Apr 112014
Pasquino, mascot of free speech, by Cornelis Bos, Netherlands, 1642

Pasquino, tribune of the populace, by Cornelis Bos, Netherlands, 1642

Just when I was thinking I should offer a recipe with an accompanying historical yarn about abbacchio, the suckling lamb that is Rome’s gastronomical obsession at Easter, this lively story about just that, titled “Pasquino Discusses a Tender Subject” landed in my mailbox. The author, Anthony Di Renzo, who chronicles a fading Italian world in his novels, writes a column for the California-based  L’Italo-Americano newspaper under the pen name, “Pasquino.” For those not steeped in Roman lore, “Pasquino” is the nickname of an ancient, battered statue that lost its arms during the sack of Rome and was buried in a ditch until April Fool’s Day, 1501.

After the ruin was dug up and heaved onto a pedestal, it became a soapbox for anticlerical squibs (from which derives the English word “pasquinade,” or  lampoon) and local sarcasm (at which the Romans excel). Pasquino still observes the goings on of the city, large and small, his opinions voiced in the placards and graffiti displayed around his remains. Here in America, Anthony’s column channels the statue’s ruminations. In time for spring holiday celebrations, the marble hulk muses on abbacchio, as imagined by him. You will learn the history of the iconic dish—”Not bad for a hunk of stone,” Anthony says— and from me, the recipe (below). Buona Pasqua a tutti, and Happy Spring Equinox to all!

A mile and a half from the Circus Maximus, sheep graze in Caffarella Park. Warming themselves in the April sun, they are indifferent to the ruins of towers and mausoleums and oblivious to an annual rite of spring. Shepherds gather and transport the youngest of the flock for slaughter and sale at Piazza San Cosimato and Piazza Testaccio. As Easter approaches, Rome once again craves abbacchio, suckling lamb.

Pasquino today, collecting protests over the mayor's plans to privatize water. | Credit: Anthony Di Renzo

Pasquino protesting city plans to privatize water, 2012. | Credit: La Repubblica Roma

Abbacchio was a delicacy before the city’s founding. When Italic shepherds roamed free, sheep were Latium’s basic monetary unit, called a pecus. Their skin and wool provided clothing. Their milk, cheese, and meat supplied protein. When Roman law was codified, peculium (the Latin root for “pecuniary”) came to mean transferable property, sometimes in the form of pasturage or livestock. The Divino Amore district, between the Alban Hills and central Rome, was the best range in classical times. The best abbacchio, connoisseurs swear, still comes from here.

According to Juvenal, who satirized Rome’s imperial appetites, true suckling lamb should be “more milk than blood,” killed before it tastes its first grass. The tender-hearted may weep, but the tough-minded shrug. Lambs are not harmless. They nibble everything in sight and compact and erode the soil. Dairy ewes live about a decade, producing up to four lambs a year. When too many threaten to deplete a pasture, ranchers whisk them to the slaughterhouse, the sooner the better.

The term abbacchio reflects this cruel reality. Abbacchiare means to beat down or demoralize. The verb derives from bacchiare, to beat fruit from trees with a bacchio, a long stick called a baculum by the ancients. Suckling lambs were carried to the Forum Boarium with their hooves twined over the baculum and were slaughtered with it. Abbachiare also means to sell at bargain-basement prices, to dump on the market, because the overabundance of spring lambs always drives down prices. During the early Christian era, however, butchers jacked prices and gouged customers. Everyone was expected to eat abbacchio at Easter, so demand always exceeded supply.

The "agnellatura," lamb slaughtering. Roman woodcut. Artist unknown. | Courtesy: La cucina romana e del Lazio, Livio Jannattoni (Newton & Compton Editori, 1988)

The “agnellatura,” lamb slaughter. Woodcut. Artist unknown. | Courtesy: La cucina romana e del Lazio, Livio Jannattoni (Newton & Compton Editori, 1988)

The Lamb of God proved good business. Even the shepherds of the church profited. Medieval popes abandoned to pasture huge tracts of land extending from the gates of Rome to the borders of Tuscany and Umbria. To fund protection against local authorities and to replenish its treasury, the Vatican established a dogana dei pastorizie. It taxed all flocks within its purview and collected rent on all pasturage.

