The roasting of the lambs

In a city like Rome, renowned for its gastronomical pleasures, Eastertide induces a sort of collective ecstasy of good eating.


David Downie
April 3, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

The old Roman lady wrapped in a long fur coat wobbled straight at us down the narrow, cobbled sidewalk. We were near the Piazza Navona, smack in the center of Rome. The woman was short, and her upper body and face were hidden behind a giant chocolate Easter egg wrapped in gold foil. The foil squeaked and crinkled as she teetered along in her high heels, oblivious to anyone else in the throng. My wife and I stood aside to let her pass. She jostled a portly man who was just then stepping out of a butcher's shop bearing what we hoped was a spring lamb. Either that or he'd just murdered a small child and tossed the corpse over his shoulder.

The lamb-bearer and the lady with the giant egg did a jig on the sidewalk and soon were tripping over a half-dozen school kids rushing by clutching Kinder eggs, milk-chocolate eggs with a toy hidden inside -- the bane of most Italian parents. Italian kids throw fits any time of year if they don't get their Kinder eggs, but especially around Easter.

Advertisement:

The old lady, the fat man and the kids somehow managed to share the sidewalk without disaster. I watched the youngsters gobble their eggs and merrily toss the litter aside as in some ancient ritual dance. "I'll bet that's what you used to do at Easter," my wife said as I shook my head at the diminutive litter bugs.

"No," I quipped, "there were no Kinder eggs back then."

Ever since my brief Roman idyll as a child, Easter week has been my favorite time to revisit the city I once loved above all others. The shops are done up like colorful Fabergi eggs -- hung with ribbons, overflowing with chocolates and incredible seasonal edibles. The winding cobbled streets in the car-free parts of town -- much of Rome's historic center, these days -- are brisk and pleasant, redolent of spring flowers and roasting lamb. And in a city like Rome, where restaurant entertaining is the object of an age-old cult, Eastertide induces a sort of collective ecstasy and feeding frenzy among its denizens.

A spring storm hits overnight, a wild mushrooming of trattoria tables on sidewalks and squares. The tables are usually dressed with cloths of a strange orange hue, presumably chosen because it's the most efficient at absorbing and hiding the combined stains of meat juices, pasta sauce and wine. I'm always among the season's first outdoor diners, even if it means catching a cold. What, after all, beats tucking into pyramids of stuffed zucchini flowers, mounds of fresh fava beans, artichokes alla romana and platters of abbacchio -- spring suckling lamb -- while sitting outside among the zig-zagging Vespas and the old ladies carrying giant Easter eggs?

Last year my wife and I decided to spend Easter week in Rome. She'd lived here for six years as a child and had her own rituals, so before she'd allow me to settle in for an endless lunch on the first day we arrived, she marched me over to the Piazza di Spagna and the luscious stone staircase known as the Spanish Steps. We clambered up through the sea of fellow tourists and sat among the potted azaleas, a jungle of pink, red and white blooms that have been displayed on the steps -- one of the world's great urban amphitheaters -- for countless years. It was wonderfully kitschy to sit there and be photographed among the blossoms, a scene lifted from a cheesy Cinecitt` movie from the 1960s. We climbed to the top of the steps and took in the picture-postcard view from the nearby church of Trinit` dei Monti, which was so crowded with happy pilgrims that we couldn't get in.

Advertisement:

By the time we'd reached the panoramic Pincio park a few hundred yards west of there atop one of Rome's nine hills, I'd remembered another reason I loved to visit Rome at this season. Starting in March, a brigade of benign gods and goddesses get busy greening the city's countless terraces nestled among the russet-tiled roofs of weathered palazzi. Peering down on them from the Pincio, you can see the kitchen herbs mixed with the tangled purple bunches of fragrant wisteria. A heady display.

Abutting the Pincio to the north, the lawns in the landscaped Villa Borghese -- the biggest park in central Rome -- were flecked with daisies and wild mint. The scent of the mint rose up in the sunshine as lovers frolicked on the grass. Above them the usually unremarkable Judas trees -- known in America as red bud trees -- splashed their clotted blooms along their main branches, as if blood were spurting out at every knot.

Even the old pines and cypresses, so dusty and drab in summer, as if lifted from an ancient tomb painting, now were green and full of new life. We walked back to the Pincio and took in the view over the Piazza del Popolo, a vast oval square that's almost entirely free of car traffic. Beyond the obelisks and the monumental towers, the crumbling columns and campaniles, Saint Peter's dome rose in the distance, the huge horseshoe-shaped square in front of it already thronged by Paschal pilgrims.

Good eating is as essential to happiness in Rome as,
say, visiting the Forum or the Coliseum. The
Romans eat late -- lunch at 1 or 2 p.m., dinner
anywhere from 9 p.m. to midnight. Since my belly
was telling me it was lunch time, though, I gazed out
over the jumble of roofs and gardens and kept
thinking of food. The whole crazy mess of the city
looked like an edible millefoglie -- a delicious,
creamy layered confection the French hijacked and
called millefeuille. Rome's peculiar layer cake of
civilization has been three millennia in the making.
The wondrous thing about spring here is that the
tired old Eternal City of the tourist brochures, a city
built on the ruins of ruins and filled with the ghosts
of countless other ages, can suddenly become young,
fresh and virginal all over again.

