Contorni Typical Roman Side Dishes
In this post I’ll be describing some of the popular side dishes that you will find in menus during you stay in Rome. These ‘contorni’ are meant to accompany the ‘secondo’ or the protein dish that you will see after the pastas on the menu. So you start with an antipasto (a starter) then you move onto pasta and then you have for example saltimbocca alla romana with a side of cicoria ripassata.
This vegetable can foraged wild but can also be cultivated. It resembles spinach in flavour although the consistency is slightly tougher and the taste slightly more bitter. Cicoria is usually boiled or blanched and the sautéed in a pan with olive oil and some peperoncino (chili pepper).
More so identified with Rome than other greens due to it being grown locally. These ‘little tips’ are the tops of a variety of chicory called Catalonian chicory. They are stripped of the leaves and then cut from halfway up the stem all the way to the end. These tender tops are then soaked in cold water, curling and taking their traditional shape. Puntarelle are strictly seasonal and will not appear on menus all the time but they are must from around November to mid-February. In one of the rare cases when a dressing is prepared beforehand, raw garlic, anchovies and olive oil are mixed and emulsified into a muddy colour cream which is then poured on the puntarelle. The shoots themselves are a little bitter yet clear and watery in their flavour as well and mixing with the saltiness from the sauce creates a heavenly combination!
Or opposite-leaved saltwort in the English translation. Grass-like, weed-like, rosemary-like it’s not easy to describe this plant. To me it’s always been something like seaweed! Which is not too far from where the plant actually grows. Agretti are halophytes meaning that they are a salt-tolerant. It is not uncommon therefore to find them in the shrubs and greenery before the ground gives way to sand and sea. They can also be irrigated with salt water, slightly bizarre given that salting lands used to be a method to kill the fields of the enemy outright. Agretti were also used in the creation of Murano glass and its famed clarity! The soda ash which can be extracted from the ashes of burnt agretti was crucial in the glass-making process. As if this weren’t enough agretti are also delicious and they also hold the name of ‘friar’s beard’. Quickly blanched and then dressed with olive oil and lemon they have an earthy, mineral taste which always reminds me of spring. These are also similar to spinach in flavour, but while spinach has a flat flavour lending itself well to preparations which see additions to it, the agretti have enough of a punch to be eaten by themselves. The lemon is enough for contrast.
These three dishes are very traditional of the Roman tradition so don’t miss out!