At university I ate out a lot. An innate tendency to gourmandising, coupled with an antipathy to the deprivations of dining in hall, made me a good customer of a number of establishments. Most of them were of no great quality, the curried eggs at the Nepalese Chop House to be especially avoided. As a result, while an early exemplar of the phenomenon of student debt, I was well versed in the art of dining in restaurants.
My favourite establishment was a restaurant called Cosimo’s, tucked away up a staircase in a gloomy bit of wasteland behind the town centre. Whether they recognised a budding gourmet in their midst I do not know but I always found the place extremely friendly while being pleasantly reserved and dignified, as are the best country trattorias in Italy.
A white tablecloth, a water glass, a wine glass and modest condiments were the only decoration. Main courses were served with a simple green salad, crisp romaine leaves as I recall, with oil and vinegar to dress. It all seemed very grown up and sophisticated. The menu changed little and I got to know all of it. Two favourites were the liver with onions (“alla veneziana”) and the pork chop with peppers (“alla peperonata”), both dishes that I have enjoyed cooking since. Though simple, they require good taste and a degree of deftness to get right.
A pork chop is excellent with peperonata, but even more traditional, and deeply Roman, is peperonata with chicken. It helps if you have one of those rangy, muscular chickens that have had a chance to run around the yard a bit, those so easily found in Italy, but it will work even with our overnourished and under-exercised poultry. It will also work well with guinea fowl. It is, of course, ideal if you are holidaying in Italy, long as it is on satisfaction and short on washing-up.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Pollo alla peperonata
With a big enough pan, the recipe can easily be doubled and will feed a crowd. This will serve a greedy four.
2 red + 2 yellow peppers
1 good chicken weighing around 1.8kg
50ml red wine vinegar
150ml tomato passata
1 tablespoon sugar
Generous pinch of dried chilli
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
● Place the peppers on a very hot grill or on a naked flame and blister them, turning them occasionally so that the skins are blackened on all sides. Once this is done, place the peppers in a plastic bag and seal the top. Leave them there for at least 10 minutes.
● Cut the chicken into eight pieces. This is done by removing the legs – taking care to collect the “oyster” under the thigh – and separating them into thigh and drumstick. Lifting up the skin flap, scrape the meat down the side of the wishbone and remove this. Turn the bird over and then cut down either side of the backbone and remove this. With a heavy knife, cut down either side of the breastbone and split the body in half. Cut off the wing tips and then cut the breasts in half, leaving the wings attached to a slightly smaller section of the chicken breast. Reserve the carcase for stock.
● Heat a heavy sauté pan with two tablespoons of olive oil. Season the chickens well with sea salt and milled pepper. Place them skin side down and let them fry gently in the oil until they slowly take on a really good golden-brown colour. This should take 10 minutes. Turn the pieces and seal them quickly and then remove after two or three minutes and reserve, skin side up so that it stays crisp. Pour out most of the oil, leaving a scant tablespoon behind.
● Peel the onions and slice them very thinly before adding to the oil in the pan. Let them stew very gently for a good 15 minutes, until they are completely soft and begin to caramelise. While they cook, take the peppers from the bag, cut them open and remove the seeds. Scrape off all the black skin and cut the clean flesh on a fresh board into very thin strips.
● Turn the heat up in the sauté pan and deglaze it with the vinegar, scraping up the juices. Add the tomato passata, the sugar, chilli and herbs, season well with salt and turn this mixture together. Stir in the peppers and then add the chicken pieces, skin side up. Add a very small amount of water so that the chicken is surrounded by a liquid mass and stew together for 20 minutes, making sure that the chicken pieces are completely cooked. Take to the table as is. Plenty of coarse country bread and a green salad are probably the best accompaniments.