a family affair


I may only have moved 400 meters, from one side of Testaccio to the other, but everything is different. Even things that have remained the exactly the same – like the bar in which I have my third coffee and the stall at which I buy my fruit and veg – feel different now I approach them from another direction. Streets I never usually walked are now familiar. Courtyards always peered into from one side appear entirely different from the other. A drinking fountain I’d only drunk from a handful of times is now my local. A bakery, a launderette, a minuscule sewing shop, a pet shop whose window we need to spend at least 10 minutes a day peering through whilst barking and a Norcineria I’d never even noticed are now part of my daily patter or grind depending on the day.

It’s not surprising I’d never noticed the Norcineria, as we both moved to Via Galvani at more or less the same time. The shop used to be about a mile away before the two brothers decided to come back to Testaccio. A Norcineria is a shop specialising in cured pork products which may also sell cheese, salame and other dried goods. The name derives from the town of Norcia in Umbria whose inhabitants (or some of them at least) are historically renowned and much sought after for their meat curing skills. Norcineria are places of pink flesh and seasoned fat, of pancetta, guanciale, lonzino, coppa, ciauscolo, shoulder steaks, loins, fillets and air-dried delights.

Norcineria Martelli on Via Galvani is a neat, pleasing place with meat counter to the left, dried goods to the right and the altar to porchetta – roasted suckling pig with salt, black pepper, garlic rosemary and spices – straight ahead as you come through the door. Which I do most days, my son in tow shouting loudly enough to arouse concern. Brothers Bruno and Sergio are amicable and honest, as are their pork and products. What’s more, on Tuesdays and Saturdays they also have bread from Velletri and a dome or two of best sheep’s milk ricotta.


I am disproportionately fond of ricotta di pecora: brilliant white, compact but wobbly enough to remind you not be so serious and embossed with the ridges of the cone it was moulded in. We eat ricotta several times a week, its creamy, sweet but sharp and sheepish nature indispensable in both sweet and savory. I shape it into lumps, stir it into pasta, smear it on bread (which I then finish with lots of salt, black pepper and olive oil), slice it over beans, spoon it beside fruit, nuts and honey, whip it into puddings or bake it into tarts and cakes.

Then this week I mixed my ricotta with wilted spinach – I never failed to be impressed by the way disobedient spinach once disiplined into a pan wilts so obediently – lots of freshly grated parmesan, an egg, a nip of nutmeg, salt and plenty of black pepper.


Today recipe is inspired by the polpette di ricotta e spinach we eat as often as possible at another favorite place and one of the best tavola calda in Rome these days: C’è pasta e pasta, another family affair – in this case a brother and sister – just the other side of ponte Testaccio on Via Ettore Rolli.

The key is making a relatively firm mixture of ricotta and spinach and the key to a firm mixture is making sure you drain the spinach meticulously. Drain, then squeeze and press until you have an almost dry green ball. The ricotta too should be drained of any excess liquid. If the mixture is firm you shouldn’t have any problems shaping it into golf ball sized polpette you then flatten slightly with the palm of you hand. Why is this so satisfying I’m not sure, but it is. Squash.


Then the double roll: first in flour, then after a bath in beaten egg, fine breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs come from Guerrini, another Galvani institution I’d previously ignored, a family run forno or bakery just next to our flat that is providing me with more soapoperaesque drama, pizza bianca, sugar-coated, doughnut like ciambelle and breadcrumbs than I really need.

Once double rolled, you fry the polpette in hot oil. I use sunflower oil (as do C’è pasta e pasta) but some of my Roman friends prefer olive oil. They take just minutes shimmying in a disco coat of bubbles until they are deep gold and crisp. Polpette di ricotta e spinaci are best eaten while they are still finger and tongue scaldingly hot, while their coating is sharp, decisive and shatters between your teeth before giving way to a soft, warm filling of cheese and spinach.

Thank you for all your kind messages and comments about the book, they mean a lot and have made me feel as golden (but not quite as crisp and decisive) as a freshly fried polpette.


Polpette di ricotta e spinaci – Ricotta and spinach patties (or fritters, balls, nuggets, croquettes, cakes or thingamajigs*)

makes about 15

  • 500 g spinach
  • 400 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk but cow’s milk works beautifully too)
  • 50 g parmesan or pecorino
  • 3 large eggs
  • nutmeg
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • flour
  • breadcrumbs
  • oil for frying

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl.

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add 1 egg, the grated parmesan,   flour, a grating of nutmeg, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Prepare three dishes, one containing the two beaten eggs, one of seasoned flour and one of breadcrumbs. Using a teaspoon scoop out a golf ball sized lump of the spinach and ricotta mixture. Shape it onto a ball and then flatten it into a patty. Dip it in flour, then egg and finally roll it in the breadcrumbs until evenly coated. Put the polpette on a plate lined with baking parchment while you prepare the rest of the polpette.

In a deep frying pan or saucepan, the oil to 190° and then carefully lower in three or four polpette at a time. Allow them to cook for about two minutes or until they are crisp and deep gold. Use a slotted spoon to lift them onto another plate lined with kitchen towel. Once blotted, slide the polpette onto the serving plate, sprinkle with salt and eat immediately.

*I have called these patties, which sounds comical and /or ridiculous I know, but then so does balls. Suggestions are welcome. Update, thank you for all your advice and I have taken it all.



Filed under antipasti, cheese, fanfare, fritti, ices, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, spinach, vegetables

56 responses to “a family affair

  1. bbbone, Rachel, bbone! (as in good good good) !

  2. Christine

    Oh those look absolutely delicious!
    Congratulations on the book deal, I look forward to reading it 🙂

  3. AntonyM

    Lovely… since I’m always dreaming of returning to la mia Roma, your mention of C’e’ Pasta & Pasta is now on my list of places in which to eat. And I know what to order. Thank you!

    • rachel

      C’e pasta e pasta is brilliant, nothing fancy mind, quite the opposite in fact, a functional canteen-like place. But the food – Roman jewish – is just brilliant, especially the baked fish with potatoes and the cacio e pepe lasagna

  4. frances blackhurst

    What a long time we will have to wait for the book! In the meantime keep writing these wonderful posts. These spinach patties look delicious.

  5. Grey Favorite


    How about calling them fritters?

  6. This sounds delicious! What a great thing to nibble on with a glass of wine while the chicken is roasting in the oven.

    And, of course, happy birthday.


  7. Belated congratulations on your forthcoming book, Rachel. It will be a joy to read and to keep. Truly well done!

  8. Just divine, and your photos are also so evocative. Evoking what – I cannot find the word for at this time of night but I feel calm and generous as I prepare to relentlessly squeeze every last drop out of my spinach. Have a glorious Roman evening.. c

  9. Congrats on the book deal, Rach. Beautiful little morsels these are – I am also a ricotta addict. You just can’t get the right ricotta outside of Rome – well, you cannot get the right ricotta outside of Testaccio. I miss it loads. x s

  10. Cathleen

    Nuggets? Croquettes? They look yummy and satisfying, whatever they’re called.

    • rachel

      I thought about croquettes but aren’t they usually logs, or maybe not, I should check. Maybe I could call them all the following – croquette, fritter, nugget, ball, patttie things

  11. telbel

    Hurrah! More fritti! I agree, calling them ‘patties’ sounds a little weird (although perhaps not to the Americans and Australians among your readers). They look a bit like fish cakes, although calling them ricotta cakes would make them something else entirely. You could always stick with balls and just let everyone have a good snigger.

    Congratulations on the book deal – I would like to pre-order immediately! It will make a huge improvement in my kitchen over the dodgy printed-out pages of your blog that I use now. :o)

  12. ‘shimmying in a disco coat of bubbles’, – you are brilliant. x

  13. Maybe fritters? Sounds like critters!

    Regardless they look delectable. I was just dreaming about one of the first recipes of yours I cooked – the spinach … wait while I google it … that beautiful spinach and courgette cake. Actually (while googling, I notice) your flan looks fantastic too. Darn, now I shall have to buy whole heaping mounds of spinach.

