Until just a few decades ago, lard was one of the key ingredients of authentic Roman-style cooking. Pork cheek and bacon-fat were also used, while olive oil was limited only to certain dishes. In 1837, the Roman dialect poet, Gioacchino Belli, a true connoisseur of Roman cuisine, dedicated a very amusing, witty sonnet to lard and olive oil. The sonnet was called “Li connimenti” (condimenti, accompaniment, dressing or seasoning). Amusing and witty as it was, it also underscored a few modest ‘home truths’ on how to use these two “connimenti” – lard, excellent for meat dishes and soups and minestrones, or vegetable soups, and olive oil, to be used only for fish dishes and fries: “Vòi frigge er pessce co lo strutto?! Eh zzitto.Er pessce fritto in nell’òjjo va ccotto:L’òjjo è la morte sua p’er pessce fritto. […]” (Do you want to fry fish with lard?!. Get away with you! You must fry fish in olive oil. Olive oil is the perfect end for a fish to come to.)
Until the mid-twentieth century, in the early morning in the centre of Rome you would hear the thudding sound of housewives at their “battilonte”, a small wooden board for preparing the “battuto” (chopped aromatic ingredients). Battuto provides the basis for cooking without olive oil, for minestrones or vegetable soups. In the morning from early on until the bells rang out at midday, women would pound their celery, onion, carrot, garlic, parsley and bacon-fat for the kind of soffritto (onions and herbs lightly fried) which we generally can only dream of today. Pork cheek is the key ingredient of spaghetti alla matriciana (spaghetti with cured pig cheek, pecorino and tomato sauce). The popular film actor, Aldo Fabrizi, had his own personal recipe: “soffriggete in padella stagionata cipolla, ojo, zenzero infocato, mezz’etto de guanciale affumicato e mezz’etto de pancetta arrotolata” (in a well-used pan, fry onion, oil, scorched ginger, 50 grammes of smoked cheek and 50 grammes of rolled-up bacon). Let’s now take a look at olive oil. After all, it’s essential for all fries, such as this refined Roman-style dish prepared with flour and whisked eggs.
The true recipe includes only artichokes, spinal marrow and brain (to which a few slices of veal liver may be added) plus pane dorato (a bread and whisked egg dish). Olive oil is also absolutely essential for Rome’s traditional cazzimpero (crude vegetable dip), which is served toward the end of the meal . Belli dedicated a couple of verses to his recipe: “cò sale e pepe e quattro gocce d’ojo poverissimo faccè il cazzimperio” (with salt and pepper and four drops of oil, the very poor will have their cazzimperio). So, let’s look at a pandorato recipe by traditional cookbook writer Ada Boni – for all the goodness and authenticity of a marvellously delicious “fritto alla romana”!
Recipe: pandorato Ingredients 2 slices of bread 1 egg milk Salt (to taste)
Cut two slices of bread (the width of a finger). Remove the crust and then dice (the cubes shall be something like six by six centimetres). Place the bread on a plate and sprinkle with warm milk and then add an egg, whisked. Add a pinch of salt and leave to settle for at least one hour, so that the bread fully absorbs the egg. With a spatula, raise the bread and dip it into your sizzling olive oil. Fry and serve hot.
Where to enjoy “fritto alla romana” in its various modern versions Matricianella, via del Leone 4, Rome. Tel 066832100 Roberto e Loretta, via Saturnia, 18-24. Tel 0677201037 Flavio al Velavevo detto, via Monte Testaccio 97, Rome. Tel. 065744194 Felice, via Mastro Giorgio, 29, Rome. Tel 065746800 Palatium, via Frattina, 94, Roma. Tel. 0669202132