Like the city itself, the food of Rome is strong, assertive and straight forward. Never bland or timid or quiet, to the contrary, the flavors of la cucina romana are often bold and even pungent. Surprisingly, I found that the one Roman dish that best exemplifies the cuisine here is a salad. No ordinary salad to be sure, puntarelle con la salsa is a winter salad of chicory (a particular Italian variety of chicory called cicoria Catalogna ). It is always served with a strong, piquant anchovy-garlic dressing, never mixed with other greens, and it’s never seasoned with any other dressing. It’s at this time of year in Rome, that you find puntarelle. While cicoria Catalogna is only grown in Italy, the whole family of chicory greens–varieties of escarole and radicchio–are perfect substitutes. When the tender leaves of lettuce are a memory, at least for the next few months, insalata di cicoria is much tastier, if slightly bitter, than more delicate greens.
When at home in the US I like to use a combination of chicories in my salad, always escarole and radicchio, sometimes endive and frisée, depending on what’s available in my supermarket. A chicory salad is the perfect accompaniment to hearty winter oven-braised dishes like beef short ribs, lamb shanks, or veal shank prepared as osso buco. I recently served the salad pictured here with herbed-braised rabbit.
The ingredients for the dressing are few but essential: good quality anchovies – either oil-packed or salted, fresh garlic, white wine vinegar, and really good extra virgin olive oil. This salsa is one of only a few salad dressings in Italy made separately and poured over the salad; the usual practice is to create the dressing right in the bowl with the salad. When it comes to choosing anchovies, the jars of oil-packed are by far the most convenient and easiest to use, but salted anchovies, which are available only from specialty food stores and require some work, are usually bigger, meatier, and more flavorful and therefore more desirable. To prepare the dressing, the anchovies and garlic are chopped or mashed together, using the back of a wooden spoon in a small mixing bowl or a mortar and pestle. Gradually add enough olive oil to make a sauce and a small amount of vinegar.
If the salsa dressing is too pungent to your taste, use the traditional Italian dressing: a generous amount of olive oil, a miserly amount of vinegar, about 1 tablespoon, and salt.