    • rachel

      Do it, it will collapse into a neat pile. They are good, just remember, no waiting around, eat them just cooked and almost too hot for the crack and crunch.

  14. Oh my goodness, I cannot WAIT to try these! I use spinach in salads all of the time but not nearly enough in actual cooking. Thank you for the recipe! My husband and I are traveling to Rome (first time in Italy for me!) in a few weeks and I am voraciously going through your posts to find fun nooks of Rome for us to explore.

  15. laura

    Perfect timing! I was given a lovely pot of ricotta and this is such a great idea to try instead of the gnudi I was planning on (though I love gnudi, too!).
    Can’t wait for your book and the thought of having your beautiful writing, photos and recipes in my kitchen.
    There’s a lovely Norcineria very near my home, too; it’s been there for over a hundred years.

  16. laura

    … and am excited about the thought of having … 🙂

  17. Pingback: Friday Links | Nic Dempsey

  18. It sounds odd and so very american, but at every breakfast across Italy there was always plain whole milk yogurt. We’d have cappuccino, chocolate croissant, and plain whole milk yogurt every day. So, now, I eat it almost daily (whilst everyone else is bananas over greek yogurt). It’s the one thing I brought back with me that I can actually buy here in the states. So, I totally get your disproportionate fondness for ricotta. And this lovely and simple recipe is perfect for this time of year. The weather turning cooler. The perfect prelude to a quiet supper. I hope the last one was shared.

    • rachel

      I wish I could send you a tub of wobbly, white stuff. I am with you on the plain yogurt, not every day, but most days, Luca too. Sauce is our shared recipe, more soon xx

  19. then so does balls, indeed 🙂 fritters? i do have a fondness for ricotta fritters. now if only i could get my hands on some proper sheep’s milk ricotta, state-side….

  20. These look delicious Rachel! Congratulations on the book – can’t wait to read it!

  21. Chantel


    I love your blog and read it religiously. I moved to Rome from the US one month ago, and at least once I week I try out a new recipe from your blog. In a way, it’s almost a challenge for me: going to the market, perusing the produce, fumbling to communicate in poor Italian, and then finally coming home and cooking. You’ve taught me to take time with my food, appreciate it, and enjoy every flavor each ingredient has to offer. I love the simplicity. Thank you, thank you.


    PS: My Roman boyfriend thinks I’m an amazing cook thanks to you!

    • rachel

      Hi Chantal, I still remember my first months in Rome so clearly, it must be a vivid and extraordinary time – enjoy it. I am so happy you enjoy reading and cooking, all best Rx

  22. Dennis in Toronto

    What’s the purpose of the parchment paper – you don’t bake the polpettes – or did I miss something?

  23. Ah! I remember these! But the ricotta bought outside Italy doesn’t have that almost virginal freshnesss of the cool white curd available to you. Perhaps I could get away with it in this dish though. I’ll have to try……

  24. Brady

    I second the motion on calling them fritters…and really like the note about finger and tongue scalding; who could wait for them to cool?? Congratulations on the book, very much looking forward to the luxury of perusing your recipes on paper….something lovely about paging through a book of recipes on a lazy and hungry day..

    • rachel

      The hotter they are, the crisper they are. Thanks Brady, I look forward to to holding the book too – now I just need to write it.

  25. Sometimes I make my own Ricotta and there really is nothing like it. It would be just perfect to make your wonderful recipe with…..this is one of my favorites you have posted…simple good ingredients, easy to assemble and I can only imagine how delicious…until I make my own.

  26. Geoffrey Panis

    Pourquoi m’avez-vous envoyé ces recettes ?

  27. Oh, to be golden, crisp and decisive….I too could (and often do) live on ricotta. Thank you for your lovely recipe. And congratulations on the book. Richly deserved. Always beautiful to read you. Sophie

    • rachel

      Thanks Sophie and yes: oh to be more crisp and decisive (I am the complete opposite these days.) Just been reading about your upside down plum cake – it sounds exactly like my sort of sticky, topsy turvy cake,.

  28. Pingback: Recipes to Try | Live and Learn

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