Years ago, long before I’d ever been to Italy, I found a copy of the 2001 cookbook Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian: Savoring the Recipes and Traditions of the World’s Favorite Cuisine. I took to the tome like I was a 13-year-old who stumbled across some dimestore bodice ripper. In other words, I devoured every page. And in particular, I was taken with a salad called Puntarelle con Salsa di Acciughe.
Puntarelle is a dragon-toothed, bitter, dandelion-like chicory–puntarelle means little points–that pops up in markets between November and February and that most Italians outside of Rome didn’t eat. Or at least that’s what Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian told me. Romans, they continued, trim off the leafy greens to leave just a bare bit of pale green, then split the white stalks into strips, soak them in ice water till they sweeten and shrink up into crispy little curly-qs, and toss the ringlets in a dressing made mainly of smashed anchovies and lemon juice.
To me the dish seemed like the embodiment of everything romantic about Italian cooking. Something best left by the side of the road made edible with some kind of secret trick (that ice water) and transformed into deliciousness with nothing but salty little fish and a squeeze of citrus. I’ve since had it in Rome, but I think the first time I ever ate it was in Brooklyn, at al di la.
They also have it Frankie’s 457 Spuntino, I think, and probably there’s puntarelle at Franny’s, if not also at Aurora and Roberta’s farther north; you can also occasionally spot it at Greenmarkets and specialty shops and Italian markets, though typically those are in Manhattan. I f0und it just last night, at Roman’s, of course, the fantastic Italian restaurant from the owners of Diner and Marlowe & Sons on Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene.
If you’re the anchovy-eating type, and dig the way lily bulbs or kohlrabi (or even broccoli or cauliflower stems, for that matter) have that slightly bitter-sweet crunch, this is a transcendent dish. It’s so light and fresh and–well, alive–it’s the perfect antidote to pasta and ragu and cheese and pancetta. Or, come to think of it, for Thanksgiving.