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.
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 I’d already fallen foul of every tourist trap an English woman with almost no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday might encounter.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popular belief, it’s all too easy to eat badly in Rome, especially if you are an English woman with no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.