Category Archives: Testaccio

on washing and lentils

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 24th October 2014.

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When I first moved to Rome nearly 10 years ago I lived in a third floor flat above a bread-shop and shared a courtyard with a trattoria. After a month or so, the smell of baking bread and the clatter of plates and pans had become the everyday soundtrack to my life.

Similarly familiar was the sight of laundry shunting past my window on lines strung across the communal courtyard – eeck, eeck, eeck – as they ran through rusty pullies. My neighbours at the time were two elderly sisters who’d lived all their lives in the building and had laundry hanging down to an art. The sequence began at about 7am when rugs were hung, thwacked and reeled back in. Cloths, clothes and sheets followed and, once a month, I was reminded that I’d never washed a seat cover in my life, as a set of them shuddered, like a surrealist photo, into the frame. I’m sure the sisters noticed my neglect. They certainly noticed I never polished my front door, because when I did, they said ‘Brava, finalmente’.

Washing done, the sisters would set about the daily task of making lunch and the smell of pancetta in a hot pan and greens or beans (Romans eat a lot of greens and beans) rolling around in boiling water would meet those swirling up from the trattoria below. In my own kitchen, door open onto the courtyard – an enthusiastic cliché – I did my best to join in.

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Ten years on, I no longer live in that building. I am close-by though and still visit the bread-shop on the first floor, friends on the second and the sisters on the third, usually with my 3 –year-old half-Roman son. Inevitably we pause on one of the narrow balconies above the communal courtyard; Luca to kick the railings, me hoping to catch a nostalgic sound or smell. Places and habits change: it has been a while since we ate at the trattoria whose kitchen windows open onto the communal courtyard. However I still feel affection for a place that provided the background clatter to my kitchen life for six years, the place in which I ate many traditional Roman dishes for the first time: carbonara, amatriciana, oxtail stew, braised artichokes and bitter greens were all eaten here, and then later, the minestre: thick, pulse-based soup-stews reinforced with pasta. I say later, because I noticed and ignored all of these dishes – now my staples – on plasticized menus and daily specials boards (which I thought ironic, as they sounded anything but) for quite some time. Too dense, too beige, I’d think before ordering the pasta with clams.

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I wish I could say I came round to the satisfying pleasure of minestre by myself, but I didn’t. It was my partner Vincenzo, who, like many Italians I know, is happily devoted to these unassuming dishes. He ordered, I tasted. My conversion was slow but sure; a taste of rosemary scented chickpea soup with ribbons of tagliatelle, another of fresh borlotti blushing with fresh tomatoes and quills of pasta, a spoonful, then two, of braised lentils, plainly good, dotted with tiny tubes of pasta called ditalini or little thimbles.

The first minestra I made at home was the beige-sounding but reliably delicious pasta and potatoes, finished with a blizzard of grated pecorino cheese. The next was pasta and lentils, for which I asked and received a disproportionate amount of advice, ranging from scant and impressionistic, to opinionated and precise instruction. I tried and tested until I found way that I liked, that worked for me and suited how I like to eat.

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True to Roman traditions, the way I like to eat these days is mostly simple, unfussy, nutritious food that tastes good. I value good value too. I also enjoy not cooking as much as I do cooking, so the prospect of a pan of food that provides two or three meals is very appealing. This is why a big pan of lentils, braised with a soffritto of extra virgin olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and garlic and is one of my most trusted things to make, half to be served with some pasta or rice, the rest the following day (when the lentils are even tastier) with grilled or pan-fried sausage or a frilly edged fried egg.

These days, with no shared courtyard and no sisters, there is no-one to notice the (in)frequency of my laundry. No sisters either to notice my annual door polishing or that I’ve mastered my weekly minestra. However, I am pretty sure that if they knew, they would approve.

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A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways

8 Servings

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 rib of celery
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 500 g small brown lentils – Castelluccio lentils from Umbria are particularly good
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve –  250 – 400 g rice or pasta for the first meal then 4 pork sausage or 4 large free range eggs for the second meal.

Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cover the base of a large heavy-based frying or sauté pan with olive oil over a medium-low heat, add the chopped vegetables and cook very gently until they are soft, but not coloured.

Pick over the lentils to check for gritty bits, then rinse thoroughly and add them to the pan along with the bay leaves, stirring for a minute or two until each lentil glistens with oil. Cover with 1.2 litres of water (the water should come about 2.5 cm above the lentils), bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils, stirring occasionally, adding a little more water if they seem a little dry, until they are tender but not squidgy – they should still have lentil integrity. Ideally not all the water should be absorbed and the lentils should be just a little soupy. This will take 25–50 minutes, depending on the lentils. Season them generously with salt and pepper.

