Good food begins with markets. In the Mediterranean, there are so many markets to write about. In Italy, some markets in smaller towns and villages may actually not impress because, unlike an American market, they don’t sell everything under the sun. In the culinary culture of that small village the vegetables that form the basis of the cuisine are local and embedded in age-old culinary culture that has meaning. The culture does not seek the next “hot” food. The fava beans sold have been always been sold and when they are bought and made into that fava bean puree that, in and of itself, is the apex of the culinary art. The idea that they might need a “twist,” an “exciting” addition of some kind is utterly foreign. They don’t need improvement because they are perfect.
I remember a market in Lecce, a baroque town in the Salento peninsula of the Italian region of Apulia, with four varieties of chicory, eggplants, zucchini, some fava beans, several kinds of tomatoes, and not much else. But those vegetables were the foundation to cucina salentina.
Testaccio market: Off the tourist track
In Rome, the Campo dei Fiori is the one market into which almost every traveler stumbles. It’s delightful, but once I moved to Santa Monica, Calif., with its farmers market I was spoiled. Besides, the Campo dei Fiori is mentioned in every guidebook in every language, so a trip there is not quite what it once was although it is still a colorful place with a variety of vegetables, fruit and flowers, and it is strategically situated in the heart of old Rome near the Tiber and the Piazza Argentina. Look closely at the vegetables and how they are sold and you may get some culinary ideas just by looking.
The Testaccio market is in some ways more interesting than the Campo dei Fiori because there are far fewer tourists. It is located a block from Piazza Testaccio on the via Marmorata. It is here where you will gain some insight into the local cooking of Rome, a style of cooking found farther away from the tourist areas of the city center. See the puntarelle? This is a kind of chicory very popular in Rome and southern Italy.
Real Roman restaurants
Nearby is one of my favorite Roman restaurants. When I say “Roman restaurant” I don’t mean “restaurant in Rome” but restaurant that serves Roman food and not the pan-Italian stuff for the tourists. Perilli at via Marmorata 39 is a bastion of authentic Roman cooking, with serious waiters, old Roman murals, lack of pretensions, bright lights, offal and white tablecloths. Here you can get — should get — spaghetti alla carbonara.
Really? Isn’t that a hackneyed old dish? Tourist food? No, you’ve never had it done as properly as this. You can also order puntarelle in salsa, a kind of chicory with almost no leaves and all stem after it’s cooked, so that on a plate it could be mistaken for bucatini. The puntarelle is tossed with a sauce made from melted anchovies or sardines, olive oil and vinegar. It’s very refreshing and just a little bitter. Or try the rigatoni con pajata d’abbacchio — a dish unavailable in Italian restaurants in America and a rigatoni that will be memorable. It is cooked rigatoni with a sauce of milk-fed baby lamb intestine still with milk in its system. The taste is ethereal, elemental and essential.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
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