Stuff or spice baby lamb with minced rosemary and garlic and roast it with new potatoes. That’s abbacchio al forno con le patate, the centerpiece at Easter dinner. Braise the lamb in broth with white wine and scrambled egg yolks and slurp abbacchio brodettato, an Easter Monday specialty. Cleave it into dainty chops, sprinkle them with rosemary, and grill them for abbacchio scottadito, so named because the chops burn your fingertips.  If you sauté the lamb’s internal organs instead, adding slivers of artichoke hearts, you get coratella con carciofi. This hearty dish tastes best on Easter morning around ten, whether or not you’ve fasted on Holy Saturday. Tough luck makes tender flesh. Despite its unsavory history, abbacchio is too succulent to resist. Unlike grass-fed lamb, suckling lamb is pale, buttery soft, and sweet. Slaughtered at one or two months old and weighing between 15 to 20 pounds, abbacchio has burned off most of its baby fat but has not developed muscle. Every ounce of the animal is consumed with relish, from legs to ribs, organ meats to intestines. At a trattoria near Campo de’ Fiori, a waiter recites a litany of mouthwatering recipes to Maryknoll nuns on pilgrimage.

The Mother Superior, raised on a Nebraskan sheep farm, orders pajata d’abbacchio: lamb chitterlings stewed in tomatoes and served with rigatoni. A baby-faced novice wonders whether it is right to eat lamb before Easter but swallows her scruples with the first bite. That’s human nature. We beat our breasts and lick our fingers. 

The author, Anthony Di Renzo, a fugitive from advertising, teaches writing at Ithaca College. His essays and stories satirize the ongoing culture war between Italian humanism and American business and technology. (Italy usually loses.) He lives in Ithaca, New York, an Old World man in a New Age town.

More on Cooking Lamb the Italian Way

Historically and until the present day, enormous quantities of abbacchio have been consumed in Rome from Easter until summer (for example, in 1629, the city alone recorded selling 165 thousand for 115 thousand inhabitants). A look at any Roman menu, or any Roman cookbook, for that matter, will show that meat is preferred to any other food, even bread. Thus it is not surprising that Romans are very discriminating in all matters of meat. They like it very young, preferring suckling pig, suckling goat, and suckling lamb to grass-fed animals. Milk-fed lamb has none of the gaminess of older lamb and tastes, as Anthony describes, buttery and sweet. Abbacchio is raised for slaughter between autumn and spring, its season ending on the feast of San Giovanni, June 24.

Roman abbacchio with potatoes is the Easter centerpiece at home or in restaurants. | Photo: Paolo Destefanis

Roman abbacchio with potatoes is the Easter centerpiece at home or in restaurants. | Photo: Paolo Destefanis

Other  southern regions, particularly Sardinia, are satisfied with older animals as well, and eat it all in prodigious amounts, applying countless delectable local ways of preparing it nose-to-tail.

Ballarò market, Palermo. | Photo: Julia della Croce

Selling young lamb at the Ballarò market, Palermo. | Photo: Julia della Croce

Milk-fed and older lamb and goat at market in Catania. | Photo: Paolo Destefanis

Milk-fed and older lamb and goat at market in Catania. | Photo: Paolo Destefanis

Neither the Americans nor the English typically slaughter lamb at such a tender age, but a good butcher can tell you when to order a baby animal in time for the holiday. If you can still get one at this late date, here is a recipe for abbacchio. If not, my recipe for roasted leg of lamb also follows. A general note about lamb: In the interest of flavor and health, it is best to procure organic, truly “all-natural,” or traceable locally raised meat (rather than industrially farmed). Niman Ranch is one such lamb producer that distributes its meat in markets nationwide.

Abbacchio, Rome. Photo: Paolo Destefanis for Roma, by Julia della Croce (Chronicle)

Abbacchio, photo, right, by Paolo Destefanis for Roma, by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books)

Roast Milk-Fed Baby Lamb
abbacchio al forno
For 8 people
From Roma: Authentic Recipes from In and Around the Eternal City, by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books, 2004)

The famous Roman abbacchio, milk-fed baby lamb not older than six weeks, goes down your throat like butter when it’s cooked. The best way to prepare this delicious meat is to do as little as possible to interfere with its natural flavor. The lamb needs no marinating, and no sauce save the pan juices. Have a butcher prepare the lamb for roasting. Be sure he cracks the joints so you can arrange the lamb on the rack on a roasting pan. Enough fat should remain on the meat to keep it moist while it cooks.

