boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
Crostini
Toasted bread is layered with anchovies and mozzarella, then broiled for crostini. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff, Styling/Debra Samuels)

Cooking Lessons from Rome: Crostini

Even in the winter, open markets in Rome are a frenzy of activity every morning except Sunday, and they are overflowing with local produce. It is a feast for the eyes and -- happily for residents here -- for the stomach, too. My husband, David, and I have settled here for three months in an apartment in the heart of Rome's centro storico, the historic center, from which we can see the roof of the Pantheon around the corner and the dome of the Vatican in the distance. We're studying the language and enjoying the sights, but there's no doubt that food is also one of the main attractions.

The open market we visit daily is nearby in the Campo dei Fiori , a small piazza tucked among the cobblestone streets, which by 8 a.m. is filled with stalls of fruits and vegetables, and always one or two fish vendors. The piazza itself is lined with food shops. A forno (bread bakery) sells large crusty loaves and Rome's irresistible pizza bianca -- crust topped with nothing but olive oil and salt -- by the slice. There are also several butchers , cafes with outdoor tables , and a deli, or gastron, full of many local cheeses and salamis. More food shops and restaurants fill adjacent streets. The only limitation on our shopping is that we have but four arms between us; purchases seem to get heavier on the way home.

Like the city itself, Roman food has evolved over the centuries, but we've found that Italians and tourists favor the traditional restaurants, which all tend to serve similar menus. Romans like their fritti, fried appetizers, at the start of a meal. These usually include fiori di zucca (zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella cheese), carciofi (artichokes), and baccala (salted cod fillets that are breaded and fried). More to my liking are crostini di mozzarella (little toasts with melted mozzarella cheese and plump salty anchovies). Don't be timid with the anchovies (use the ones packed in oil), they add wonderful flavor and complement the mild, creamy mozzarella. We've enjoyed the toasts as an appetizer, but they've also become a favorite lunch item -- grilled cheese a la romana.

As is true of a lot of foods here, there is mozzarella, and then there is mozzarella -- mozzarella made from the milk of water buffalo. The best comes from the area south of Naples in the region of Campania. Some shops here pride themselves on having it delivered daily. We prefer this freshly made mozzarella di buffala, but any good, imported Italian or freshly made local mozzarella will do. The bread and anchovies are drizzled with olive oil before the cheese goes on, then they're broiled briefly and served melting and hot. Pour a glass of wine and imagine that you, too, are standing on a balcony overlooking historic Rome.

This is the first in an eight-part series on authentic Roman food by Cambridge-based writer Judith Barrett, who is living in Rome. Barrett is the author of "Fagioli," "Saved by Soup," and "Risotto."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES