On Sunday we went for lunch on the other side of Rome. With the city seemingly empty of both Romans and tourists and every traffic light on our side, we flew from Testaccio to Piazza Bologna in record time in the invincible panda. We chuckled at the choice of parking spaces in an area notorious for none, before choosing the nearest and shadiest. We walked as briskly as is possible in nearly 40° both stopping short of the corner. Struck by the same thought in the same moment, our eyes conversed: it was August 18th, almost everyone was away, almost everything was closed, why hadn’t we thought to check? We took the corner holding our breath until we saw the patchwork of plastic tables.
I knew we were going to a tavola calda - which literally means hot table – so I was expecting an informal, canteen-like place serving good (enough) food. I knew it was Sicilian, so I was expecting noise and good caponata. I wasn’t expecting ‘Mpare. My friend, a Sicilian, was immediately at ease. Me? Less so.
Tavola calda in Rome are mostly spartan, functional places with white walls, glass-fronted counters, resistant glasses and even more resistant tables. ‘Mpare is the opposite. ‘This is what you call horror vacui or fear of the void‘ said the Sicilian as we entered the most elaborate tavola calda I’ve ever seen. Every wall, surface and corner was decorated with something tiled, embossed or Sicilian. Sorry, Catanese, I was reminded as we looked up at a golden mosaic of Catania’s patron saint Agata gazing down benevolently. Glass chandeliers chinked, cherubs winked, every chair was frocked, every shelf well-stocked and the three food counters a riot of colour where lines between sweet and savory were blurred. I turned to find my son up on a waiters’ shoulders eating a brioche. Everyone was shouting, apparently with a Sicilian accent. I was relieved to retreat to an outside table.
Peace was short-lived as I was joined by a significant proportion of Rome’s Sicilian community. The waiter with a jaunty black cap (now with my son over his shoulder fireman style) filled our table void with advert-heavy paper mats, orange envelopes full of cutlery, four tulip glasses, and menus as padded as Joan Collin’s shoulders in 1983. Another waiter, also with jaunty cap, whisked past with a plate of pasta con le sarde. ‘Due di quelle (two of those)’ we said in unison. ‘E per cominciare; una caponata, un arancino, e due birre.’
The promise of pasta con le sarde was all I needed. An immoderate gulp of average beer (that was cold enough to be forgiven) and a forkful of caponata – a sweet and sour stew of celery, aubergine, tomato, pine nuts and on this occasion red pepper – and all was well. The tip of an arancino – a dome-shaped mound of risotto rice filed with ragu and sweet peas, dipped in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs and then fried – and more beer and I was nearly as comfortable as the Sicilian. The pasta arrived; a mound of spaghetti dressed with sardines, wild fennel, pine-nuts and toasted breadcrumbs, not the best I have ever eaten, but good, generous, full of flavour and just what I wanted.
Then to finish – not that we needed it – a glass of the simplest and nicest of icy treats: Sicilian granita. Which is best described a slightly slushy, grainy mass of sweetened, flavoured water, frozen and crushed to produce something between a drink and water ice. ‘What flavor shall we have‘ I asked. The reply was accompanied by a raised eyebrow that reminded me there is only one flavour to choose at a Catanese tavola calda under the watchful eye of Sant’Agata: mandorle. Which was a pure white, soft, granular, slush of frozen almond milk. Not entirely natural I’m sure, and probably too sweet, but still a glass of milky kindness if ever there was one. Due caffè, a reasonable bill (which took rather a long time to come,) a nod to Sant’Agata and we jumped back in the panda and flew.
Which brings us – tenuously – to today’s recipe. Well not that tenuously if you consider that on Sunday I would have liked the granita al melone as well. I have been preoccupied with iced treats lately, mostly those of the grated-ice-drenched-with-fruit-syrup-sort from the kiosk the corner of my street. I’ve been enjoying making iced things at home too, especially those that don’t require mastery of custard or special equipment. I’ve made various granita type treats this summer, by freezing fruit puree, nut milk or strong coffee – which may or may not have sweetened – until softly frozen, then scraping and stirring intermittently until I have a soft ice to be eaten from a glass with a spoon.
This is the nicest of this summer’s experimentation, a recipe from Claudia Roden’s Food of Italy for granita al melone. A melon granita given welcome sharpness by the addition of lemon juice and a warm, floral note – one that mirrors and compliments the floral and persistent nature of cantaloupe melon – by a tablespoon or two of orange flower water.
Simple to make but attention required. Once you have mixed the melon pulp with the sugar, lemon and orange flower water you slide the bowl in the freezer. After a couple of hours you need to move, stir – and for want of a better word - agitate the granita as it starts to freeze and seize. An hour later, you do it again, disturbing the surface of the granita again before sliding it back into the freezer. You repeat this process every hour or so (probably not more than 5 times in total) until you have a delightful icy slush – like the snow by noon – ready to spoon into glasses. In my freezer, in a medium-sized metal bowl, this took 6 hours and 4 agitations, which makes it sounds like a lot of bother – which it isn’t – or a 1980′s dance.
Alternately you can forget about the bowl for six hours or more and then break and blast your block of melon ice into granita with a blender. The result is more granular and sharper at the edges than the soft freeze and agitate method, but still good, still a fragrant and fresh icy crush, a fantastic floral slush puppy, a glass of orange snow, an icy treat to sooth even the most agitated soul (like me). Even better with a slosh of Campari, Martini, Vodka or all three – see below.
Granita al melone – melon water ice
Adapted from a recipe by Claudia Roden in her brilliant (and soon to be re-issued) book ‘The Food of Italy’
- 1 large or two small melons yielding 750 g melon flesh (ideally cantaloupe)
- 50 g fine sugar
- the juice of a large lemon
- 1 or 2 tablespoons of orange – flower water
Quarter the melon, scoop out the seeds and then cut away the flesh from the skin. Cut the flesh into large chunks and then blend it into a pulp using a mouli, immersion blender or blender. Transfer the pulp into a bowl that can go into the freezer
Add the sugar, lemon juice and orange flower water to the pulp, stir and then slide the bowl into the freezer.
After a couple of hours, pull the bowl from the freezer and then break up the iced-fruit pulp with a fork before returning it to the freezer. Repeat this every hour for a couple more hours or until you have a soft, granular, slush. Serve in a glass.
Leave the bowl in the freezer for 6 – 8 hours and then break the solid mass up with a fork and then blast into icy shards with an immersion or conventional blender.
Serve. If you like with Campari which works well, the bitter contrasting beautifully with the fragrant, floral sweetness of the melon. I bet a shot of vodka would work well too.