Lovely photos.

    1. Thanks Lorraine! I hope you get to travel back very soon!

  4. I can hardly wait for my artichokes to flower, these look lovely indeed!

    1. I hope the flower soon for you! I can't wait for artichoke season. I am hoping there are some nice small ones available at the farmers markets to make some provincale style artichokes too!

  5. What a beautiful post. Your photos are absolutely gorgeous...I felt like I was right there! I happen to have 2 giant artichokes on my counter as we speak. This recipe sounds perfect. Looking forward to coming back and reading more!


Thank you for your comments, I really appreciate every single one!

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Maira Gall