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.
In her brilliant book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David has a recipe for Carciofi alla Veneziana that immediately captured my attention. I was flipping through the vegetable section one day – as I often do, looking for nothing in particular but, rather, for some kind of cooking inspiration – and suddenly stopped at the sight of the word Venetian, followed by the word artichokes. I was hooked.
As a home cook, artichokes have for long been my pet peeve. But, being such a central ingredient in Venetian cuisine, I couldn’t avoid them forever. To tell you the truth, artichokes intimidated me because I wasn’t too familiar with them. Mum never made them, and for long, I had no idea what to look for when purchasing them, how to clean and cook them properly. They were a mystery.
Then, all of a sudden, the whole world of artichokes opened up to me. I moved to London and began to work for a fruit and vegetable company. I started to have access to more knowledge, more information, more variety. I began by learning how to clean artichokes from a friend chef. Basics acquired, I slowly went into experimenting with different recipes. I started with a simple artichoke salad: just thinly sliced spiky Sardinian artichokes, good olive oil, lemon, and flaky salt. I then moved to cooked preparations: spring vignarola with peas and broad beans; frittata, risotto. And, finally, these braised artichokes.
Life rolls fast these days, and so does the cooking. Meals have been simple around here lately – stripped back, essential. The host of green produce that is finally coming into season helps me to keep things uncomplicated and yet somehow exciting. Even the simplest of salads or a toastie can turn into a feast in its own right.
The most fascinating side of an enlarged family is usually the one which lives far from the rest. My family is no exception. As a kid, among the whole lot of aunts and uncles all born and raised in Veneto, I have always been intrigued by that aunt who chose the alternative path, married a man from the South during her graduate years and left the native soil to follow him in his social and professional climbing.
They lived in Palermo, Reggio Clalabria, Naples, Udine, Varese, Florence and who knows where else in Italy. My aunt would follow her professional, upscale engineer husband wherever his career would take him without objection, even after the birth of their (only) daughter. They would show up sometimes at my grandma’s house for a weekend over Christmas or Easter or some other public holiday, have lunch with the rest of us, and then leave right after in their shiny new company car.
What was most striking was how much she had changed and moved on from her Venetian country origins. Far from using any dialect, her way of speaking had a strange inflection, a mixture of accents and local usages that made her even more singular before my eyes. She would discuss literature, philosophy, religion, art and music with her very puzzled mother and sister –all subjects that she probably had time to dig in her long days at home alone, with her husband away for work, pressured by the idea of pleasing him and be presentable at one of the many social events they had to attend.
Last week, I found some punnets of ruby-red, ripe, local strawberries at the market, and I couldn’t help myself being carried away (six punnets? why not). We have been feasting on them ever since – some straight from the bowl, others simply roasted, and others again in form of cake.