Alla Romana

left: original artwork, right: the tea towel itself (creased, stained and used)
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In the winter, puntarelle (a type of endive typical in and around Rome) begin to pop up in the markets. The long, young, crisp leaves and shoots are dressed with a garlicky anchovy sauce and are the perfect accompaniment to a plate of salumi. The slightly bitter, crunchy leaves contrast well with fatty, silky soft prosciutto and salame.

Discard the hard woody part of the puntarelle. Add the puntarelle to the ice water to leech the bitterness out. Add the puntarelle to the ice water and soak until they curl up, about 1 hour. When the puntarelle are ready, strain in a colander, and spin them dry in a salad spinner or dry with tea towels. Place the puntarelle in a salad bowl. Dress with balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. In a small saucepan, heat a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil; when it is hot, turn off the heat and add the anchovy fillets drained of their oil. When the anchovies have dissolved, blend well and pour the dressing over the salad.

Since I can remember, I’ve had this dish exactly once a year, every year. It’s my grandmother’s favorite Christmas side, and because it’s also mine, she lets me call dibs on second (and third, sometimes fourth if I’m particularly lucky) servings every time. You can call it tradition, or we can just admit that I have a winning smile and she can’t resist me, and save ourselves some time. 

Christmas has gone and gone. I didn’t have any puntarelle.

Instead, I’ve come around to a newfound appreciation for tradition. On a particularly warm evening in January, I make my grandma’s anchovy salad all by myself and give the dogs the scraps. They cast me a look that says, ‘Salad? Girl —you’re giving us salad now?’ which is to say they don’t appreciate the hard woody bits, but I think if they’d experienced this year the way humans have, maybe they’d get it. I sing the new Miley album really loudly as I chop and mix and season and taste, because no one else is around to object. No one has been around for a while, and I haven’t decided how I’m dealing with that just yet. 

I’m having fun with it, I put my own twist on it: Alison Roman’s labneh is my quickest getaway to heaven, grainy crackers are the perfect addition to whatever this thing I call dinner is, and back to the couch I go. Ready to watch five or six Friends episodes in a row and spill some anchovy oil down my top. Living the life, as they say. 

Or, as I say: ready to remember all the ways food has filled whatever space had been left empty by moving to a foreign country to live with strangers and to sleep alone. You’ll tiptoe around each other in the kitchen, but the hummus in the fridge will be yours and yours only, and you’ll eat the whole tub in one sitting --every single time. You will time your showers and feel bad to have friends coming over so often and always hide your favorite mugs --but on occasion, you’ll get so high on the first bite of mushroom risotto you spent an hour perfecting that you’ll feel like the richest woman in the world. You will do seven years of it, some great and some to never be spoken of again, only to end up back in your childhood room in the middle of a pandemic. And you’ll be all alone for the first time in years, and you could kiss yourself you’re so happy to not be tiptoeing around anyone but the dogs. 

But the comfort of it — the gentle hug of the foods that kept you going through terrible winters and loneliness so crushing it felt like it was going to break you in two. 

That’s what you go back to. 

You’re alone now, but the few meals you learned how to cook for yourself when Snickers bars weren’t going to cut it —they made a home for themselves in between your bones, they’re all there, in muscle memory and in coping mechanisms and in every time you told yourself, I know what is going to make me feel better.

Because it does, every time, it does. It changes with the seasons, and your surroundings, and it sure as hell changes a lot this year depending on your state of panic about the world. You learned a long time ago to dislodge your own heart from where it locked in your throat --by spoonfuls of creamy pasta, homemade tiramisu, and even just a couple of chocolate digestives on particularly bad days. 

By chicory, so much you could feed five people with it, so much that the dogs are still toying with the grassy bits in their bowls. By anchovy sauce, thick and salty and melted and delicious. By kissing yourself stupid, and falling asleep on the couch, and having leftovers for lunch. Just like you dreamed of, all those years, for a moment not all is bitter.