The word amaro, sometimes mistaken for amore or “love,” instead translates as “bitter.” It can be said that both are essential in Italian cooking, but there is a certain bitter flavor I most often miss. With the arrival of fall, I find myself craving Puntarelle alla Romana—a dish so closely identified with Rome it dates back to ancient times. It’s taken some trial and error to grow the puntarelle ourselves, but we’re starting to get some edible results.
A member of the chicory family, cicoria puntarella or catalogna is available seasonally in Rome, usually from November to February. It is a cool weather crop, with lower temperatures keeping the plant more tender and sweet. I remember the vendors at the outdoor market in the Campo de’ Fiori patiently slicing the stalks into thin slivers, a seemingly dying art. The puntarelle are then left to soak in cold water, becoming crisp and curling up on themselves in the process. Once soaked, the puntarelle are then sold ready to eat. Though this particular chicory may now be found elsewhere, it’s only in Rome that it can be bought pre-prepared this way.
Traditionally, the tangles of puntarelle are drained and served raw con la salsa, dressed with a pesto of anchovy and garlic mashed together in a mortar with olive oil and vinegar. While you can add more or less of the anchovy, don’t leave it out entirely—the briny saltiness of the anchovy serves as a counterpoint to the bitterness of the puntarelle, and is what gives this Roman dish its distinctive flavor. If you can’t find puntarelle or it’s too late to grow your own, Belgian endive would be a good substitute.
Puntarelle alla Romana
Roman chicory with anchovy sauce
1 head puntarelle (about 1 pound), washed and trimmed
2 to 4 anchovies
2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
1 garlic clove
Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
– Slice the puntarelle stalks very thinly lengthwise, about the size of long matchsticks. Though I use only the pale stalks, you may also include the green leaves. Place in a bowl of cold water, and let it sit until the strands curl up and are crisp, about 1 hour, more if you want a gentler bite.
– With a mortar and pestle, mash together the garlic, anchovies, vinegar and, if using, the red pepper flakes. Once it becomes a creamy paste, work in the olive oil to create a dressing. Season with a generous amount of black pepper, and salt to taste.
– When ready, drain and dry the puntarelle. Toss with anchovy sauce to coat evenly, and it’s ready to serve.
It seemed only apt to pair the puntarelle with another quintessential Roman dish, abbacchio, or lamb, grilled along with a contorno of eggplant, also from the garden. It doesn’t take the place of being in Rome, but the flavors certainly come close.