Advertisement:

Spring rites here are timeless. Even the Vatican's
religious festivities ride piggyback on history. Take,
for example, the ancient celebration of the death and
resurrection of Attis, a vegetation god, which
coincided with the spring equinox. And the
agriculture goddess Ceres was feted for a week
during the Cerealia (the origin of our word for
"cereal"), in mid-April. Add to Attis' vegetables and
Ceres' pasta the yearly arrival of spring lamb --
sacrificed and eaten hereabouts since pre-Roman
times -- and you have the makings of a venerable
Easter meal that's still very much in vogue today.

We strolled over to the Campo de' Fiori, Rome's
oldest and most beautifully named outdoor
marketplace -- literally, it means flower field or
square for flower sellers. The Campo, too, seemed
newborn with its bushels of peonies, roses and
potted daisies. Truckloads of farm produce had
come in from nearby fields that morning -- a
kaleidoscope of baby lettuce, zucchini and
strawberries, but especially artichokes. A legion of
greengrocers had set up their folding chairs and were
skinning the artichokes back to the heart, which is
about the only part the Romans will eat. The grocers
chatted and joked and whittled the artichokes the
way their ancestors did.

Advertisement:

Set amid Rome's wealth of monuments, the Campo
de' Fiori is all the more wonderful for its being such
a humble square. There's no church on it, for
example, which sets it apart from most Roman
piazze. So while the Vatican caters to the spiritual
needs of some, the Campo sees to the vital rituals of
buying, preparing and eating food.

At long last we found a table outside at a trattoria
100 yards or so from the Campo, tucked in a corner
of the Piazza Farnese, a celebrated square with a
beautiful palace on it. The trattoria, a family
operation, was probably here in Emperor Nero's day,
let alone when Palazzo Farnese was built a mere 400
years ago. It's called Osteria ar Galletto (109 Piazza
Farnese; tel: 06-686-1714; closed Sunday; full meal
without wine, about $25 per person), and though
baked poultry is the house specialty (galletto means
small rooster), we wanted lamb. Good thing: On the
menu was spring lamb in a dozen different styles.

When I asked the waiter how each dish was made,
he began his mouth-watering recitation. Stuff or
spike it with minced rosemary and garlic, he said,
and roast it with new potatoes and that's called
abbacchio al forno con patate, the centerpiece at
Easter lunch or dinner. Braise the lamb in broth with
white wine and scrambled egg yolks, and it's called
abbacchio brodettato, an Easter Monday specialty.
Cleave it into dainty chops, sprinkle them with
rosemary and grill them, and you get abbacchio
scottadito, so named because the chops burn your
fingertips when you pick them up. If you sauti the
lamb's internal organs, however, adding tender
artichoke hearts, you get coratella con carciofi.
That's a hearty dish you eat on Easter morning
around 10 a.m. (if you've fasted on Saturday) or at
lunch (if, like most Romans, you haven't fasted at
all).

Advertisement:

The list went on. Tie the baby lamb's tiny intestines,
still full of milk, into loops and sauti them slowly
with tomatoes and you have pajata d'abbacchio,
served with rigatoni or as a simple second course.
Batter the poor beast's brains and deep-fry them,
again with sliced artichokes, and you get cervelli
fritti. Whole, oven-roasted lamb's head, split open,
sprinkled with salt, pepper and rosemary, becomes
testarelle d'abbacchio. Every part is used,
confirmed the waiter; the lamb does not die in vain.

We ordered the rigatoni pasta with tomatoes and
pajata d'abbacchio sauce, and though the idea of
eating intestines wasn't very appealing, the flavor
was fabulous. Then we burned our fingertips on the
tiny lamb chops and gobbled up a half-ton of
artichoke hearts. The twin fountains in the Piazza
Farnese splashed merrily away. The inevitable
swarms of Vespas zipped down the pedestrian-only
alley where we sat, scattering pigeons and tourists.
The sun slanted down over the old stones. I
wondered if my parents had ever brought me to this
trattoria when we lived in Rome in the mid-1960s. It
felt like an ideal place to be born and suckled.

My wife interrupted my reveries by insisting we have
a salad of the wild arugula we'd seen back at the
Campo. The waiter approved, leaning over our table
to tell us an old Roman saying: "To dress a salad
right," he said, "you need four people: a wise man to
put in the salt, a miser to add the vinegar, a wastrel
to pour in the oil and a madman to mix and toss it."
He covered all four roles.

Though we were bursting at the seams, we still
forced down a basketful of strawberries and
dispatched several chocolate Easter eggs while
sipping our double espressos. Heaven? Yes, and we
hadn't been into a single church, let alone the
Vatican.

Advertisement:

As we strolled around that afternoon digesting our
meal we stopped to listen to the Bernini fountains in
the arena-shaped Piazza Navona. We picked daisies
in the Forum and trailed along the Tiber under plane
trees that had just uncurled their tender leaves. By
the time the sun had set behind the Castel
Sant'Angelo -- that hulking circular fortress perched
over the river -- I'd actually worked up an appetite
again. It was either positively shameful or a sign of
good health.

By about 9 p.m. we were at table again, surrounded
by neo-pagans delirious, like us, with virulent spring
fever. "My advice is," said a Bacchus look-alike to
his Caesar-clone of a pal, "when in Rome for Easter,
do as the Romans do: Watch mass on TV, then
make a gastronomic pilgrimage to your favorite
trattoria."

My wife and I raised a toast to our neighbor's
wisdom. "Salute," I said. "The gods of old would
approve."


David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

MORE FROM David Downie



Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •