We entered the deli in via Marmorata, in the bustling Roman neighbourhood of Testaccio, short after noon. A well-nourished crowd of locals was populating the tiny space, raising their voices to make themselves heard by the people serving behind the counter. All were waiting, more or less impatiently, to be served their daily dose of pecorino, guanciale, ricotta, and pizza bianca. We joined the crowd, famished after an early rise and a long train journey.
Testaccio is a great place to be for food, as good traditional trattorias, street food branches, delis, markets and bars aren’t short in the neighbourhood. From our previous Roman trip, we vaguely remembered there was a good deli on the main road linking the river to the Pyramid. Our well-seasoned plan was to just walk until we stumbled upon it. We eventually did and recognised it immediately for the bountiful displays of preserves, hams and whole cheeses in the window. And so, we joined the not-so-orderly queue and started to think about what we wanted for lunch.
One year later, they revealed a simple dish to replicate at home. A huge help comes from Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. In fact, not only does she a recipe for Roman-style artichokes, but she also includes illustrations on how to clean and prep them properly – great if you feel intimidated by this task. In another book, Ammarcord, she then said that she learnt how to clean mammole from a lady selling artichokes at the Campo dei Fiori market. That same lady also taught her the ‘trick of the towel’: placing a damp kitchen towel between pan and lid helps retain moisture and makes the artichokes creamier and more tender.
Roman-style artichokes are great served as a cold appetiser. I have been loving the pairing with creamy burrata – very un-traditional, but terribly, dangerously delicious. If you decide to go for it, this makes a complete, filling, deeply satisfying spring meal. And even though wine purists would never ever serve artichokes with wine, I find a crisp white to wash the oil and cream very pleasant and somehow much needed.
Carciofi alla Romana
Before you start, you’ll need to get hold of a fairly deep, large pan with a lid – one where you can easily fit the six (standing) artichokes and part of their stem.
Using a small serrated knife, halve the lemon and squeeze some juice on the blade. Prepare the artichokes: remove the outer leaves until you find those which are pale green and light purple. Trim the stalk 5 cm from the base and peel it to reveal the white part. Remove any remaining bit of the outer leaves still attached to the base. Finally, trim the ends – cut away about 1.5 cm of choke. At every passage, rub the cut parts of the artichokes with lemon to prevent discolouration. Open the artichoke and remove the choke in the middle, then set aside and repeat with the rest of the artichokes.
In a small bowl, mix together the chopped parsley, mint and minced garlic, then add a pinch of salt and ground black pepper to taste. Fill each artichoke ‘core’ with equal amounts of this mixture.
Place the artichokes upside down in the prepared pan, then pour in the olive oil, wine and enough water to reach one-third of the artichokes.
Cover the pot with a damp kitchen towel, and then put the lid over the cloth. Bring the corners of the towel over the top of the lid and make a knot if you can. Place the pan over medium heat for 30-35 minutes. Test the doneness and tenderness of your artichokes by inserting a fork or a long toothpick at the base of the artichoke. A little longer is better rather than the opposite – the more tender, the better. When done, transfer the artichokes (stems up) onto a large platter and allow them to cool to room temperature, then pour over the reserved cooking juices and serve.