Several years ago, before a trip to Rome, I asked my friend Arthur Schwartz, a New York food writer who is well informed about the food of southern Italy, whom to talk to about Roman food. He quickly directed me to Iris Carulli, an American who now lives in Rome. Iris and I spent several hours together one morning visiting food markets and ended up eating lunch in a trattoria a few blocks from the Campo dei Fiori, one of Rome's most colorful outdoor markets. I ordered the rigatoni with cauliflower, a dish so common here, you might think it is too ordinary -- even boring. But it was memorable: The flavor of the cauliflower, infused with garlic and hot pepper, was barely sweet and cooked down to an almost creamy sauce. With thick tubes of pasta, the full plate was so appealing that I wanted to keep eating, even well after I was full.

Cauliflower romanesco

In mid winter in Rome, cauliflower, usually called "broccoli," is in abundance, piled high in baskets at every stall in the markets. And there are many varieties. Our familiar white cauliflower is called broccoli bianco. Cauliflower romanesco is a variety that, like our white cauliflower, has a tightly compact head of florets attached by clusters of stalks. What distinguishes the romanesco heads are spiraling, pointy, pale green florets, and a subtle, almost sweet taste. It's probably more like the green cauliflower often available in Boston supermarkets and sometimes called "brocco-flower."

Cauliflower is such a staple of Roman cuisine that as far as I can tell, there isn't a menu in the city now that isn't serving it in some form: as a soup; a vegetable side dish, called contorni; or as a pasta sauce. It's a vegetable anyone spending time in Rome will get to know -- and appreciate the way the locals do.

When I serve cauliflower as a side dish, my favorite preparations are either to steam it whole and dress it with olive oil and salt, or to roast the florets with olive oil and salt until they turn light brown and slightly crisp.

But there's no question that my preference for the pale green buds is to serve them with a sauce of olive oil, garlic, and parsley over rigatoni, sprinkled with pecorino cheese, very much like the dish I ate in that trattoria years ago. An ordinary vegetable became something remarkable.

Pasta with Cauliflower

Serves 4

Use any cauliflower -- white, green, or even purple -- with equally delicious results. Cut the cauliflower into small florets. During cooking, they will fall apart and blend into the sauce.

1 large or 2 small heads of cauliflower, trimmed and cut into small florets

2/3 cup olive oil

3 large cloves garlic, chopped

Pinch of crushed red pepper, or more to taste

Salt, to taste

1 pound dry rigatoni pasta, preferably imported from Italy

5 stems fresh parsley, leaves only, chopped

1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.

2. While the water is heating, place the florets in a large bowl of cold water to soak. When the water comes to a boil, transfer the florets to the boiling water and for cook 6 to 7 minutes or until they are tender when pierced with a sharp knife.

3. Use a strainer or slotted spoon to remove the cauliflower from the water. Do not discard the cooking water. Keep it at a low boil until you are ready to cook the pasta.

4. In a large flameproof casserole over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic and the red pepper and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Do not let the garlic brown. Add the florets with salt. Stir gently. Lower the heat slightly and continue to cook, still stirring, for about 10 to 15 minutes longer or until the cauliflower is tender.

5. Meanwhile, bring the cooking water back to a rapid boil. Add salt and the rigatoni. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes or until the pasta is tender, but still firm to the bite.

6. Drain the pasta into a colander and add it to the pan with the cauliflower. Stir well to combine. Add the parsley, taste for seasoning, and add more salt and red pepper, if you like. Continue cooking 2 to 3 minutes longer. Serve with Romano cheese.