First meal

Gently re-heat half the lentils. Cook the pasta or rice in plenty of well-salted, fast boiling water until al dente and then drain reserving some of the cooking water. Mix the lentils and the cooked pasta or rice, adding a little of the reserved water to loosen the consistency if you think fit. Serve with more extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a bowl of grated parmesan cheese for those who wish.

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Second meal.

Gently re-heat the rest of the lentils, adding a handful of finely chopped parsley and a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil for shine. Divide between four bowls and top each one with a grilled or pan-fried sausage or fried egg.

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There is also an accompanying short film to this article made by Micheal Thomas Jones, Marissa Keating and Mina Holland you can see here.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, recipes, soup, Testaccio, Uncategorized, winter recipes

well-dressed

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If you’d told me writing a book involved so much not-writing and staring blankly, I’m not sure I would have believed you. At least there is the cooking, lots of it, although not in the way I imagined. Which was rambling, recipe testing sessions during which friends dropped in and out, alternating with quiet radio four filled days of experimentation. The reality is (mostly) me with wild eyes, cooking and photographing two diametrically opposed dishes on a small stove, Vincenzo commenting on the pasta and Luca standing on a chair with no trousers and his socks at half-mast shouting ‘What doin? I help knife it mamma‘. Not that I would have it any other way.

Yesterday, having done more than enough not-writing, Luca and I went for a walk. Our usual route, along via Galvani,  through the market (buying soft, sweet, yeasted buns from Costanza and a head of broad, pale escarole from Mario) across the cobblestones and into the Ex-Mattatoio, where the big bambu, a 25 meter high sculpture made from thousands of bamboo poles ingeniously bound and jointed, is dressed as a christmas tree. I’m not sure who was more delighted. Back home, even though Luca stood on a chair brandishing a wooden spoon, I didn’t get wild-eyed, I made pasta with ricotta and lots of black pepper, thinning the cheese with a little pasta cooking water, and then this salad.

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The key to this salad of escarole, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear, is making sure the foundations, the structural weave of leaves, are well dressed. The best way to do this is with your – scrupulously clean – hands, rubbing, almost massaging the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Over the glistening leaves, you break the cheese, crumble the nuts, slice the pear and then gently turn the salad again.

I am generally wary of busy salads and however attractive and potentially tasty, feel disappointed, cheated even if they are called lunch. I felt neither wary nor cheated yesterday. While the pasta eaters ploughed, I ate two plates of bitter/sweet leaves in the folds and creases of which hid nubs of creamy, heady gorgonzola, milky, musty walnuts and arcs of sweet pear. Impertinent flavors and textures playing off against each other and then harmonizing cleverly. There was of course bread. I did feel a little cheated of my inch or two of wine (I am great believer in drinking – just a little – at lunchtime) but there was yellow bread making and non-writing to be done.

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Escarole, gorgonzola, walnut and pear salad

serves two

  • a small head of escarole
  • a ripe but firm pear
  • 100 g gorgonzola
  • a handful of walnuts or hazelnuts
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a few drops of good balsamic or sweet sherry vinegar (optional)

Wash and then dry the escarole before ripping it into approachable pieces. Peel and core the pear, rubbing the outside with a cut lemon as you work to stop it discoloring. Shell the walnuts and break them into small pieces. Using the point of a sharp knife and your hands break the cheese into smallish pieces.

Put the leaves in a bowl or serving dish, sprinkle over a little salt, pour over some olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to rub, the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Slice the pear over the leaves, add the cheese and nuts and again – gently – use your hands to toss the salad. Serve.

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Filed under cheese, Rachel's Diary, salads, Testaccio, Uncategorized

what remains

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One morning at about 9 it crossed my mind that I might actually live at the noisiest point on one of the noisiest streets in Rome. A queue of morning traffic, engines low but persistent, crawled along via Galvani, horns sounding indignantly at roadworks, traffic lights and i motorini who seemed to taunt the crawl with their cheeky weaving. A fire engine, siren waling, burst from the station on the corner, split traffic and sped past our window, while a pair of road-sweeping-rubbish-crunching vehicles went about their daily business slowly and loudly. Inside, my son, incensed that he wasn’t allowed smarties for breakfast, lay on the floor howling.

Dressed hurriedly and still shuddering with the last gasping sobs, we joined the fray on Via Galvani, which now included some argy-bargy over double parking, blasphemous insults being thrown back and forth like a ball. We bought two squares of hot pizza bianca from Guerrini and then walked past the fire station, down via Marmorata and into the cemetery to visit a poet and count cats.

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In a crook of the ancient city wall, The Protestant or Non-Catholic Cemetery is an easy place to overlook. Which you might consider a good thing. But then you would miss the epitome of a secret garden just minutes from the chaos, a serene sanctuary of grass, gravel paths and graves, some of which rest under marbled-feathered angel wings. It’s a place that manages to be both bright and shady, overhung with umbrella pines and cypresses and heavy with the tangled scent of jasmine, oleander and plumbago.

