COOKING LESSONS FROM ROME

ROAST LEG OF LAMB

I tasted my first agnello al forno in Rome about 25 years ago. After a morning of sightseeing, my husband and I found our way to a trattoria that was crammed at lunchtime. We were shoe-horned into a long table filled with locals, all of whom, as far as I could tell, were eating what the menu called abbacchio (pronounced ah-BOCK-kio). We quickly learned that was the Roman name for young lamb, cooked in the oven, or al forno.

Signore Orelli's butcher shop.

It's a rare day that I eat a hearty lunch, but this lamb looked too good to pass up. Well-browned and well-cooked, there was not a trace of pink or rare meat; yet what arrived on my plate was the most succulent, delicately tender, and surprisingly lean roasted lamb I had ever eaten. Fragrantly seasoned with rosemary and garlic, it was falling off the bone, just the way I like it.

Ever since, a visit to Rome any time of year is incomplete without at least one meal of abbacchio or agnello (the two words seem to be used interchangeably), although a real abbacchio is a milk-fed baby lamb that weighs under 20 pounds and is available only in early spring. Living here for three months has given me the opportunity to eat agnello on many occasions. I also learned what to ask for at the butcher shop, how to prepare it myself, and the secrets of Rome's delectable roasted meat.

Just outside the piazza Campo dei Fiori is the marble clad Orelli Macelleria (pronounced mah-chell-er-EE-ya; it means "butcher" in Italian). My husband and I met Signore Orelli through his daughter, Francesca, who is an artist studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The butcher offers a wide selection of meats, including frattaglia, or innards of all varieties, as well as lamb, beef, pork, chicken, and rabbit. His lamb never fails to delight us.

Whether my first agnello al forno was a shoulder or leg, I can't be sure. Cooks here generally consider a bone-in leg to be the cut to use. Butchers like to hack part way through the bone in several places -- just enough so that when the lamb is finished roasting, it's easy to cut it into thick slices. The only additional ingredients are cloves of garlic, stems of fresh rosemary, some olive oil, and white wine.

Of the many wonderful things to order on Roman menus this time of year, agnello al forno is certainly one of the best. It's even better at home, the aromatic and tender roast emerging browned and inviting from your own oven.


Agnello al forno
(Roman-style oven-roasted leg of lamb)

Serves 4

Ask the butcher to cut the meat partially through the bone into four pieces. Roasting time will vary depending on the size of the leg. The traditional accompaniment is roast potatoes.

1 bone-in leg of lamb (4 pounds) preferably young spring lamb

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons dry white wine or lemon juice

Salt and pepper, to taste

6 cloves garlic

3 sprigs fresh rosemary, snipped in half

1. One to two hours before you plan to roast the lamb, set it in a ceramic or stainless roasting pan (or use another nonreactive pan). Pour the olive oil and wine over the lamb and turn it over a few times so it is coated all over. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the garlic cloves and rosemary into the cuts in the lamb. Let the meat marinate at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.

2. Set the oven at 475 degrees.

3. Transfer the roasting pan to the oven and roast the lamb for 15 minutes.

4. Turn the meat over, and continue roasting for 15 minutes.

5. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees, and continue roasting, basting occasionally with the juices in the pan, for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is cooked through, well browned, and falling off the bone. Total cooking time is 1 3/4 to 2 hours.

6. Let the lamb rest for 5 minutes before serving.