I recently entered a contest for food writers, which, alas, I did not win. However, because it was fun to write and brought back some good memories, I thought I’d share my essay here. The theme of the required essay was “My Favorite Dish.” Of course, what is favorite often depends on the day and the mood and where you are, but this is what I settled on.
JUMP FOR JOY
Saltimbocca alla romana. The name really says it all for me; saltimbocca is Italian for “jumps in the mouth.” It certainly seems to jump into my mouth—at least it does in Italy. I generally approach it with some trepidation in restaurants in the United States. While Fettucine Alfredo probably holds the record in this country for versions unrelated to the original, saltimbocca is also among those dishes that frequently fail to match the Italian versions. And yet, I love this dish so dearly, I keep trying—because when it’s right, it is a thing of joy.
I first had saltimbocca the first time I visited Rome. I was just 15 and still traveling with my parents, which was wonderful, as my dad was big on trying everything. Being daddy’s girl, I had been infected early on by his enthusiasm for culinary adventure. In Italy, dad introduced me to calamari, artichokes (carcciofi), and profiteroles. But it was I who discovered saltimbocca.
It was lunchtime, and we were seated in a small trattoria near Rome’s Fontana di Trevi. I saw a word on the menu that was unfamiliar. I knew that alla romana meant it was indigenous to Rome, but what did this other word mean? Dad had taught himself enough Italian to be able to ask the waiter to describe the dish. I recognized the word vitello in the waiter’s response, and if it had veal in it, I hardly needed the rest of the explanation. I wanted it. (Fortunately for me, veal was cheaper than hamburger in Italy, at least back then, so even on a young family’s budget, I could eat vitello to my heart’s content.)
The first bite was a revelation: fragrant, luxurious, savory. Saltimbocca is a simple dish of beautiful flavors: thin scallops of veal, thinly sliced prosciutto, whole sage leaves, white wine, olive oil, butter, a bit of chicken broth. It’s cooked very quickly and relies heavily on good ingredients. These ingredients, combined, create a deep, rich flavor (the newly available word “umami” comes to mind) that struck me as being perfect in every way. After that, I ordered saltimbocca whenever I saw it on a menu.
I think saltimbocca is responsible for the pot of sage that I’ve had growing on my balcony every summer since I was on my own. All the ingredients contribute to the depth and complexity of the flavor, but it seemed to me that it was the sage that took the dish over the top. Of the alterations I’ve encountered in the U.S., leaving out the sage is the only one that cannot be borne. Without the pungency of sage, it is no longer saltimbocca.
However, I am rewarded often enough to keep ordering. Well prepared, the taste takes me back to that first bite. I have traveled the world and have fallen in love with many cuisines, but for me, nothing else wants to “jump in the mouth” as joyfully as this iconic, memorable Roman veal dish.