Forbidden by catholic laws, protestants and other non-catholics have been buried on this site for hundreds of years. However the cemetery was only formally defined by the Holy See in 1821. It was also in 1821 that the young English poet John Keats, after three months in Rome seeking a better climate for his worsening tuberculosis, died and was buried in the cemetery. Two years later the reckless Percy Bysshe Shelley, having drowned at sea, was also buried in the cemetery, as was the son of Goethe;  the Russian painter Karl Brullov and Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. Here are the graves of protestants, orthodox christians, jews, muslims, atheists and agnostics, the graves of writers, painters, sculptors, historians, archaeologists, diplomats, scientists, architects and poets whose tomb inscriptions are engraved in more than fifteen languages.

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Sitting on a bench, counting cats in the sweet calm and unlikely November sun, I realised it was the 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day, The Day of the Dead and I was in a cemetery. An egalitarian cemetery in which the most eclectic and creative, often young, sometimes reckless, occasionally revolutionary group of people are buried, many of them non-Italian’s (and often English) who made their home in Italy. We went to visit Keats where I managed four lines of Ode to Autumn, then Shelly, where I managed three of Ozymandias, before realising my son was attempting to climb on top of a tomb. We said goodbye to as many souls as we could, crunched through the gravel – which is hilarious if you are two – and left the calm for the noise – which had subsided – once more.

Later the same day baking fave dolci or sweet beans, felt appropriate too, after all, the ritual of offering fave (broad beans) as solace for visiting souls on the 2nd of November dates back to pre-christian times. Over time the fave offered evolved into sweet biscuits called fave dolci or fave dei morti. Which aren’t actually fave at all, but crisp almond biscuits, aromatised with citrus or cinnamon and dusted with icing sugar to look like fave, or little bones, hence the other name ossi di morti. A sweet treat for visiting souls and a reminder of family joy and sorrow.

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They are simple to make. Having pound almonds and fine sugar into dusty crumbs, you add butter, an egg, the zest of a lemon and just enough flour to bring everything together into a sticky dough. Very sticky, don’t worry! Then with well-floured hands you temper a spoonful of the dough first into a ball and then – on a well-floured board – a log. You then cut the log into short lengths, move them onto a lined baking tray and then press each piece gently in the center, ostensibly making it look like a fave. Once the fave dolci are baked, you dust them with icing sugar.

Fave dolci are crisp but with the soft, round flavour of toasted almond and the distinct note of citrus, from the, um, citrus zest. They are a little heavier than amaretti – which is the small quantity of flour – but are still light, brittle enough to shatter between your teeth and then melt in your mouth. They are good with an espresso and please – if not all – most souls on most days.

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Fave dolci (almond beans)

Adapted from The Brilliant Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini De Vita

  • 100 g almonds
  • 100g fine sugar
  • 80 g plain flour plus more for dusting
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • 25 g butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 medium egg

Using a pestle and mortar or blender, crush or pulse the sugar and almond into a fine flour. Transfer to a bowl and then add the flour, butter, zest and eggs and using a spoon bring the mixture together into a sticky dough. Do not be tempted to add more flour at this point, the mixture should be sticky.

With well-floured hands break the dough into 6 pieces and then on a well floured board roll each piece into a 2 cm thick cylinder and then cut each cylinder into 2 cm long sections. Press each piece with the tip of your index finger so they look like fave and then arrange them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180° / 350F for 20 minutes or until the biscuits are just pale golden. Allow to cool and dust with icing sugar.

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If you are coming to Rome, I highly recommend a visit to the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Try and get there as early as possible (it opens at nine) and you could well have the place all to yourself. Also if you understand Italian, Alesandro Rubinetti and Teatro Reale organise excellent and evocative walking tours of the cemetery.

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Filed under almonds, biscuits and biscotti, cucina romana, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

sage advice

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There is something forgotten and faded about sage, its musty nature reminiscent of somewhere that’s been shut up for too long, its dusty-green hue like something dulled by too much sunlight. Musty and dusty, lemon and camphour tinged, soft as moleskin yet rugged as my removal man, sage is one of my favourite herbs.

It had only been shuttered up for three months, but our new flat had a sage-like feel to it before I flung open the wooden shutters and windows on Saturday. I wonder if that was the reason I bought the plant? An unconscious herbal response to our new home! It’s the first of many pots that will eventually line our long, narrow balcony, providing me with kitchen herbs and Luca plenty of leaf-tugging and pot-pulling temptation.

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Ignorning all advice, sage and otherwise, opting instead for the furious adrenaline fueled frenzy that spontaneously erupts when you leave everything to the last-minute, meant the move was unpleasant. I’m not sure I have ever felt quite so frazzled and frothing. Luca on the other hand thought all the boxes, heaving, open windows, bottles of toxic cleaner and flapping lift doors were hilarious.

Four days later and although far from organized and still besieged by homeless items, we are relieved and happy to be in our new flat. It feels pleasant and absolutely right. You might remember that Testaccio is shaped like a quarter or – rather more memorably – a large wedge of parmesan cheese. Our old flat was on one cut side. We are now on the other, the arc of the wedge being the river. Our balcony hangs over busy, plain-tree lined Via Galvani. Bearably busy though and punctuated  - much to Luca’s delight – by the intermittent clip-clop clatter of the horses pulling carriages back to their home in the Ex-Mattaotio.

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I’ve had it in mind to batter and deep-fry sage leaves for months now, ever since eating rather more than my fair share at an aperitivo. The moorishly delicious leaves and my social ineptitude are to blame in equal measure for my disproportionate consumption. In possession of a sage plant, an ancient cooker positioned next to a blowy balcony door and flat to be warmed – I fried.

I’m sure we all have strong, possibly uncompromising views on batter. Where flowers and herbs are concerned I like mine light and delicate. Having whisked together 200 ml of warm water, 100 g of plain flour, 2 tbsp of olive oil and a hefty pinch of salt, I leave my pale batter to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours. Once it’s the spoon-clinging consistency of thick cream, I fold in a couple of eggs whites beaten so vigorously they stand to attention in peaks.

I drag the leaves through the batter, this side and that, before lowering them into very hot oil. It takes just seconds, a nudge and a flip, for the soft battered leaves to puff and seize into crisp golden cocoons. A slotted spoon is needed to lift the leaves from the oil onto first: a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel and then: another a clean plate over which I launch a shower of fine salt. The crisp, golden batter shatters and gives way to a warm, musky leaf. A few battered leaves, a cold beer (in a Nutella glass no less) on a sun-drenched balcony and all was well and good.

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Talking of strong, uncompromising views, I have encountered many on the subject of the delightfully named saltimbocca – which literally translated means jump-in the-mouth – a most glorious combination of veal, prosciutto, sage, butter and wine. ‘Slice upon slice with the sage leaf pinned like a brooch‘ some say. ‘The veal dipped in flour‘ others cry. ‘Sage leaf under prosciutto’. ‘Sage leaf over prosciutto.‘A sprinkling of parmesan.’ Wine!’ ‘No no Marsala!’ ’3 minutes.’ ’7 minutes.’ 

Being, as I am, a saltimbocca novice, I was more than happy to let a friend who is staying take the lead. Alida learned from her father Adriano who in turn learned from his mother who in turn……. The veal must be best quality and thinly sliced. If it isn’t thin enough, a couple of rolls with a wooden pin should do the trick. There is no dusting in flour, no scattering of parmesan, simply a slice of veal, another of prosciutto, a single sage leaf, a flick of black pepper, a roll, a tuck and a strategic skewering with a toothpick

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As Alida cooked the saltimbocca: first warming butter and oil until smoking, then leaving the pale-pink rolls untouched in the hot fat until they formed a deep golden crust, she explained the reason for rolls as opposed to a flat, open saltimbocca. Rolled she noted, the veal retains an exquisite pink tenderness at its heart. There is also a sliver of sage, a musky note, in every bite. ‘Of course you could try the open saltimbocca or a sprinkling of flour or parmesan‘ she said as she lifted the edge of a roll with a fork. Her eyes however, lifted in much the same way as the corner of the veal roll suggested – in inimitable Italian style – otherwise.

Once the saltimbocca are cooked – which takes just a matter of minutes – you move them into a warm plate while you deglaze the pan. Alida did this by pouring some white wine into the pan and then using a wooden spoon to scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and golden crust from the bottom. Back over a lively the flame she added a generous nub of butter and allowed it to melt and thicken the dark and richly flavoured sauce before pouring it over the saltmibocca.

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For those of you with sage doubts, this is a dish that could well convince you otherwise. The domineering and bitter side of sage’s character is smothered, like gossip by silence, into something softer and more forgiving.

I rhapsodized over my meal – I had drunk rather a lot of wine – and finally understood others fervent devotion to this (near perfect) combination and timeless dish. Not so much a jump, more a languorous roll in the mouth. The combination of veal – golden and caramelized outside and tender within – fatty and salty prosciutto, darkly musty sage and a butter and wine sauce is a heady and purely pleasurable one. Unlike moving.

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Saltimbocca   Veal rolls with prosciutto and sage

Recipe from my friend Alida and her father Adriano Borgna

I haven’t given precise quantities for oil, butter and wine because it feels counter intuitive for dish like this. Taste, practice and a heavy hand with the butter and wine.

for 2 as a main course or 4 as small second dish.

  • 8 thin slices of veal
  • 8 slices of untrimmed prosciutto
  • 8 sage leaves
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • white wine

Over each slice of veal lay a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf. Grind over a little black pepper and sprinkle over a little salt. Roll the veal into a neat log and then secure with a toothpick.

Warm a generous nub of butter and some olive oil in a good, heavy based pan. Once the fat is very hot and smoking add the rolls. Allow the rolls to sit untouched so a golden crust forms then turn them 90° and again allow a crust to form. Once the rolls are cooked and coloured evenly (this should take about 3 minutes) move them onto a warm plate.

Add some white wine to the pan and using and wooden spoon scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and crust from the base of the pan. Then back on the flame, add a generous nub of butter and allow it to melt and thicken the dark sauce which you then pour over your saltimbocca.

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Filed under antipasti, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, sage, supper dishes, Testaccio, veal

Pleasingly bitter

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Cicoria is bitter. Like spinach that’s lost a lawsuit. It’s also tangy, slightly metallic, wild and grassy tasting. The vegetable equivalent of a frolic in a field with a handsome heavy metal drummer who forages and writes poetry in his spare time. There’s also sweetness lurking in the serrated leaves and plump stem, some say spiciness too. But it’s the bitterness that prevails, and it’s for this reason I love cicoria. Which isn’t really surprising given how much I like bitter in my pint glass, my carmine coloured aperitivo, my amaro, my marmalade, my salad, my chocolate, my coffee, my life.

Unaccustomed and unqualified as I am, I going to try to put cicoria into some sort of biological and historical context!  I’ll keep it brief I promise. Then we can proceed as usual! You know the routine, I ramble on about running away to Italy and my tedious existential crisis, detail the Roman meal during which I first I ate cicoria and describe how I succumbed to the advances of the man at the next table – eat, pay, shove – before giving you a recipe.

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The cicoria I’m talking about, the dark-green, narrow-leaved shoot above, is a variety of the genus Cichorium intybus called Dentarella or –  for less tongue twisting - Italian dandelion or Cutting chicory. It looks, as you’ve probably noticed, a little like an oversized dandelion with its glossy, slightly serrated leaves. Other varieties of this genus you might be familiar with are puntarelle, deep-red radicchio or the milky white bulbs of witloof we British call chicory. Although related, cicoria is not to be confused with endive, curly endive (called chicory in the US), chicoreè frisèe or escarole. Baffled?  I know!  This is a topic beset by considerable confusion.

Cicoria is the cultivated relative of cicoria selvatica or wild chicorya food foraged and favored since Antiquity. Wild cicoria still thrives in parks, lay-bys and the undulating countryside surrounding the Eternal city. This interview with Sarah May makes for lovely listening for the cicoria curious amongst you.

In Rome it’s still not unheard-of to find a rogue market stall with an heap of foraged cicoria selvatica! Wild tangled greens: primitive, savage and reeking of another time. But these days you’re most likely to find cultivated cicoria, like the bagful at the top of this post, cicoria as bouncy, unruly and gloriously green as a classroom of five-year olds after a sugary snack and a lesson painting pictures of grass.

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Modern Romans, even tiny ones, covet and consume cicoria as passionately as their forefathers, growing, collecting, buying and eating it in enormous quantities. More often than not it’s blanched or boiled – which soothes the bitterness – drained scrupulously and then sautéed or ripassata in olive oil, garlic and possibly chilli: cicoria in padella. It’s then eaten as a contorno (vegetable side dish) or piled generously on warm pizza bianca.

And the meal?  It was nearly eight years ago at a small, idiosyncratic trattoria in Testaccio called Augustarello. A trattoria that has recently reclaimed its rightful position as my favorite place to eat in Rome. Sitting at one of the dozen or so tables in this tiny locale with its frosted windows (to keep prying eyes out) and its bold open kitchen (to allow prying eyes in,) I first ate a dish of cicoria in padella.

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There was no epiphany or foodquake, just a glistening tangle of dark-green cicoria: tangy, slightly metallic, wild, grassy and a beautifully bitter balance to the citrus tinged artichoke and tonnarelli cacio e pepe I’d just eaten and the sweet torta della nonna that was to follow. There was sour, salty, unami, bitter and sweet and Rachel was – unsurprisingly – sated and (extremely) replete. I was also cicoria convinced and converted.

Then later that summer in Apulia – the high heel of Italy’s boot – in the company of my love and his motley crew, I ate a plate of Fave e cicoria, an iconic, poor and simple combination bourne out of necessity and very good taste. The fave (broad beans) in question were peeled and dried fave, or fave secche, another food from antiquity, ivory coloured slivers of beans, like misshapen tiddlywinks.

