CHIAVARI, Italy – This Italian life that I live began long before I moved to Italy. It started back in upstate New York when I was really young. We lived in an apartment next to my Italian grandparents, in a big building that had a large basement. My Grandfather used to make wine in one section of that basement and I remember going down there with him. Every now and again would check on the fermenting grape juice to make sure it was doing what it was supposed to be doing – turning into wine.
Every now and again there would be something else in the basement, a baby lamb. It would be tied up in the same area as the wine barrels and when I would go down to check on the wine with my Grandfather, I would play with the lamb while he did whatever you do when you are checking on fermenting grapes.
And then the lamb would be gone. I didn’t think too much about it, in fact it never occurred to me that the only thing that had happened between the last time I played with the lamb to the next time when the lamb was gone, was Easter.
So ever since I’ve been in Italy I’ve been looking for a leg of lamb that looks and tastes like the one my Grandmother used to put on the table on Easter Sundays. That leg of lamb was crispy brown and juicy and studded with slivers of garlic and rosemary that even thinking about it makes my mouth water. But I’ve never found it. The lamb they sell here in Italy is baby lamb, but so baby that there isn’t any meat on it. To me, the lamb they sell looks like a pile of bones. It is a pile of bones.
But once, a few years back, I saw what looked like a real leg of lamb (my idea of a real leg of lamb). It was at Carrefour, a French grocery chain that is very popular here in Italy. I snatched that leg of lamb up and practically ran home with it, put it in a roasting pan and cooked it. There was no waiting around for a special occasion to eat that baby, it was enough of a special occasion to have found it.
It may have looked like the leg of lamb of my dreams, but it didn’t taste anything like it. I knew I had cooked it alla Nonna because I’d cooked legs of lamb before, but there was something about this lamb that just didn’t taste right. The store only offered legs of lamb that size that one time. I’ve never seen them again. So I’ve given up . However, on the outside chance that you can find some meaty lamb where you live, here’s an Italian recipe from Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, for lamb alla Romana.
After the recipe was published one viewer wrote, “Anchovy filets and vinegar in lamb alla Romana? Who invents these recipes?”
It leads me to doubt the authenticity of the recipe but if you take out the anchovy filets, vinegar and the flour, it’s basically the same recipe my Grandmother and I use. The difference is I cut slits in the meat with a sharp knife, sliver the garlic and with a little rosemary push them into the slits. I rub the leg of lamb with some olive oil and it is ready to go into the oven. If it isn’t browning enough, you can simply turn up the oven temperature for about ten minutes toward the end of the cooking time. a Or you can be brave and give the Corriere della Sera recipe a try. I just hope my Grandmother isn’t reading this.
Abbacchio alla Romano
2 lbs of leg and shoulder of lamb (or a decent size leg of lamb)
3 cloves of garlic
3 anchovy filets (preserved in salt)
1 sprig of rosemary
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
½ cup vinegar
Salt and pepper
Crush the peeled garlic along with the anchovy filets (that have been well rinsed). When the garlic and rosemary become a smooth paste, dilute it with the vinegar.
On the stove, add the oil to a frying pan and add the sprig of rosemary. When the oil begins to smoke, remove the rosemary and add the pieces of lamb that have been lightly floured.
Brown the meat well on both sides, then remove it from the frying pan and set aside. Season with salt and pepper.
Reduce the cooking juices by two thirds. Put the lamb back into the frying pan with the cooking juices and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes