May 2, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 8°C

Rethinking courses


Saltimbocca is the winner among main courses.
By Eleonora Baldwin
Published: 2016-04-30
N

o matter what tricky restaurateurs may say, Italians no longer eat the five-course meal described in postwar food literature. People no longer stuff themselves with heaping portions of antipasto (hors d'oeuvre), primo (a pasta, soup or rice dish), secondo (protein entree of meat, poultry or fish), contorno (side dish) and dolce.

No one eats in every-course quantities any more. It's unhealthy for body and pocketbook. The only exception is a special occasion — Sunday lunch in famiglia, say, or first communions, baptisms, christenings, circumcisions, mitzvahs and other banquets held after a religious ceremony.

That doesn't mean Italians have stopped building meals from these cultural lynchpins. Each of the five options remains and can still co-exist. They're simply more often mixed and matched according to a Mediterranean Diet credo.

The starchy carbs provided by primi hardly ever complement the hearty proteins of the secondi entrees. Rather, they prefer the company of either an opening antipasto or the healthy nutrients of the contorno side dish.

Rome's favorite antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dessert staples — those enjoyed at home or dining out — are actually fairly contained in number. And I'm not talking about what tourists go for, or seek.


Prosciutto and melon (or figs) tops the appetizer list.

Here's my nitty-gritty short list of Rome's favorite dishes — divided by course.

Favorite antipasto — Prosciutto and melon: Despite seasonal restrictions (cantaloupe melon is in season only between June and October), this sweet and savory hors d'oeuvre combo never goes out of style. Italians love to start their meals with antipasto, sometimes preferring it to a pasta or risotto dish, often skipped altogether in favor of the entrée.

Juicy wedges of cantaloupe melon blanketed with silky slices of salty cured pork predispose heart (and belly) to bliss. A sensual alternative to melon is figs, which enjoy an even narrower seasonal window. Add pizza Bianca (savory flatbread typical of Rome) and you've got yourself an antipasto sandwich fit for kings.

Favorite primo — Lasagna: As my gourmand 10-year-old son preaches, "I don't know anyone who dislikes lasagna," and unless you stray from classic renditions of this classic Emilian dish, opting for more modern, creative versions, I tend to agree. Whether layered with rich, meaty ragù and béchamel, or arranged between tomato-less coats of pesto, mushrooms or cheese, lasagna is the ultimate Italian comfort food. More of a home-cooked specialty, fresh lasagna on a restaurant menu turns adults into children. They throw weight issues to the wind. Lasagna is often only followed by a light vegetable dish, with dessert as a possibility.

Favorite secondo — Saltimbocca alla Romana: Romans are very proud of their saltimbocca. "Jump in the mouth" is the perfect moniker for the tender, succulent bite-size veal cutlets fitted with a small square of prosciutto and a fresh sage leaf secured with a toothpick. Lightly dredged in flour, they're pan-browned in butter. Watch them jump in your mouth and disappear in seconds. But beware the toothpicks.

A great side dish companion to saltimbocca is a warm plate of agretti (earthy, iron-rich knot of meaty grass that looks like seaweed and tastes somewhat like spinach).

Favorite contorno — Puntarelle or carciofi: The polls haven't closed on this one. There is no one favorite between the two seasonal side dish contenders, both of which enjoy immense popularity on the Rome table. Puntarelle are the sprouts of a chicory variety called cicoria di catalogna, picked while still young and tender and trimmed so that when they're plunged into ice-cold acidulated water they curl and maintain their crisp, juicy nature. The dressing for puntarelle admits no digression: olive oil, vinegar, oil-preserved anchovies and fresh garlic (reduced to a punchy cream with the help of a mortar and pestle).

Artichokes, on the other hand, in season between February and May, are extremely versatile and come in a tremendous variety of shapes and colors. Tiny delicate ones are well suited to being eaten raw in pinzimonio (a dip made with only olive oil and salt) or preserved sott'olio (canned in oil). As springtime progresses, here come the purplish green grapefruit-sized globe artichokes locally called mammole. They're suitable to being sauteed, stuffed, braised, fried and used in a variety of contorni side dishes, salads, pasta sauces, and lasagna fillings.


Tiramisù recipes can vary wildly.

Favorite dessert — Tiramisù: There's disagreement about the origins of this dessert, but it's certainly not native to Rome. Yet it's found huge acclaim in the capital. Housewives and nonnas make tiramisù on a massive scale. It's eaten for merenda and dessert nationwide, and served at posh dinners in single portion cups.

In Rome tiramisù has become somewhat of an obsession. There are chains of tiramisu shops that market various versions. There are even schools of thought regarding the espresso coffee-soaked biscuit of choice that goes into tiramisù's base layer. Some stay classic and opt for absorbent ladyfingers. Others experiment with Pavesini, a commercially manufactured eggy sponge biscuit. Some extravagant patissiers have been known to bake special buttery crumbles just to support creamy nature of tiramisù. Where's my spoon?

Print | Email | | | 1

IN PROVINCIA

Letizia Mattiacci

Love cake

A medieval creation, Ciaramicola is rustic cake that conceals Umbria's red-hot heart.

American the beautiful

An escape from Umbria dishes up a wonderfully memorable culinary road-trip.


IN CUCINA

Eleonora Baldwin

Rethinking courses

Italians are no longer eating the kinds of massive meals guidebooks suggest. Now, mixing and matching rule.

Fishing for compliments

In a country where pasta tends to get the most face-time, it's seafood that counts the most.


SUZANNE'S TASTE

Suzanne Dunaway

Playing at dough

Life begins with bread and bread begins with dough, so let's get started.

Rooting around

Let's hear it for carrots, beets, turnips, and sweet potatoes, cold-weather treasures.


GINA'S CELLAR

Gina Tringali

What character!

Wine, like music, has tone and personality, but you need to learn to read its notes.

A tasting ABC

Wine lingo can sometimes unsettle non-experts, but understanding it isn't hard.


VINO INFINITO

Marco Lori

La multa

Paying parking tickets in Rome is a nightmare in the making, but wine can dull the pain.

Classmates

If you resist reunions long enough, finally going to one can unleash a tide of memories.


DA GERMANO

Germano Zaini

Wenceslas the Great

Family anecdotes bring the author's 19th-century great grandfather to life.

Cooking with the stars

A cooking seminar sees a home chef frolic with the masters and emerge drenched in new ingredients.


IN THE STICKS

Elisa Scarton Detti

Country mouse, city mouse

As always, the long trip Down Under widens the distance between here and there.


2ND GENERATION

Alexandra Bruzzese

Quasi hablando

A lifelong relationship with Spanish brings a stunning realization: you were never friends.


THE FARM

Lucy Brignall

Feathering the birds

Italy may overstate its insistence on"bella figura," but it beats pajamas and slippers.


LOST IN TRANSLATION

Jennifer Allison

Into the deep end

Strength and boldness fade with age, making all compassion all the more vital.


FOOD & WINE ARCHIVE


Day and Boarding International High School in the Heart of Rome

Everything you need to know about visiting or moving to Tuscany, Italy.