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The fave had been soaked, drained and simmered idly until they’d collapsed into a soft, soupy mush, a pale puree reminiscent of chickpeas, chestnuts and white beans. Fave too have a discreet bitterness about them. It’s a pleasing bitterness though, which compliments their soft, floury and nutty nature and elevates it into something particular and delicious. The cicoria - sweeter and plumper than its Roman cousin – was simply boiled, drained and dressed with local  oil.

The plate, half fave-half cicoria, half ivory-half green, half-elemental humus-half bittersweet leaves anointed with golden extra virgin olive oil, seemed, on that hot and heavy night near Leece, a near perfect plate.

This is an extremely simple recipe, but one that requires good ingredients and practice, especially when it comes to getting the consistency of the fave right. They should be soupy really and eaten with a spoon. I for one, still need practice. Bread and wine are important here – aren’t they always – as is excellent olive oil.  Now about that frolic!

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Fave e cicoria

serves 4

Adapted from Le Ricette Regionale D’Italia,  Eleonora’s recipe, Elizabeth’s recipe and inspired by this

  • 500 g fave (dried broad beans)
  • 1 kg cicoria (or other bitter greens: cavolo nero, dandelion or leafy chicory)
  • olive oil
  • salt

Soak the fave in plenty of cold water for 8 hours or overnight.

Drain and rinse fave.  Put fave in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim any white foam what rises to the surface. Lower the flame and simmer fave for about an hour or until they are very soft, tender and have collapsed into a thick mush. The consistency should be that of a very thick soup: dense and creamy but still fluid and spoonable. You may have to add a little more water. Season generously with salt.

While the fave are cooking soak the cicoria in several changes of water, discarding any wilted or bruised leaves and trimming away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the cicoria in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to its leaves, cover the pan and cook over a medium flame until it has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 – 8 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the cicoria.

Drain the cicoria and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.  Warm some olive oil in a saute pan – with a clove of garlic if you wish – and add the cicoria and a pinch of salt. Stir and turn the cicoria in the oil until each leaf is glistening.

Serve a pile of cicoria either beside or over a generous serving of fave with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top. Serve with bread or toast and wine.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cicoria, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

Testaccio

Testaccio, the 20th rione (district) of Rome, is shaped like a large wedge of cheese, Via Marmorata and Viale di Campo boario being the two cut sides and the Tevere river the sweeping curve. Tucked between L’Aventino, the river and the Aurelian city wall, Testaccio is home to an ancient hill made of broken terra-cotta, the single arch of an aqueduct rising forlornly before a modern tenement block, a pyramid, a secret garden, a bold cooking style named Quinto Quarto and the best places to eat it, an abandoned slaughterhouse, a thriving market and – respectful hush – the A.S.Roma supporters club. It’s an area old in history but defiantly young in spirit and still dominated by Romans rather than tourists, particularly those in search of good food. Testaccio has also been my adopted home for nearly eight years.

In much the same way that I was an accidental tourist in Italy and a consequential one in Rome, I stumbled upon life in Testaccio. I was living on the other side of the city in an odd, stale flat that smelt of damp blankets on a noisy and charmless street near my language school in piazza Bologna. Of course I wasn’t going to stay in Rome, but while I did, I fancied myself living simply and pretentiously, throwing basil and writing poetry in a room in a faded and intriguing palazzo in the Ghetto or an exquisite vine flanked one half way up one of Monti’s cobbled backsteets.

It was my oldest friend and curious architect Joanna who led me to Testaccio. During her visit, she was as eager for us to visit Testaccio’s abandoned slaughterhouse, austere futurist post office, iron and glass food market and the courtyards and stairwells of its late 18th century tenement blocks as she was to visit the Renaissance fountains, Corinthian columns, domes, frescos, and palaces of the Eternal City. I was reluctant.

But not for Long. Testaccio covered market was closing, but through the gaps in the corrugated iron hatches, and despite the half-light within, it was clear why most people agreed that this was the city’s best and most authentic market. The large, square tenement blocks and the rabble of shops occupying their ground floors hummed with life, a fierce sense of community and a robust, workaday attitude I hadn’t sensed in other parts of the city. The litter strewn ruins on the bank of the river below were, on closer examination, Ancient Rome’s dock and warehouses for wine, oil, grain. The scruffy, disconcerting mound looming forlornly above Testaccio turned out to be composed entirely of broken terracotta amphorae – accumulated and meticulously stacked for nearly 500 years – from the Roman Republic. The numerous bars and jaded, cavernous trattoria filled with voracious Roman families seemed straight from a Fellini film. Backstreets were punctuated with metal workshops, artists studios, sleeping nightclubs and vacant shops filled with plastic tables at which longtime Testaccini were playing cards. As Joanna urged me to enter yet another – clearly private – courtyard to take pictures of another ingenious stairwell, I decided: this is where I want to live.

