I collect recipes. I think I've mentioned this before, but it probably bears repeating, given the infrequency with which I will actually sit down and follow someone else's recipe through from start to finish.
I clip recipes from newspapers. I take recipe flyers from the supermarket. If you've ever been in a doctor's waiting room and found a magazine missing pages... that might have been me. (Sorry. I really like recipes for raspberry desserts.)
I have solicited recipes from everyone over the years. There’s my high school adviser’s recipe for stracciatella, barely a paragraph long. There’s that almond cookie recipe from Prunier’s, which I constructed from a list of ingredients and quantities. But no recipe is quite as singular as the one I have for polpettone, as served at La Cicala e La Formica in Rome.
(Click on the photo for a larger image.)
La Cicala e La Formica was one of my favorite lunch spots in Rome. Located in Esquilino, not far from the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, on a quiet little side street, it had outside tables and a ten-euro lunch special. I also got a kick out of the name.*
For your ten euros, you'd get a bottle of mineral water, a primi and a secondi, with two options to choose from for each. The primi would be two different kinds of pasta (or sometimes a pasta and a soup), and the secondi a choice between meat or a vegetarian dish.
I studied Italian before I went to Rome, but my classes and textbooks didn't prepare me for the rich and varied vocabulary of menus. I ordered a lot of dishes without being exactly sure what they were. Polpettone was one of them - I knew it was some sort of meat dish, but that was all.
I didn't expect it to be the best meatloaf I'd ever eaten.
Polpetti, you see, are little balls of ground meat, usually beef or pork. Polpettone (the suffix "-one" denotes something that is bigger than usual) is therefore a very large ball (or log) of ground meat. So polpettone ai funghi porcini is a log of ground meat with porcini mushrooms - in other words, meatloaf.
Whatever you want to call it, it was delicious: moist, tender, and wonderfully savory. I scraped my plate clean, and then asked the waitress if I could get the recipe.
I did tell her I could decipher a recipe in Italian. Either she didn't hear me, or she didn't believe me, because... well, you can see the results above.
I can hardly claim to be a paragon of precision in my recipes - not with my handful of this, pinch of that approach. Not when I consider "glug" and "splash" to be perfectly valid measurements. And probably not when I use "gloopy," in perfect seriousness, to describe texture.
But "Everything mixed and cooked for 40 minutes in hoven [sic]" is a category of brevity unto itself.
Fortunately, it does provide quantities for meat and eggs, so I looked at a few recipes for meatloaf and filled in the gaps for the rest. My version is below; I suspect you'll find that it's easier to follow. Of course, if you'd like to try the original, stop by La Cicala e La Formica if you're ever in Rome during the autumn. (It's right near the Esquilino Metro stop.)
Let me know if they're still doing the lunch special.
Polpettone Ai Funghi Porcini
I'm sure this would taste best with fresh porcini, but unless you're in Europe, you're probably not going to find them. You can get dried porcini from Whole Foods and other specialty food stores.
(Serves one, as long as you like meatloaf sandwiches.)
Take two ounces of dried porcini, cover them in roughly one and a half cups of warm water, and let sit until reconstituted. Reserve the liquid, but discard the dregs (you don't want any dirt that may have been clinging to the mushrooms.)
Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a baking tray.
Chop the porcini finely, and combine in a large mixing bowl with one cup of fresh breadcrumbs. Add the reserved soaking liquid. Add a generous sprinkling of dried thyme and three cloves of garlic, finely minced.
Add one pound of ground beef (eighty-five percent lean) to the mushroom mixture. Crack in one egg. Add a teaspoon of salt and a dusting of ground black pepper. Stick your hands into the mess and toss until everything is well-combined and easily shapes into a ball.
Transfer the mixture to the baking tray, and shape it into a rectangular loaf. Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until thoroughly cooked all the way through. Serve in slices. It goes well with rosemary potatoes.
*"The Cicada and the Ant," like Fontaine's poem.