1/2 milk-fed baby lamb (15 to 20 pounds)
4 large cloves garlic, cut into slivers
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary, or 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Remove the lamb from the refrigerator 1 hour before roasting. Preheat the oven to 400º F. With a small, sharp knife, make numerous small incisions on both sides of the lamb: in between the ribs, on the shoulder and leg, and between the joints. Slip garlic slivers into the cuts. Rub in the olive oil, rosemary, and pepper. Tie the legs together with kitchen string. Place the meat on a rack in a large roasting pan. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Immediately lower the heat to 350º F. For “pink” lamb, roast 12 minutes per pound. After 30 minutes, remove the lamb from the oven and close the oven door (to keep the oven temperature constant). Baste the lamb with its own juices and return it to the oven. Repeat every 20 minutes.

Remove the lamb from the oven when the internal temperature of the thickest part of the meat reaches 130 degree F, and the surface is nicely browned, sprinkle with salt, and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Carve the meat and serve on a warmed platter with the degreased pan juices.

Fork with noodle_2

Roast Leg of Lamb My Mother’s Way
Agnello alla sarda
For 8 people
From The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Julia della Croce (DK Publishing, 1996)

Nothing reminds me more of my childhood, and of Sardinian cuisine, than lamb roasted over the embers of a hardwood fire.  The method is simple, and the results, utterly delicious.  An indoor wood-burning oven is not a feature of the average modern kitchen, but an outdoor coal-burning grill can be substituted. It is important, however, to start the fire with kindling rather than chemical fire-starter, which affects the flavor and aroma of the meat.

1 leg of lamb, trimmed (about 6 pounds)

For the rub:
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary, or 1/2 teaspoon dried crushed rosemary leaves
1/3 cup minced fresh Italian parsley
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly milled black pepper, coarsely ground
fine sea salt

Bring the lamb to room temperature.  Combine the ingredients for the rub.  With a small, sharp knife, make shallow, evenly spaced incisions on all sides of the leg.  Work the rub into the incisions.  With your hands, work the remaining rub into the surface flesh of the lamb.  Transfer the lamb to a roasting pan and allow it to stand at room temperature for 2 hours.

For an outdoor grill:
Use dry hardwood such as oak, if possible.  Alternatively, use charcoal.  The grill is ready when the embers or coals are at their hottest, that is, white and glowing.  Arrange them around the edges of the grill to produce indirect heat, leaving a few coals in the center.  Transfer the lamb to the grill; cover the grill, turning occasionally, until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the leg registers 130 degrees F for medium rare, 45 to 60 minutes.

For oven-roasting:
If roasting in an oven, adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 400 degrees F.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and roast lamb until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the leg reaches 130 degrees F, about 1 hour.

Transfer the lamb to a serving platter; let stand for 10 minutes.   Sprinkle it with sea salt to taste.  Carve and serve immediately with defatted pan juices.

Julia della Croce is a New York-based author and journalist who writes about the culture of food and drink. Her thirteen books chronicle the vanishing Italian cooking of her childhood. 

Fork illustration: Winslow Pinney Pels

With gratitude to Anthony Di Renzo

Mar 242014

My last post featured cupola di bucatini, bucatini dome, a recreation of a historic timballo (aka timpano). It was created by Francine Segan, a food historian and author of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), to celebrate the appointment of the new Italian Trade Commissioner, Pier Paolo Celeste. ”This recipe dates to 18th century Naples, and was rediscovered and modernized by Giorgia Chiatto and Carmela Caputo, who run Naples’ first…cooking school, Cucinamica,” she says. She learned how to make it on site from Garofalo, one of the city’s oldest and most famous pastificci, headquartered in Gragnano, home of some of the best dried pasta in Italy.

Francine Segan's "cupola di bucatini." | Photo: Francine Segan

Francine Segan’s cupola di bucatini. | Photo: Francine Segan 

Because so many readers wrote asking how to make it, I asked Francine for the recipe. It was a real show-stopper, but, she says, don’t get intimidated. “This architecturally magnificent–and delicious–dish is actually quite easy to create.” The trick is to use bucatini, thick, long and hollow pasta that keeps its shape as you coil it into a bowl. Also essential is to use high quality imported Italian pasta, which will hold up to being cooked twice—first boiled on the stove and then baked in the oven. Here’ how to make it, step-by-step photos and all.

Step 1

Using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil.

Image 4

Line the pasta with slices of caciocavallo cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta.

Image 1

Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets.

Image 5

Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl….Top with cheese slices.

Image 2

Remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set.

Image 6

Put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it.

Cupola di bucatini

From Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy, by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Serves 8

14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
5 to 6 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced
3 medium carrots, minced
3/4 pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced
1 1/4 pounds bucatini, preferably Garofalo brand
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese
Black pepper
3/4 pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone or sliced caciocavallo cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350F/180 C. Very generously butter an 8 to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 2/3 of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting 3/4 of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining 1/4 into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.
4. Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.
5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of caciocavallo cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.
6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.
7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.

Mar 042014
Heart of Nicaragua: Grace and Magic in a Corn Masa Cookie

Travels with Julia || Nicaragua Maybe because growing up in a family that endured the last world war in Italy, often hungry, my journey as a writer is concerned with food. For me, everything about it fascinates—growing it, harvesting it, cooking it, understanding its cultural trajectory. The recipes are metaphors, albeit edible ones. When I traveled to Nicaragua recently to meet up with my daughter and make our way together to a remote village in the country’s highlands, I learned such a recipe, one that has come to have meaning for me far beyond the discovery of a new dish. [...more...]

Feb 242014
The Magical Gluten-Free Cookie: A Rosquilla Lesson, Step-by-Step

Following up on my recent story in Zester Daily about delicious corn masa cookies I discovered in Nicaragua, we took photographs of the method in hopes that you’ll find them as easy to make as I did. Sweet rosquillas are Nicaragua’s answer to shortbread, but wheat-free. Both sweet and savory versions of mass-produced rosquillas are ubiquitous in the markets and on street corners all around the country. Peddlars hawked them at the bus terminal where we started our journey but they are not the same as those I learned to make in El Lagartillo. I have no doubt that the national obsession with this [...more...]

Feb 212014
Julia's Sweet Potato Gnocchi Recipe Airs on NPR

If you missed it, click on the logo below to hear my broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The lead: For 27 years, Julia made her gnocchi with sweet potatoes, mixing an American staple into the classic recipe. “Here I was, one foot in the new world and one foot in Italy, where my family is from, and they seemed perfect for gnocchi. Why not?” And in all that time, her dumplings were sweet, served with a hazelnut butter sauce, and — most importantly — a lovely shade of orange. This is one way I serve them–American style–alongside roasted duck. [...more...]

Feb 192014
Julia on NPR Radio: "Found Recipe"--Sweet Potato Gnocchi to Brighten Your Winter

February, with its serial blizzards and record-shattering low temperatures has been a cruel month for New Yorkers. At the farmers market, such as it is, there are root vegetables galore, potatoes that have been in storage since fall, and not much else. In truth, it’s the best time for pillowy sweet potato gnocchi, which are best made when the tubers are not freshly harvested and brimming with moisture. My friend and neighbor, Joan Gussow, grows her own sweet potatoes and we made them together on a recent blustery day along with my two daughters in her light-filled kitchen on the [...more...]

Jan 232014
Italian Chefs Fight Forgery of Italian Food with Official Recipe for "Spaghetti al Pomodoro con Basilico"

Spaghetti with tomato sauce are the dream of Italian cuisine, a magic mix of ingredients, wisdom and history that a very few other dishes in the world have. Unfortunately this dish is manipulated, tormented and crucified almost everywhere. –Rosario Scarpato, Honorary President Itchefs-GVCI Once every year, Rosario Scarpato, Neapolitan-born gastronome, writer, film maker/director, and commander-in-chief of ItChefs-GVCI (Virtual Organization of  Italian Chefs) makes a global appeal for the preservation of authentic Italian food by live video conference from the amphitheater of the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York City, reaching 2,000 Italian chefs in 70 countries. “People all over the world are cooking [...more...]

Jan 132014
Julia's Stories Make 2013 Zester Daily Top Picks, Site for the "Weird and Wonderful" in Food and Drink

Judging by the top picks of the savvy food crowd that reads Zester Daily, it looks like people just can’t get enough of Italian food. Good thing, because there are endless more tales to tell and dishes to make you smile, up my proverbial sleeve. Zester Daily is not any ordinary food publication, but a cooperative of experienced writers from around the world who bring you the fresh, the undiscovered, the “weird and the wonderful,” writes founder and editor, Corie Brown. Contributors don’t have to fit into any magazine template to sound and look like everyone else, or be muzzled [...more...]

Dec 312013
Sweet Potato Gnocchi: A New Dish for the New Year

Nothing comforts more than these warm, plump nuggets of belly bliss when the frigid temperature sets in. It’s the season for tubers, and time for inventing new ways with the stalwart spuds.  Sweet potato gnocchi sparkle with color and brim with goodness, whether made with the traditional American orange-fleshed variety, or the exotic new Stokes purple that has turned up in some markets. For the details, see my latest article in Zester Daily. In the spirit of the season, I used both to accompany our holiday duck since orange is the ancient color of good fortune, while purple, symbol of peace and magic, has [...more...]