Vagare e mangiare come un Napolitano‘ a man in Naples once told me. ‘Wander and eat like a Neapolitan.’ Sound advice and indeed the best way to experience Naples! Or Palermo or Bari or Leece, anywhere for that matter! Wander and eat like a local is advice I swallowed greedily and followed needily and nowhere more so than Rome, especially in Testaccio.

Of course I’m not going to tell you where to wander, that would defeat the object and the happy adventure that is wandering. I will however remind you of the shape of Testaccio, the wedge! You can’t walk all the way round, but with a little weaving and a map (even wanderers need a map) you can get a sense of the lay of the land. The same with the mound, the ancient one with rather temporary looking restaurants and nightclubs built into it. It’s disconcertingly scruffy at first glance, but wander a little more and look carefully. It’s true also for the Mattatoio, the abandoned slaughterhouse, a vast sprawling complex, the bloody gut of Testaccio from the 1890′s until the early 1970′s, now part modern art gallery, part music school, part fair trade supermarket, part wasteland. It’s a disturbing and marvelous place that makes for quite extraordinary wandering, be bold. Walk past the futurist post office on Via Marmorata and into Via Caio Cestio, walk through the gate to discover the epitome of a secret garden. But most importantly wander the streets of Testaccio, block after block - in the morning if you can – Via Evangelista Torricelli, Via Galvani, Via Branca and Via Mastro Giorgio.

And eat.

Breakfast at Cafe Barberini, Via Marmorata 45.  Or the vast, unapologetically Roman, pleasingly chaotic Linari, Via Nicola Zabaglia 9. Head to the cash desk first and get a receipt for your order before lining up at the bar. A 10 cent coin placed strategically on the receipt should help catch the waiters eye. ‘Cappuccino e cornetto simplice’ is my breakfast of choice.

To market. The market has moved, which is extremely sad and Testaccio will never be the same again. If you’re coming to Rome in the next couple of weeks you may well see them pulling down the old structure to make way for a new piazza. However visit the very new, very white market between Via Galvani and Via Allessandro Volta. The structure may be new but the stall holders with their glorious greens, fine fruit and marvelous meat are familiar. Giancarlo at Stall 32 for fresh produce and Lina and Enzo at stall 87 for pancetta and mozzarella di Bufala.

My Lunch. Figs and tomatoes from Giancarlo at Testaccio market, prosciutto di San Daniele and Olive nere al forno from Volpetti, lariano bread from Passi,  Mozzaralla di bufala from Lina and Enzo at Testaccio market.

Should you feel the need for something mid morning! May I suggest a thin slice of Pizza bianca brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt or maybe piece of scrocchiarella (a very thin, very crisp, wavy flatbread) from the bakery Panificio Passi, via Mastro Giorgio 87. Or a small trapizzino – which is pouch of pizza bianca filled with a Roman speciality such as pollo alla Romana (chicken with red peppers) Lingua con salsa verde (tongue with green sauce) or Coda alla vaccinara (oxtail, roman style) from oo100, Via Giovanni Branca 88. Alternatively, maybe you’d like a soft almond biscuit or three and a gaze at the cassata in Sicilia e duci, Via Marmorata 87/89.

Food shops. Peer into the back of Gatti – Pasta all’uovo, via Branca 15 and watch Massimo Venturini and his girls prepare fresh egg pasta: Tonnarelli, fettuccine, ravioli, Agnolotti. The enoteca Palombi, Piazza testaccio 38-41 is a cavernous and handsome wine and beer shop. Beer by the bottle and wine by the glass are also served – with cheese and salami if you so wish – at one of the tables inside, or outside on the pavement terrace.

And then there is Volpetti, via Marmorata 47, a gloriously old-fashioned, beautifully appointed gastronomia, maybe Rome’s finest, run elegantly and shrewdly by two brother Emilio and Claudio Volpetti and their numerous and knowledgeable white-coated assistants ranked behind the counter. A modest sized (not priced) shop, standing in Volpetti feels like being in the midst of the most exquisite but slightly hallucinogenic food jigsaw as floor to ceiling shelves, the ceiling itself and long glass counter are impossibly but impeccably crowded with oils, vinegars, truffles, olives, capers, tuna, porcini, wine, preserves, chocolate, 150 types of cheese and 150 types of salami and prosciutto. If you are renting a flat or fancy eating in park, shopping for lunch in Volpetti is recommended. The assistants can be very persistent, so a firm ‘Basta, Grazie‘ (which means ‘Enough/that’s all thank you’) is useful.

