Rachel Roddy’s Roman fish cakes
Augusto rides through Testaccio market every morning at about 9.30, his bicycle cutting a pretty smooth and steady path between stalls and shoppers. He stops to buy vegetables from Il Velletrano, meat from the butcher Sartor, then fish from the stall that used to be run by Mauro. Mauro and Augusto used to barter until their frontal veins bulged so insistently I worried they might burst, and they had been at it for years. These days, it is the young apprentice that stands firm as a daily deal is struck and a metal trolley of boxes filled with silverblue anchovies and mottled clams, tiny octopuses and loose-mouthed groupers is pushed three streets from the market to Augusto’s ristorante.
At La Torricella, the narrow front section opens up into a big room divided by pillars; there is a bucolic Roman scene painted on one wall and a large portrait that seems influenced by both Klimt and Barbara Cartland on another. There are double cloths on each table, yellow napkins, a saltpepper-toothpick set, and glasses with squat stems that are nice to hold.
In his excellent book on Italian culture, Massimo Montanari described the evolution of eating establishments in Italy in the 19th century, how osteria, trattoria (which he calls “urban inn”) and family-run restaurants were – and still are – extensions of people’s homes, serving wine and “simple, traditional food of intense flavour based around local ingredients”. In short, good almost-home-style cooking with the occasional flourish, and with wine by the litre, for a good price.
Years ago, I remember reading the advice written by a Roman food critic who said not just to ask the locals where they go, but to ask to go with a local and see what they order. Then, if you like the place, build up a relationship – even if just for a few days. Finding La Torricella was like meeting someone I knew was going to be a good friend. It was the same with the food – good and unfussy; the sort of thing I want to eat again and again: curls of fried anchovy and golden cod cheeks, fish soup, spaghetti tangled with clams, bean and chestnut soup, baked fish and sliced potatoes, chestnut ice-cream with squirty cream. We come often and my son has grown up here, eating spaghetti al pomodoro knowing kids are as welcome as adults.
There is also a trolley. What is it about a trolley? Is it the anticipation of it being wheeled towards you, rattling with good things? La Torricella’s is home to antipasti and side dishes, which vary from day to day and, like the rest of the menu, are mostly fish. There is usually a large bowl of octopus salad – pink-edged chunks dressed in olive oil with thin slices of celery; a salad of flaked fish, lettuce and prawns; and now that artichokes are back in season, there are always at least two preparations. Lately there have also been fishballs, the size of a plump walnut, flecked with parsley and sitting in pool of bright-red, rich tomato sauce.
As with Italian meatballs, bread is key in fishballs, not only to make things go further, but for an almost pillowy texture. We were with my partner Vincenzo’s parents the day we first ate these, and his mother is a detective, guessing every ingredient and estimating proportions. In my recreation of Augusto’s recipe, I have suggested a 4:1 ratio of fish to bread, but you could add more bread if you wanted, in which case even more lemon and cheese are worth adding. Almost all white fish would work here, but I particularly like cod and hake. It really is worth making a fresh tomato sauce, letting it simmer until glossy and rich, adding a little sugar to the sauce if it is acidic, then poaching the fishballs in the sauce until plump. Eat with rice or simply bread, with salad afterwards and about half a litre of house white each.
Polpette di pesce al sugo (fishballs in tomato sauce)
The dry breadcrumbs are just for moulding, but I love how they thicken the sauce. However, if you can’t get very fine crumbs, they are not essential.
400g skinless fish fillets, such as cod or hake
100g soft white breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley, plus extra 1 tbsp grated parmesan (optional) Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
Salt and black pepper
Fine, dry breadcrumbs (optional)
For the sauce
1kg ripe tomatoes, or 500g tinned peeled plum tomatoes
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed A sprig of basil
1 Chop or mince the fish. In a large bowl, soften the breadcrumbs with the egg then add the fish, garlic, parsley, parmesan (if you are using it), lemon zest, salt and pepper. Use your hands to bring everything into a soft, consistent mass. If the mixture seems too wet, add a handful of dried breadcrumbs.
2 Scoop out large teaspoons of the mixture then shape into walnut-sized balls, rolling in dry breadcrumbs if you wish. Then leave the fishballs to rest.
3 Make the sauce. If you are using fresh tomatoes, peel them by plunging them first in boiling water then in cold water. Chop roughly, discarding any tough bits. If you are using tinned tomatoes, use scissors to chop them in the tin.
4 In a large frying pan, warm 5 tbsp olive oil with the garlic. Once fragrant, add the tomatoes and basil and simmer for 10 minutes, mashing with a spoon.
5 Now add the fishballs. Simmer for another 25 minutes or so, turning them from time to time and adding a little more water if sauce looks too reduced.
6 Once the fishballs are cooked through, pull them from the heat, sprinkle with more finely chopped parsley and serve.
Finding La Torricella was like meeting someone I knew was going to be a good friend
Cook’s tip The fishballs can also be made with blue fish – sardines or mackerel – in which case pine nuts or raisins make a nice, and very Sicilian, addition.