There is nothing new about tables outside restaurants, but not like this. Small clusters of tables are now swarms, and single rows three deep, while ping-pong table-sized decks have quadrupled in size and commercial umbrella manufacturers must be doing very well indeed. It has been interesting to see how all the different locali – bars, trattorie, pizzerie – have responded to the provisional permission to occupy all available space in front of their establishments until the end of the year. Some have constructed elegant platforms with parquet or matt grey decking, and furnished them with steady tables and padded chairs. I am keener on resourcefulness, my favourite being the trattoria that spread artificial turf over a large segment of bumpy road and put plastic picnic tables on it, which last only a few days, but will live long in the memory.
I imagine the owners are wandering around looking at their neighbours’ set-ups, sniffing out who has more seats or invested in bigger umbrellas. I wonder who is cooperating, and who is cursing those with a wide pavement and five parking spaces. One thing is certain, and not just in Rome: it is the most beautiful sight to see all this temporary inside-out, to see things back open and people sitting at well-spaced tables, whether on tarmac, decking or pea-green fake grass.
Sadly, there is no fake grass in this week’s recipe. There are peas, though – fresh or frozen – and pieces of lamb, cooked in a dish known as abbacchio in spezzatino con piselli or, simply, spezzatino con piselli. Whatever you choose to call it, the dish is a bit of stove alchemy. The encyclopedia Treccani’s description of spezzatino is satisfying, because it both sums up the process neatly and, at the same time, offers a world of possibilities (there is a recipe-writing lesson here). Pardon my translation, but it goes something like this: “Spezzatino, s, m (derives from spezzare, to break); a simple dish made in homes, consisting of small pieces of meat, maybe floured, browned in a pan with oil or butter, then wet with wine, tomato, salt, pepper and various herbs, and left to cook over a low flame, with the subsequent addition of celery, carrot, onions, potatoes or peas. The best cut of lamb for this is shoulder, and the best place to buy that is from a butcher who works with a good farmer or, better still, direct from the farmer.”
I have intentionally left the pea cooking time wide open, because so much depends on both the peas and you. If you are using fresh peas that are very tender and tiny, and you would like them to stay that way, they will need only a few minutes, while starchy ones will need longer. However, if, like me, you want the peas to absorb lots of flavour and not only don’t mind, but actively like, that they go muggy green, they can have 15-20 minutes in with the meat. I also think this dish is better after a rest, in which case the peas are even more muggy and delicious, especially when served with boiled new potatoes or a doorstop of bread, and even more so if eaten inside out.
Lamb and peas (Abbacchio in spezzatino con piselli)
Prep 10 min
Cook 50 min
2 tbsp olive oil
800g boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 3cm chunks
Salt and black pepper
1 tbsp flour
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 sprigs rosemary, one picked and leaves minced, the other left whole
100ml red-wine vinegar
200ml white wine, plus extra to taste
300g peas (fresh or frozen)
In a heavy-based pan or casserole, warm the oil over a medium-low heat and, working in batches, brown the lamb on all sides.
Put all the browned meat back in the pan, add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, the flour, garlic, the minced rosemary and the whole sprig, and stir well. Pour over the vinegar and white wine, and stir again. Bring up to a lively simmer, then reduce to a steady one, cover and leave to bubble gently for 35-45 minutes; lift the lid every now and then to check there is enough liquid, and top up with wine or water, if necessary.
In the last five to 20 minutes of cooking, add the peas and a little more wine if you think it’s needed to cook the peas and make sure the final dish is softly saucy.