on a whim

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I’m not sure how best to translate sfizi. For the sake of straightforwardness and my index, I could suggest they are snacks or appetizers; something tasty to fill a gap or begin a meal. Fine, but both words miss the point. Treat is another translation I’ve come across. But that too doesn’t quite capture the nature of sfizi and their cheeky, uncompromising nature.

If we look at the dictionary we find sfizi is the plural of sfizio which isn’t a thing at all, but a whim or fancy that may or may not be related to food. It’s an urge, want or craving that simply has to be satisfied. Sfizi then is the informal, colloquial term for the things you eat when struck by a craving, whim or fancy. It’s a term that comes from Naples I think, but one often adopted by Romans. Sfizi are delicious things that are mostly fried until golden, or leavened until plump. There are also sweet sfizi, but more about that another day. Savory sfizi were one of first (food) things I loved about Rome.

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I’d only been in a Rome a few months. I’d already fallen foul of every tourist trap an English woman with almost no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday might encounter. I’d already discovered that despite popular belief, it’s all too easy to eat badly in Rome, especially if you are an English woman with no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday. I was also keeping quite particular and solitary hours, so not searching for long lunches and memorable suppers. At least not most of the time. It was also hot, the kind of beating, seething hot that makes meals less appealing and the succumbing to whims and fancies more so. I stumbled inadvertently into a life of sfizi.

It started with a slice of pizza bianca at an unassuming bakery called Guerrini on the corner of Galvani and Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. A bakery I now – eight years later  - live more or less above. A slice of pizza bianca (which is best described as a soft foccacia or flat bread that is baked, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and served still hot in squares) which was split and then filled with a slice of prosciutto and a ripe fig. A combination of soft, crisp, oily, salty and sweet that should be tasted at least once.

I gestured that I wanted my pizza left open, to eat straight away. I took a bite before I’d even paid. ‘Finalmente, ti sei levata lo sfizio di mangiare una bella pizza’ said the man behind the counter. Which I now understand as ‘Finally, you’ve satisfied a whim to eat a good pizza.’ Of course back then, I didn’t really understand. I got the jist though. Which wasn’t surprising, after all I was full of whim and fancy and clearly sfizi were the answer.

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A suppli: a croquette of tomato flavoured risotto rice and with a piece of mozzarella at its heart, egged, breadcrumbed and then fried, eaten while walking along Lungotevere Testaccio, looking at the river and wondering how such a glorious city became so litter-ridden and skanky. Two polpette di ricotta; deep-fried balls of soft cheese flecked with spinach and mint from the Jewish tavola calda. A slice of pizza bianca here, another of pizza rosso there. Panzarotti: fried turnovers with prosciutto and mozzarella while walking from one ruin to another. A deep-fried, battered filet of salt cod consumed on the grubby steps of a church near Campo di Fiori. I still have the stained shirt to prove it. There were also zucchini flowers, dozens of them – the ephemeral golden things you find in bunches at the market at this time of year – stuffed with a piece of mozzarella and a sliver of anchovy dipped in batter and then fried.

Of course these aren’t just sfizi, they are snacks, merende, intermezzi (in-betweens) stuzzichini and of course antipasti, which literally translated means before the meal, a tasty morsel or five that pleases and paves the way for the food to follow. In fact nowadays – give or take the odd whim –   I mostly eat the above as antipasti and only at places that really know how to bake or fry. Here for example, or here. Or now I have the courage, here at home.

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I’m not sure what on earth possessed me to fry on possibly the hottest day of the year so far! What am I saying, of course I do! It was a sfizio, a fancy, a whim for something. A something that just happened to be fiori di zucca. It was hours before my favorite places started frying. But not too late to zigzag my way – dodging the late morning sun -  along via Galvani to the market to buy myself two bunches of golden flowers, a ball of mozzarella and a bottle of oil.

In truth my sfizio had been rumbling for days, ever since reading my friend Jo’s post about batter. Batter matters. In truth, I thought I’d settled on a batter for fiori di zucca, a light and lovely one made with just egg whites that produces crisp cocoons that shatter and then melt. Jo’s batter is a softer more comely affair which – if fried correctly – produces properly crisp fiori but with something forgiving about them. Like a sharp, handsome man with a slight belly. A fitting contrast with the melted cheese and salty fish within. Jo’s batter has the same amount of flour as water and one egg for every 100 g / 100 ml. There is no yeast, beer or fizzy water. In fact it is as simple as batter can be, and so good. At least I think so.

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It’s all very straightforward, you beat the flour, salt, water and egg yolks into a smooth, thick cream with a whisk (Jo used an electric one but I used my balloon.) Then in a large clean bowl you beat the egg whites so vigorously they look like Mont Blanc before folding them into the pale cream. Then a rest – both you and the batter – for at least an hour, as this will do you the world of good and chill the batter enough to really contrast with the hot oil which will give you a crisp finish.

Of course you have prudently washed and dried your zucchini flowers. Once dry, you trim away some of the green tendrils, tuck a little piece of mozzarella and sliver of anchovy inside each flower then pinch and twirl the tip so it closes. Your hot oil must be ready as the stuffed flowers need to be fried quick haste. Using the stem of the flower as a handle, you drag the flower through the batter this way and that. Then still using the stem, you drop your battered flowers into the hot oil and fry them until golden and crisp. I wish I could give you a temperature for this, but I can’t as I don’t even possess a thermometer.

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Once the flowers look like puffy, golden cocoons and are bobbing excitedly, you lift them from the hot oil – with a slotted spoon – onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Once blotted, slide the fried flowers onto another plate and sprinkle with salt. Call your companions into the kitchen and – while you get on with frying the next batch – dispatch any whims or fancies by eating the first fiori while they are still tongue scaldingly hot.

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Fiori di zucca   Deep-fried zucchini flowers filled with mozzarella and anchovy

Adapted from Jo’s recipe.

serves 4 people (so three each) with a craving for something tasty.

  • 200 g plain flour (Jo suggests that 50 g of this is corn starch)
  • 2 eggs (separated)
  • 200 ml cold water
  • salt
  • 12 fresh and pert zucchini flowers with stems
  • 250 g mozzarella
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • Sunflower or peanut oil for frying

Make the batter by beating the flour, salt, water and egg yolks into a smooth, thick cream with a whisk (electric or hand.)  In a large clean bowl whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and then fold them into the rest of the batter. Allow the batter to rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Soak the flowers in cool water for a minute. Remove them, blot them gently and then leave them to dry completely on a clean tea towel.

Once the  batter is chilled, start heating the oil and stuff each flower with a piece of mozzarella and half an anchovy. Pinch and twist the flowers so they close.

Using the stem of the flower as a handle, drag a flower through the batter so it is well-coated and then drop it into the hot oil. Depending on the size of your pan fry the flowers in batches of 2, 3, 4 even five but ideally no more.

Nudge and turn the flowers with wooden fork or spoon so they fry evenly. Once crisp and golden scoop the flowers from the oil onto a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel using a slotted spoon. Once blotted, slide the flowers onto a clean plate, sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

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48 Comments

Filed under antipasti, courgettes, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food

48 responses to “on a whim

  1. They are perhaps my favourite food discovery! I’ve tried to cook them a few times with mixed success, will try the batter you suggest!

    • rachel

      Hi Catherine, I really recommend this batter and that you have a look at Jo’s posts about frying them too – it is very helpful. Keep cool as humanly possible.

  2. victoria2nyc

    These do look wonderful. I’ve only ever had them stuffed with ricotta so this will be a treat to try. I also fry in a deep-ish pot and not a frying pan. I use a batter from Marcella to fry cauliflower, which is delish, and I will be happy to try a new and different one.

