Tuscany’s out; Lazio’s in.
Lazio, in case your geography’s rusty, is the region halfway down Italy’s western coast, in the middle of which sits Rome. Rome isn’t known as one of the world’s -- or even Italy’s -- great food cities, perhaps because the cooking’s fairly simple, and there’s a shortage of the kind of restaurants the Michelin guide would want to shower with stars. But visit Rome and you will eat very, very well. Visit Rome’s markets, and you will wish you lived there, so you could cook.
Rome’s summer markets are filled with artichokes, gorgeous tomatoes in a dozen shapes and sizes, fava beans, fennel -- all the same stuff that grows so well in Southern California. (Of course you find baby octopus and fresh anchovies and fat porcini there too, but who’s counting?) So Roman cooking has terrific appeal for Angelenos.
Just in time for summer produce, two new cookbooks celebrate Rome and its cooking.
You may know Suzanne Dunaway’s baked goods -- based in L.A., she’s the force behind Buona Forchetta Hand Made Breads. Her love for Italian-style bread was no doubt kindled by her love affair with Rome, where she has spent much of her life, beginning with a post-college trip to the Eternal City, as she tells us in the introduction of “Rome, at Home: The Spirit of La Cucina Roma in Your Own Kitchen” (Broadway Books, $29.95). She married a man who lived and worked in Rome, and so spent the better part of 10 years there. Was he Roman? Did she actually live there with him? Is she still married to him? How much time has she spent there since? She’s a little sketchy on details.
No matter; she tells us plenty about the food. “Parli come mangi,” she explains, is romanesco (Roman dialect) for “Speak as you eat,” that is to say, plainly. “This directness is at the heart and soul of the Roman experience and especially la cucina romana.”
And the book itself is direct -- no fancy photos, no clever division of recipes into flavor profiles -- just 150 straightforward, appealing recipes, sensibly divided into antipasti; primi; secondi; contorni; pane, focaccia e pizza; and dolci. I want to make them all, from allici fritti (fried anchovies) to crostini di fegato (chicken liver pate on toast) to pappardelle alla lepre (wide noodles with hare or rabbit).
Those I’ve tried have been simple to prepare and delicious. Straccetti con la rughetta (“tattered” strips of beef with arugula) showed up on Roman menus a few years ago, the headnote tells us, and is now very fashionable, “seen everywhere except in cookbooks.” Lean sirloin is cut into thin strips and browned quickly in a skillet, and a mess of arugula is tossed in at the last minute, just to wilt it. The flavor of Orecchiette con rapini (little ear-shaped pasta with broccoli rape) is deepened by anchovies and enlivened by a squeeze of lemon as it’s served, and you can put it together in no time flat. And Dunaway’s version of Carciofi alla romana, the traditional Roman preparation of artichokes with garlic and mint, is my absolute favorite this season, which for me has been a nonstop artichoke fest.
Julia della Croce’s “Roma: Authentic Recipes From In and Around the Eternal City” (Chronicle Books, $19.95), is a paperbound book with terrific photos by Paolo Destefanis. Della Croce, who is the award-winning author of 10 previous cookbooks, including “The Classic Italian Cookbook” (1996), reminds us that Italians say Rome has no cuisine of its own, but she asserts that that’s not true. She points to Romans’ bold use of pepper and other spices, their fondness for lard and other pork fat, along with olive oil, fennel, mint, cilantro and bitter chocolate (especially in stews and sweet-and-sour dishes).
In any case, it’s a little hard to focus on the quite-thorough explanations of ingredients such as pecorino and puntarella when a flip through the pages makes you want to pick up a pan.
Della Croce’s book is not as exhaustive as Dunaway’s, but there’s no shortage of wonderful dishes. Those I’ve tried have turned out so well, they’ve instantly joined my repertoire. “Jump-in-the-mouth” sauteed veal cutlets (Saltimbocca alla romana) sound like a silly escapee from a 1970s menu, but these simple little rolls of veal layered with prosciutto and fresh sage are irresistible. The instructions are a little goofy, though, insisting that you cut the meats into 2- by 4-inch rectangles, discarding any scraps. I did so, but I don’t discard veal or prosciutto, so I just made raggedly little rolls with the extras, and they were just as delicious. The recipe also forgets to say to roll them up before securing with toothpicks. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
For baby peas coddled in lettuce (Piselli alla lattuga), Della Croce calls for either fresh English peas or frozen baby peas. How good could it possibly be with frozen peas? Really good, it turns out. You line the pot with lettuce leaves, which impart a hint of flavor, and add finely chopped scallions and fresh mint leaves. I still don’t understand why it’s so good.
Another contorno (side dish), roasted onions with vinegar dressing (Cipolle al forno), is as simple as can be, with about five minutes of active preparation. But they’re so meltingly delicious -- and beautiful -- that I’ve not only made them thrice, but I’ve also given the recipe to my mother, who loved it so much that she gave it to a friend and my brother. With that kind of exponential recipe blabbing, it’s only a matter of time before they land on your table.