Zucchine alla scapece – this traditional Neapolitan dish of fried courgettes marinated in a vinegar solution, where fat slices of garlic and roughly torn mint leaves were added – remains my favourite way to eat courgettes to date.
When in Campania, I always order it when I see it on a restaurant menu, and I have even tried to reproduce it in my tiny apartment. It admittedly took me a little while to gather the guts to do it, but the first good occasion presented itself on an unusually chilly day in June, in the form of many small, crisp, lightly ridged Roman courgettes. Since then, though, frying courgettes have become some sort of celebratory ritual in our home. It is something we save for the odd rainy summer day when the breeze is fresh and flows freely, sweeping away the dreaded cooking odors.
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.