You know when you spend a long time with someone, you can finish most of their stories yourself? Of course this happens when you are married to someone for a quarter of a century (that would be me). But even more than long time spouses? What about those stories that your siblings or parents tell? Over and over and over again? I won’t get into the whole ‘my memories are different from your memories’ family dynamic thing. It’s the stories themselves that bring nothing new to the table. Same old, same old, right?
But something surprising has been happening lately. My father is coming up with all these stories – about him, about our family – that I never heard before. I’m not sure if I just wasn’t paying attention up until now. Or maybe he’s just thinking more about ancient history these days. Regardless of the reason, I’ve been hearing a lot of family lore that is completely new to me.
And since we’re on the subject of both my father and bringing something new to the table, we can talk about the restaurant Pompiere. Pompiere is one a handful of restaurants I’ve been going to regularly with my father for just about all of my life. It’s located in the Jewish Ghetto but like the other three oldest restaurants in this neighborhood (Piperno, Giggetto and Sora Margherita) it is neither Jewish nor Kosher. Instead it is decidedly old fashioned Roman, with all the standards from carbonara to saltimbocca, with a few Jewish dishes (carciofi alla giudea) thrown in.
Still, a couple of things make Pompiere a bit different from the other restaurants in the neighborhood. First is its location. Situated on the piano nobile of Palazzo Cenci, the restaurant is virtually invisible from the street. A verical sign on a dark alley is the only indication that there are stairs leading up to three enormous rooms on the second floor. Since this is a piano nobile (the most important floor in a palazzo) the rooms are huge, with soaring ceilings and even some frescoes.
Another thing that sets Pompiere apart are some of its dishes. There are certain things I’ve only ever thought of ordering here. Although they have all the Roman classics, they also have things like Fettuccine al Limone, a creamy holdover from the Dolce Vita in the ‘sixties. I also can rarely resist their ‘Pecorara’ a plate full of fried goodies: brain, ricotta, lamb chops and artichokes. Heaven, right? While lots of other Roman restaurants talk up a good game of innards, Pompiere always delivers. Besides brain, I can always count on them to have things like sweetbreads and coratella.
But getting back to the original subject of bringing something new to the table. Last week when we joined my father for dinner at Pompiere. I was looking forward to hearing some new story from his memory banks. What I wasn’t prepared for was hearing something completely new from the waiter (who I’ve known for almost as long as I’ve known my father.) “Tonight we have Torzelli!” he said to my father, who seemed very happy to hear the news.
My reaction was pretty much “Say what?” After which both the waiter and my father just proceeded to repeat the word, saying it louder each time, like that would help.
Finally, my father realized I had no idea what anyone was talking about and filled me in. “It’s a kind of endive, the entire head, which is cooked and kind of crispy and filled with anchovies.” Well, ok. That sounded good. But how was it I was only hearing about this now?
Somehow, like my father’s stories, this dish had escaped me for about three decades.
Of course I ordered it. Anything that combines endive and fish has my seal of approval even before I taste it. Plus, I just didn’t really understand how an entire head of curly endive was going to make it on to my plate, so there was just pure curiosity too.
I hope you aren’t too disappointed by the photograph, which in no way does justice to the dish, which was amazing. As far as I can figure out, the entire head of curly endive is left whole, washed and then quickly blanched in boiling salted water, for about 30 seconds. It’s then carefully drained and patted dry. Filets of anchovies are inserted in between the leaves, then the entire thing is thrown into a very hot pan, with olive oil, and flipped until the outside is browned and crunchy. A magnificent combination of texture and tastes: sweet endive and salty anchovies, with the silky interior of the head of green contrasting with the crisp edges.
The rest of the dinner, while delicious, consisted of comforting old favorites. I of course ordered sweetbreads and artichokes. Domenico, after a perfect carbonara, dug into slow stewed calamari. My father, as he always does here, ordered the house speciality: a spatchcocked galletto, splayed open and roasted until crispy.
This dish is so famous that it’s even emblazoned on the dishes. A pompiere (fireman) is depicted putting out the fire on the roasted hen. My father, as he always does, pointed out the awkward position of the fireman’s, ahem, ‘tool’ for putting out the fire. A story I had heard plenty of times. But maybe you haven’t?
Via di Santa Maria de’ Calderari 38
Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday.
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