    • rachel

      I like that marcella batter too. This is an interesting one, it seems heavier and old fashioned in the face of lighter, more tempura like batters. But it works beautifully for the fiori and their melted cheese and salty fish heart. Hope you are well x

      • I am well, AND I found fiori di zucca at the farmer’s market this morning. I am armed with lovely mozzarella and the most delicious anchovies I have ever eaten. I will start with your sfizi tonight, followed by Marcella’s zucchini parmesan, which is especially delicious with no breading. xo

        Yeah – let me know please Rxx

  3. Oh dear, I so want to eat these again. But I just loathe doing deep fried food. What to do with all that oil? The post-frying stink? Any thoughts? But thank you for another great post, and for introducing me to your friend Jo’s blog.

    • rachel

      I know what you mean. I don’t fry often, only when the urge overcomes me. I use my oil twice (i know) filter it in-between and then keep it on the balcony. Glad you like Jo’s blog. I like it very much too, she is probably my favourite online source for authentic, tested and delicious Roman recipes.

  4. Beautiful! I ate deep fried fiori di zucca once in Rome a few years ago and they were delicious, but as they cannot be found in Northern France unless you have them in your own garden, I can only admire…

    • rachel

      It’s been so hot here, the flowers are pretty hard to come by too. I saw some nice ones this morning, wish I could send you a bunch.

  5. Dennis

    “I wish I could give you a temperature for this, but I can’t as I don’t even possess a thermometer.” Thank you! (I love fritti.)

  6. Lovely post. I had just this sfizio for courgette flowers and was convinced I’d find some on the allotment today. Almost but not quite. Sfizio deferred!

  7. telbel

    Dear Rachel, I completely love your blog. It one of the highlights of my week. Would you consider changing places with an overworked London journalist? (no, didn’t think so.)

    Fiori di zucca are one of my absolute favourite things to eat, but alas, impossible to find in the UK. We eat so many courgettes here, and the supermarkets are heaving with them in the summer, that you’d think there would be plenty of flowers too. Where do they go? Are the courgette farmers secretly keeping them and having fiori feasts every night?

    • rachel

      Thank you that is so nice to hear. And actually at this precise moment (boiling, sticky child screaming and flat like a bomb site) i would change. But just for an hour or so.
      Ha – such a good point, where the frick are the flowers. I think you are right, the courgette farmers are frying them up, opening a beer and dancing the night away singing ‘ all for us’

      • telbel

        Dear Rachel, I thought you’d like to know that I’ve been on holiday to Firenze and managed to bring back to London two dozen fiori, carefully boxed up and wrapped in a ‘frigo bag’. The man at the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio clearly thinks I have been touched by the fairies. True – if there is such a thing as a zucchini fairy. And I also found packets of seeds which promise to ‘produce numerosi fiori’. If they work I may just quit that bloomin’ job and open my own fritti bar in Blighty!

      • rachel

        I think this is brilliant and shows true dedication to frying. Which is of course a requisite for opening a fritti bar. Which I think is a brilliant idea and I would like to offer my services as taster, advertiser, helper, cheering squad when you do it. Rx

  8. Is Al Pompiere still there? I liked their fiori di zucca a lot.

  9. Love the word “sfizio” and the fried zucchini blossoms. I, too, remember eating them in Rome in a family-owned restaurant on a small side street near the Trevi fountain. Delicious! As they say, “I will return”– one day I hope. Enjoy the rest of the summer.

    • rachel

      Freshly fried they are one of the most delicious things. It’s quite hard to find the flowers at the market as the trattorias get most of them. You too, enjoy the rest of the summer Rx

  10. First of all, I just want to say I absolutely love your blog – thanks for bringing me along. And secondly, I love the addition of the anchovy to the fiori di zucca…I’ll have to try it!

    • rachel

      Thanks lane, that is nice to hear. And yes, try, the salty fish contrasts so well with the crisp batter, soft melted cheese and gentle flower.