If you want to sit down for lunch – but not for too long – there is Volpetti più Via Allesandro Volta 8, the somewhat spartan and functional but excellent Tavola Calda /pizza al taglio of the Volpetti Food emporium. I am extremely devoted to Volpetti più, particularly the pizza margherita, vegetable lasagna, pomodoro col riso and the braised rabbit. If there is a large bowl of pears in red wine syrup have one.

If a sit down lunch is in order, then I have three suggestions. But first, I should mention the style of cooking – called Quinto Quarto – particular to Testaccio. A style of cooking that was created by the slaughterhouse workers in the early 19th century. Quinto Quarto means fifth quarter and refers to the parts of the animal: the tail, the organs, the nerves, the intestines (the stuff of uneasy, squirms and sniggers) that couldn’t be sold. Worker’s pay was supplemented with this Quinto Quarto which they then took home to their wives who in turn transformed these undesirable and poor cuts of meat – the offal – into bold, delectable and delicious dishes. Cast your preconceptions aside and be as bold as a plate of my favorite Roman dish Coda Alla Vaccinara (oxtail stew.) There are, of course, numerous Roman dishes which are not offal based.

I’d also like mention the five noted Roman pasta dishes. All three places I am going to suggest for lunch – and dinner – are pastmasters . Cacio e pepe – pecorino romano and black pepper. Alla Gricia – pecorino romano with guanciale or pancetta. All’amatriciana – pecorino romano, guanciale or pancetta, tomatoes, white wine. Arrabbiata – pecorino romano, guanciale or pancetta, chilli, fresh tomatoes. Carbonara – pecorino romano, eggs, parmesan, guanciale or pancetta.

But lunch Where?

Perilli, Via Marmorata 59. Luca had his first taste of Rigatoni alla carbonara at Perilli last Sunday. It was an important and messy moment for Luca. It was also important for his Dad, Giampiero, who ate carbonara with his father at Perilli when he was a boy. Perilli does indeed feel a little like being in a Fellini Film, cavernous, exciting, perennially packed, with its cummerbunded waiters, starched white cloths, ancient and incessant kitchen buzzer, frosted windows and slightly surreal wall murals. The food is traditional and excellent especially the carbonara, amatriciana, the sweetbreads (note Ben Roddy), abbacchio (lamb) and the Tiramisu. I adore Perilli and wish I had the money to be a real regular. If you can, get a Roman to book you a table.

AgustarelloVia Giovanni Branca 98.  I began my education in Roman food in the small, spartan trattoria Agustarello. It doesn’t look like a particularly promising address, but rest assured it is. If you pass in the morning and the frosted glass door is open, you might catch a glimpse of Alessandro in his kitchen stirring a vast pot. The food is robust and stoutly Roman:  amatriciana, cacio e pepe, artichokes, coratella and coda alla Vaccinara (oxtail stew) are all superb. If you happen to go during fresh broad bean season ask to be brought some fave fresche along with some salty, piquant pecorino romano as a starter. Booking is advised.

Flavio al valavevodettoVia di Monte Testaccio 97.  Flavio is built into Monte Testaccio, the ancient mound of broken terra-cotta you will have probably wandered around before Lunch. The back wall of both dining rooms have glass panels through which you can marvel at the heart of the mound, the intricately stacked pieces of ancient amphorae. The food is just excellent, fiercely Roman but with a certain youth and vigour about it, a little like Testaccio itself really. Begin with the Mozzarella di Bufala or – in season – carciofi alla Giudia (deep-fried artichokes Jewish style). Follow with a pretty perfectly executed plate of cacio e pepe or carbonara. For secondi (in which case I’d share a pasta) Cotolette d’abbacchio panate e fritte (breaded lamb cutlets) or  Maialino al forno (oven roasted pork). To finish (you off) Tiramisu’ al bicchiere. Flavio is – deservedly – very very popular so book ahead.
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Basta! Done! and quite frankly I think we both deserve a drink after that! Make mine a large Campari bitter on ice. And I still haven’t talked about where to eat Roman pizza cooked in a wood oven, pasta e ceci, where to have an aperitivo, what to have for an aperitivo, where to have your dry cleaning done, where to go and listen to a little night music, where to eat Gelato. Next time! Which won’t be for a while I promise. Meanwhile I hope you will tuck this post away until the time is right.
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Back next week with a recipe that involves walnuts. I’ve already posted a picture on FaceBook for those of you who do. Meanwhile Luca and I are off for a gelato and then a wander on the hill above Testaccio, Aventino! Now there’s a part of Rome I’d like to tell you about….

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Filed under Eating In Testaccio, Perilli in Testaccio, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Testaccio