December 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Gladiators of the garden

By |2018-03-21T18:56:43+01:00August 16th, 2013|"Suzanne's Taste"|
The beautiful "dirtywork" that Rome puts into making the land's bounty ready.

am wandering through Rome’s ghetto with my husband, gazing longingly at the crates of artichokes outside the restaurant Gigetto and checking out the labels — French at this time of year, though I can’t really imagine where they get them in the midst of such a hot summer.

Inside the cool entry to this historic dining spot, two men pare artichokes as if sculpting green figurines, their knives flying around the globes, leaving a lovely yellow, perfectly shaped artichoke to be flattened for carciofi alla giudia or perhaps tagliatelle with artichokes.

My husband says to me in Italian, “I think you’ve done one or two of these before, no?”

The men nod in recognition, grin, and I take their picture. They suddenly become the inspiration for visiting all the other behind-the-scenes bean stringers and puntarelle punchers and borlotti shellers who sit at the back of food stalls in Rome’s open markets, quietly working their magic for cooks like me.

A fat package of fagiolini, all trimmed and ready for the pot, is among my occasionally luxuries. Hey, I’m from Texas — I’ve snapped beans since the age of five, but oh how lovely it is to simply buy the package for an euro more and have a quick, cool contorno for my summer fare.

At another stall, the mamma of the vender is cleaning broccoletti and spinaci and cicoria of its field dust, tossing the leaves into a large container of icy water from the market’s constantly running fountain. The leaves are then drained and dried, ready to be sautéed (in padella) in olive oil with a few hot peppers and garlic or made into a crisp salad with sweet onion and bacon or blended with egg, Parmesan and ricotta to stuff my Sunday ravioli.

What riches.

These markets of abundance have spoiled me.

One young man I’ve known for years, the assistant of the retired porcini vendor (a little old lady who, it turns out, has had an apartment in Piazza Farnese for 50 years), is now cubing a variety of melons and making a lovely, cool macedonia (fruit salad) for the market’s summer visitors. We share the same humor: he sports one of the market’s famous aprons printed with bra, bikini underwear and a garter belt — the same apron I’ve bought for years as a travel gift for American friends.

The line at the pomegranate juice stall grows ever longer as tourists and residents alike begin their day with a seemingly magical elixir from this formidable fruit. Without his simple, hand-operated machine, one would need tiny elves to extract the vitamins from each seed.

At yet another stand, a lovely white-haired member of the family tears and cuts cabbage and radicchio into small portions, then adds chopped carrots, celery and a bit of onion to make the ready-to-use base for a minestrone.

Of course I have a wondrous chef’s knife in my kitchen — and a dream of a sharpener given to me by my sister-in-law. With four swipes, it makes any knife into a razor. And of course, I love the Zen of chopping and preparing for meals. I love the challenge of making a bouquet of parsley into dust to sprinkle over canapés. Any contact at all with the fruits and vegetables of my beloved Italy is a daily tonic.

But it’s manna from heaven to have these little packages of carefully prepared and ready-to-go vegetables and fruits in my fridge after you’ve just discovered that friends are coming to dinner on an unplanned summer detour.

Grazie, sweet sous chefs of Campo de’ Fiori. You are the unsung heroes of Rome, gladiators of the garden.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.