Baccalà con patate

Here’s a bit of trivia for you – Italy is second among nations in the consumption of baccalà.  What is baccalà, you might ask?

Photo from http-www-academiabarilla-itricettelaziobaccala-alla-romana-aspx.jpg

Photo from http-www-academiabarilla-itricettelaziobaccala-alla-romana-aspx.jpg

Baccalà is merluzzo, or cod, which has been salt-dried, and is later rehydrated, cooked and consumed.  Baccalà is a relative to stoccafisso, or stockfish.  Legend has it that Norwegian Vikings used to air-dry cod and take it with them for nourishment on their overseas travels.  At the same time or shortly thereafter, whale hunters from Spain’s Basque Country devised a similar plan to support their nutrition needs on whale hunting trips.  Due to the higher temperatures in the Southern Mediterranean, though, the Basque people salt-dried their cod instead of air-drying it, to save themselves from an otherwise very fishy-smelling voyage.

Baccalà

Once considered a food of the people, baccalà is now a delicacy across all of Italy, and is prepared in a multitude of ways, in venues ranging from the household Italian kitchens to high end restaurants.  Recipes abound, their names often reflecting an Italian region or city: baccalà alla vicentina, baccalà alla livornese, baccalà alla romana, baccalà alla napoletana, baccalà alla calabrese.  

Photo from http://travelsofadam.com/hipster-rome-travel-tips/

Photo from http://travelsofadam.com/hipster-rome-travel-tips/

Baccalà is also essential to la Cucina Romana.  Filetti di baccalà are reliably found on the menù of all Roman pizzerie.  These batter-fried pieces of baccalà are the Eternal City’s preferred pre-pizza appetizer.  Moreover, entire baccalà stores, called baccalerie, supply any type of baccalà or stoccafisso you desire.  Alimentari Micheangeli, located in the working class Roman neighborhood of Centocelle, is one such baccaleria.

When Stefano was a bambino, his grandmother had a little neighborhood alimentari, where she sold salt-dried baccalà, and also had a large basin of cold water with rehydrated baccalà ready for shoppers to buy and cook.  Baccalà con patate, a favorite of Stefano’s father, Andrea, was a frequent meal in their household during his childhood.

Remember, you need to start soaking the baccalà the night before!

Ingredients for 4-6 servings
One filetto di baccalà (salt cod fillet)
Half of a medium onion
8-12 medium potatoes
1 28-oz. can (in Europe, a 1 kg. can) of plum tomatoes
1/3 olive oil

Directions
At least 24 hours prior, place the salt cod fillet to soak in cold water.  Change the water every 3-4 hours as possible (don’t worry about changing the water overnight).

Baccalà

Chop the onion and cut the potatoes into small, uniform pieces.  Place the potatoes and onion into a large pan with 1/3 cup of olive oil.  Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill first.  If you don’t have a food mill, use crushed tomatoes, or run the whole tomatoes though a food processor or blender.

Baccalà con patate

Add a glass of water, cover, and cook over medium-low heat for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are soft, adding water and lowering the heat as needed to prevent it from burning.  You do not need to salt the mixture – your fish will provide enough salt once you add it.

Baccalà con patate

Remove the fish from the water, rinse it and pat it dry.  Cut the fish into portion-sized pieces, and add it to the potato, onion and tomatoes.  Cook covered for approximately another 20 minutes, time for the baccalà to become tender and release its flavors.  After 10 minutes, taste for salt and add a bit if needed.

Baccalà con patateBaccalà con patate

Serve hot with crusty bread and a chilled glass of crisp, earthy white wine that can stand up to the saltiness of baccalà, such as Verdicchio or Frascati.

Baccalà con patate

Date Night in Rome

Date Night in Rome – cheap wine, an ancient Roman garbage dump, and butchered animal scraps.

The boys were more than happy to stay home with Nonna and eat a big plate of her pasta e fagioli, while Stefano and I enjoyed a rare evening out together – even more rare in that we are in Rome.

Date night in Rome is a definite treat.  The setting sun illuminates the pastel facades of the city’s palazzi, making the everything glow with intense color.  The air finally cools, a breeze picks up and people emerge from their homes and offices to enjoy their marvelous town.  Restaurants and bars buzz, and the many outdoor concerts and festivals are jammed with people.

We decided on dinner at an osteria that we’ve heard a lot about lately – Flavio al Velavevodetto. We first read about Flavio al Velavevodetto in London’s Guardian newspaper.  Then, Kathy from a Food Lover’s Odyssey wrote about it.  Researching it further, we discovered that food writer Elizabeth Minchilli featured it on her blog, as well.  We used to be suspicious of local places that had been reviewed and publicized by the Anglo world, but we’ve come to realize that some of these food reviewers really know Rome, and Roman cuisine.  Plus, the name itself is playfully fun – velavevodetto is Roman slang for, “I told you so.”

