The best way to arrive at Trattoria Cesare from the centre of Rome is to ride the number three tram round the sweeping ring road that severs old and new Monteverde, to the end of the line at Casaletto. Once you get to the terminus, turn to face the way the tram has just come from and look right. At the start of a narrow road is a small, bright yellow sign saying Cesare al Casaletto.There are many reasons I like Cesare: its unassuming location (if it wasn’t for the sign, you would think it was a block of flats); its vine-covered courtyard (which makes it sound quaint, though it isn’t); the ordinarily smart decor and attentive owners; the way the Venetian blinds send slants of light across the room, which then bounce off the coloured water glasses; the wine list full of good bottles at even better prices; and, of course, the food – especially the antipasti.Like all the dishes at Cesare, the antipasti are traditional, but cooked with a thoughtfulness and skill that can often be lacking in other trattorias. There are fresh anchovies, opened like butterflies and fried until they frill at the edges; and coral-and-white mottled octopus called totani, also fried – both waiting for a squeeze of lemon. There are fried gnocchi sitting in a bed of cacio e pepe (pecorino and pepper) sauce the colour of a Burberry raincoat; plus two kinds of polpette: boiled beef and aubergine.
Like the other antipasti, the aubergine polpette, which are the size of small plums, are fried. The crisp shell, knobbly as a pebbly pavement, gives way to a gently spiced, soft aubergine filling. The boiled beef polpette are secured to the plate with a Blu Tack-like dot of pesto; the aubergine ones sit on a blob of tomato sauce.
I have not yet managed to make polpette quite as good as Cesare’s. In trying, though, I have got into the habit of making various vegetable polpette, the best of which are aubergine, because they’re at that lovely point between silky and stout. In joint second are broccoli and cauliflower, then courgettes, then spinach; and last and very much least, beetroot, which I am never making again. They stained my chopping board and tasted like the soil they came from, which is not something that usually bothers me, but it did here.
This is what one friend of mine would call a “way” as much as a recipe. It’s like Nigella’s vegetable soup recipe in How to Eat, in that it’s a set of loose instructions that can be applied to endless ingredients and varied in countless ways. Rather than plum shapes, I made UFO-shaped patties, which seem to cook more evenly.
Like meatballs, vegetable polpette are infinitely better after a rest – an hour or so will give them time to firm up, the flavours to settle and seasoning to penetrate every corner.
The decision then is how to cook them, because there are three ways. They can be braised in a rich tomato sauce (plop them in and simmer for 20 minutes); shallow-fried in a little oil, as you would a lamb chop; or plunged into a few inches of olive or sunflower oil for a deep, dark fry (these are, of course, the most satisfying to eat).
Nothing quite matches the crisp delight and anticipation of fried starters. The only problem with the antipasti at Cesare is that they come to an end; at home, we never get beyond the starters: while there is hot oil, I fry small fish or chickpea fritters, things in batter, and the potato gnocchi that have been sitting in the freezer, serving everything while it’s piping hot, either with tomato sauce or lemon wedges, and a beer.
Polpette di verdure
Prep 10 min
Chill 20 min
Cook 5 min
Makes 14 polpette
300g cooked vegetables (steamed broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, roasted aubergine flesh)
1 crustless slice of bread (about 50g)
100ml whole milk
3 eggs, beaten
50g parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and black pepper
1 handful parsley, finely chopped
50g pine nuts or raisins (optional)
100g plain flour
100g dry breadcrumbs
Olive oil, for frying
Mix together the vegetables, bread, two of the eggs, cheese, salt and pepper, and raisins or pine nuts (if using) with your hands, working everything into a consistent mixture.Using wet hands, divide and shape the mix into egg-sized, UFO-shaped patties, then leave them to rest in the fridge for 20 minutes.If you are going to deep-fry the polpette, dip them in flour, then the remaining beaten egg, then the breadcrumbs, and deep-fry for about four minutes, until they are a deep golden brown. Then lift them out with a slotted spoon and blot on kitchen paper. Serve hot.