  11. laura

    Grazie per questo squisito e sfizioso post!
    Love that you’ve come to be on top of where your food prowess more or less began!

  12. How I wish I could flit across Rome eating all the wonderful things you’ve described! I must visit – thanks for sharing

  13. a

    Fantastic blog, thank you so much for sharing

  14. Oh how lovely, and as I have a courgette plant that seems only to want to sprout males then I may be trying these very soon. Is that the chair that used to sit in the doorway that I see in these photos?

    • rachel

      It is, it’s back. (actually it never went away, it was just hiding). i am still getting a handle on my new tiny kitchen. I love it but in this heat it is a nightmare, esepcially when I insist on frying. Rx

  15. Oh, Ohi, Rachel … thank you for your lovely words of appreciation … it makes me very happy indeed to know that I’ve been of any reasonable batter-kind ‘help! !!! I simply adore courgette blossome (fiori di zucca) and because they’re around for only a few months a yearm they are most definitely a delight in the panoply of Roman “Sfizi” …

    • rachel

      Jo – as I hope you know – you are my favorite and most trusted resource for Roman (and other) food. You are right, this batter is perfect with the fiori, cheese and anchovies. Thank you thank you and see you as soon as possible x

  16. I think the first thing I ate in Rome myself was also pizza bianca – from Roscioli, just because I had to. Actually no, that’s not right, I booked a flat litterally 50m from Bonci, so you know, it was impossible not to go there every single day for a piece of pizza in teglia or two..:) I haven’t done anything with zucchini flowers this year and I deeply regret it, now even more so! P.S: you say zucchini? I get soooo made fun of here for saying zucchini…:)

    • rachel

      Bouncing between Bonci and Roscioli – that sounds perfect. Ha, you are right courgette is the word I know and love. Years here and lots of US readers and I have adopted zucchini though. A bit of a linguistic betrayal. Pop on over (it is steaming ) and I will fry us up a batch.

  17. Graham Jepson

    A nice piece of writing Rachel. Some words don’t stand translation – that’s the pleasure of being bi-lingual and also the frustration of not being able to properly convey the full meaning of certain terms to share with others.
    I’ve never eaten zucchini flowers and am not sure that I ever will, especially when fresh and pert (sounds like a Nigella-ism), because I have never seen them where I live. Nevertheless, you convey their allure so well that I am considering growing my own zucchini if only for the fiori.

    • rachel

      Thank you Graham. Did did pause over the pert bit, but it seemed the right word. I still love Nigella despite everything. How To Eat is one of my most well loved and used books. I assume you have a garden – lucky you – so yes, get growing. R

  18. Rachel I love your blog so much, and think you would write the most amazing cook/story book – when is this going to happen? I will prepare a prime spot on my cookbook shelf for when it does, I already know it will be my favourite.

  19. Heaven should always come with good snacks, and the best are to be found in Italy, I think it has to do with a certain attitude towards life. Thanks for reminding me of some of my favorite ones!

  20. Hello Rachel. Our farmers market today yielded courgette blossoms! In London!! In Streatham no less!! I am beyond excited and as much as I loathe the smell of deep frying that will permeate the entire flat, I cannot wait to make these tomorrow. All doors and window will be open and all extractor fans on full blast. Mozzarella and anchovy are an absolutely inspired combination. I do so love your stories and the food you post about and thank you also for introducing Jo to my blogroll! I have just started blogging and take inspiration from you! Ciao! Selma

    • rachel

      Hooray for courgette flowers…yes,yes throw open the window, heat up the oil and fry (and then eat). Thank you for your kind words, it is great to have your reading along! Yes Jo is brilliant, my absolute favourite and most trusted source for Roman food. All the best with your own blogging R

  21. The deer have been eating all of my zucchini but leaving me the blossoms. At least that! I love fiori di zucca. Sometimes I like to stuff them with a little black olive paste in place of the anchovies (sacrilege, I know but it is very tasty!).

  22. Pingback: a bit shallow | rachel eats

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