As it turned out, they were right – it is a fabulous place!  But before we jump right to the end of the story, we need to explain a few things about date night in a Roman osteria.  You see, it involves cheap wine, an ancient Roman garbage dump, and butchered animal scraps.

Osterie Romane
Osteria comes from oste, or ‘host’ in English.  Traditionally, osterie served wine and very simple food.  More recently, osterie have simple menus and are usually known for serving traditional dishes in a relaxed, neighborhood atmosphere.  They have slightly more informal origins than trattorie, although the two have in common that they feature local food and are usually less expensive than a ristorante.

Monte Testaccio
Some of the best osterie are found in the ancient Roman neighborhood of Testaccio.  Testaccio takes its name from Monte Testaccio, a man-made hill 35 meters high made up of broken clay pots called anfore in Italian or ‘amphorae’ in English, that date back to Ancient Rome.  The amphorae contained olive oil, and were broken and discarded in an orderly and systematic way on the hill.  According to wikipedia, the remains of up to 53 million olive oil amphorae make up Monte Testaccio.

Flavio al Velavevodetto is located along Via di Monte Testaccio, and its dining room rests up against Monte Testaccio.  At the back of the dining room, three arch windows were cut out of the wall and covered with glass to display the amphorae behind them.

La Cucina Romana
Offal (noun).  The internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal.

Throughout history, Rome has been an important city gastronomically.  However, as social classes formed and became increasingly disparate, Rome’s poor became skilled at making good use of what is called il quinto quarto, or the ‘fifth quarter’ of meat, referring to the organs, entrails, brains, of the animal as well as less prestigious cuts of meat such as oxtail. These are carefully prepared, often in umido, stewed for hours in seasoned tomato sauce.

The menu at Flavio al Velavevodetto was typically Roman, and the atmosphere was one of a true Roman osteria, albeit one with a Michelin recognized kitchen.  There were a few tourists, but the place was packed with Romans of all ages, too.  The cute couple next to us who looked no older than their late teens conversed as they ate their generous plates of oxtail in tomato sauce, while two middle-aged Roman women finished off their dinner with a glass of amaro, a bitter, after-dinner herbal liquor that serves as a digestif.

Here were our choices:

I primi piatti
Stefano ordered a first course of rigatoni con la pajataLa pajata is made from the intestine of a veal that has been nourished with its mother’s milk only, and is a delicacy only a true Roman can appreciate.

Cara ordered ravioli alla velavevodetto.  These were filled with fresh cow’s milk ricotta and spinach, and served in a sauce made from minced herbs (mint, mentuccia romana, basil, oregano, thyme, and majoram) blended with ricotta salata, garnished with split cherry tomatoes and a dollop of ricotta.

Our first courses were so good that had the meal ended then we would have gone home satisfied and happy.  But alas, there was more…

I secondi piatti
A true Roman, Stefano ordered trippa alla romana (tripe), the culinary term for the lining of the first chamber of a cow’s stomach  Cara ordered the misto umido, which consisted of one meatball, one oxtail and one involtino alla romana (a thin strip of beef rolled tightly together with herbs and a piece of prosciuto), all slow-cooked in a delicious red sauce until tender and savory.

Contorni
We ordered a delicious side dish of escarole that was boiled and then sautéed with black olives, capers and pine nutes, and a salad of mixed baby greens with a side dressing of olive oil and anchovy paste.  The side dressing was actually designed to dress le puntarelle, a delicious Roman chicory, but sadly there were none that night.

Vino
There is no wine list at Flavio al Velavevodetto.  Instead, patrons are invited to walk right up to the shelves storing the wine selection and choose a bottle that suits them.  The quality and selection of wines was inpressive, and the prices were very reasonable.  Cheap wine, in other words, but very good wine.  We chose a 2007 Poliziano Asinone, and were delighted.

Dolce
We’d heard about Flavio’s variation on the classic Italian dessert tiramisù, and decided that we had to share one to try it.  Absent were the savoiardi and liquor characteristic to the traditional tiramisù recipe.  Instead, a very smooth, very eggy mascarpone cream sat on top of a tablespoon of espresso on the bottom and a crumbly cookie in the middle of a simple Italian water glass.  Pieces of fudgy dark chocolate floated in the middle of all of that goodness, while a pool of chocolate rested on top.

Stefano told the friendly and helpful waitstaff that second to his mamma’s dinners, it was the best meal he has had since returning to Rome.