“Aò, nun vedi che stai a fà un casino?” (Hey you, you are making a mess, don’t you see?)
We were sharing the first course, a big plate of steaming, saucy tagliatelle al sugo d’involtino. Or trying at least, as I was failing in the attempt of splitting it: I stained the tablecloth while trying to transfer a forkful of tagliatelle on my plate, and succeeded in creating a very intricate bundle. The waitress hurried toward us and promptly sorted things out – not without commenting on my poor performance. She stripped the two forks I was clumsily holding, and skillfully rolled the tagliatelle into two perfect portions. They were fantastic, of course, like the rest of the meal, of the day, of our stay in Rome.
We were lodging in a small apartment not far from the Vatican – or better said, not far from Bonci’s pizza spot in Via della Meloria. On New Year’s Eve we woke up to a bright, sunny, spring-like day, and made plans to take the metro to the Piramide, wander around Testaccio and Trastevere, and fit a good meal in between. “You must try Da Felice”, a friend told us. We phoned and booked a table for a late lunch.
The morning started with some idle contemplation under the shady trees of the beautiful, peaceful, sacred cemetery where Keats rests – easily, my favourite place in the whole city. The Protestant Cemetery is a corner of quiet and beauty that prepares you for the immersion in the crowded neighborhoods, busy streets and touristy areas. It doesn’t, actually, but it helps. Time flew, and hunger caught us by surprise. On the way to the trattoria, wandering around Testaccio, we stumbled upon the popular food market, and dived into the atmosphere, the noises, the life and colours coming from every stall. Everything was so different from the quiet market we had grown used to in Bra – the produce, for starters, but also the louder and warmer attitude of people.
At lunch, we had the instant impression of being amongst the locals and treated as such. Service was fast, the menu a voce, the wine list short and easy. We ordered a bottle of Aglianico (I don’t even remember the producer, it didn’t seem to matter back then I guess). I mentioned we split the primo: tagliatelle coated by a decadent and rich tomato sauce infused with the juices of veal rolls, which were then taken out and served as a second course. For secondo, I received a delicious puddle of sauce surrounding the biggest meatball I had ever seen in my eating career while the classic abbacchio con patate (roasted lamb with potatoes) landed in front of J. Aided by the multiple glasses of wine, we were quite emotionally moved by the view.
While we were busy digging in, bread in hand to mop every single drop of delicious sauce or rosemary-infused oil, our side dish arrived: puntarelle, what else? I have been raving about these greenish curls topped with anchovy sauce for ages, without ever been able to find the head of puntarelle in any Northern market to make them myself. So that was my first time eating them, and busy as I was between a bite of tender, sweet meatball with sauce, one of crunchy, bitter, fishy puntarelle, a morsel of bread and a sip of wine to erase flavours and start again, I was somehow, mesmerised.
Euphoric and full, we left the restaurant and walked along the Tiber up until the bridge that connects Testaccio with Trastevere, and then further, up to the Gianicolo, and down again along the walls of the Vatican. New Year’s Eve went like that, sweet and easy, unplanned and sunny. At midnight, we climbed up the Gianicolo again to see the fireworks lighting the Roman sky. And in case you are wondering, yes, we had skipped dinner: that meal left us happily nurtured until the new year.
pinch of salt
Remove the outer leaves from the puntarelle head until you get to the white, hollow bulbs in the middle. Reserve the leaves for other preparations, and use like you would chicory (I reserved some of the smaller leaves and added them to the final salad, but this is quite an unusual move, so feel free to leave them out). Then, using a sharp knife, cut each bulb lengthways into thin slices and drop them into a large bowl filled with cold water and ice cubes. Leave the slices soaking for at least an hour, during which time they should curl up and become crisp – especially if you cut them thin enough. No worries if they don’t – taste isn’t affected.
In the meantime, prepare the dressing. Mince the garlic into a paste using the flat side of the knife blade, then mince the anchovies using the same technique. In a jar, shake the anchovies with the vinegar until the anchovies have disintegrated. Add the garlic, the oil and a good pinch of salt. Shake again and allow the dressing to sit for 10 minutes.
Drain the puntarelle and gently spin it dry. Give the dressing another shake, then pour it into the serving bowl. Add the puntarelle, grind over some black pepper and toss to coat. Allow the salad to sit for a few minutes, then toss again and serve with lemon slices.