COOKING LESSONS FROM ROME

CROSTINI

Even in the winter, open markets in Rome are a frenzy of activity every morning except Sunday, and they are overflowing with local produce. It is a feast for the eyes and -- happily for residents here -- for the stomach, too. My husband, David, and I have settled here for three months in an apartment in the heart of Rome's centro storico, the historic center, from which we can see the roof of the Pantheon around the corner and the dome of the Vatican in the distance. We're studying the language and enjoying the sights, but there's no doubt that food is also one of the main attractions.

Judith on her terrace in Rome, with the Vatican dome in the background.

The open market we visit daily is nearby in the Campo dei Fiori , a small piazza tucked among the cobblestone streets, which by 8 a.m. is filled with stalls of fruits and vegetables, and always one or two fish vendors. The piazza itself is lined with food shops. A forno (bread bakery) sells large crusty loaves and Rome's irresistible pizza bianca -- crust topped with nothing but olive oil and salt -- by the slice. There are also several butchers , cafes with outdoor tables , and a deli, or gastron, full of many local cheeses and salamis. More food shops and restaurants fill adjacent streets. The only limitation on our shopping is that we have but four arms between us; purchases seem to get heavier on the way home.

Like the city itself, Roman food has evolved over the centuries, but we've found that Italians and tourists favor the traditional restaurants, which all tend to serve similar menus. Romans like their fritti, fried appetizers, at the start of a meal. These usually include fiori di zucca (zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella cheese), carciofi (artichokes), and baccala (salted cod fillets that are breaded and fried). More to my liking are crostini di mozzarella (little toasts with melted mozzarella cheese and plump salty anchovies). Don't be timid with the anchovies (use the ones packed in oil), they add wonderful flavor and complement the mild, creamy mozzarella. We've enjoyed the toasts as an appetizer, but they've also become a favorite lunch item -- grilled cheese a la romana.

As is true of a lot of foods here, there is mozzarella, and then there is mozzarella -- mozzarella made from the milk of water buffalo. The best comes from the area south of Naples in the region of Campania. Some shops here pride themselves on having it delivered daily. We prefer this freshly made mozzarella di buffala, but any good, imported Italian or freshly made local mozzarella will do. The bread and anchovies are drizzled with olive oil before the cheese goes on, then they're broiled briefly and served melting and hot. Pour a glass of wine and imagine that you, too, are standing on a balcony overlooking historic Rome.


Crostini con mozzarella alla romana
(Roman-style mozzarella toasts)

Serves 4

In our apartment there is a disagreement over the size of crostini: My husband prefers smaller pieces of bread, like those cut from a French baguette, while I favor larger slices from a good country loaf. Either way, they're sensational. Broiling time will vary, depending on how close your baking sheet is to the heat source and how thick your slices of cheese are. In any event the cooking time is short, so keep an eye on the toasts.

4 1/2-inch-thick slices country bread (cut the loaf in half down the middle, then cut across the slices) or 8 1/2-inch-thick slices from a French baguette

1 clove garlic, peeled but left whole

8 anchovy fillets in oil, drained

8 teaspoons olive oil

1 whole milk mozzarella cheese (about 1/2 pound), sliced 1/4-inch thick

1. Turn on the broiler. Have on hand a rimmed baking sheet.

2. In a toaster or toaster oven, lightly toast the bread slices (watch them carefully). Place them on the baking sheet in one layer.

3. Lightly rub each slice of toast, on the side facing up, with the garlic clove. Place two anchovy fillets on each slice of country-bread toast (one on the baguette slices). Carefully drizzle a teaspoon of olive oil over the anchovies. Cover the toast with a single layer of mozzarella, cutting the slices as necessary to fit.

4. Place the baking sheet under the broiler. Broil, watching carefully, for 3 to 5 minutes or until the mozzarella begins to bubble and becomes lightly browned.