I often pass La Torricella around 11am, as they are getting ready for lunch. Under a long, narrow canopy, there are about 18 tables for two, which come together in different ways depending on reservations. Each table is invaded by two tablecloths. It’s a good sound, the heavy cutlery meeting the table. Each seat also receives a thick napkin and two glasses, one a little larger than the other, but of the same tulip shape with a short stem. I love these glasses; they are strong and reliable to hold. According to the restaurant’s supply site, they are called Bormioli Rocco 28.7cl or 20.7cl for a tavern or a trattoria, a classic drink che non tramonta mai (which never goes out of style).
As many trattoria and restaurants in Rome, and in particular in Testaccio, the family that runs La Torricella have roots in the neighboring region of Abruzzo – a reminder of the growing migration, particularly when Rome became the capital in 1860, and also from Abruzzo in as cooks and hosts. Unlike other places, however, which are dedicated to classic and meat Roman cuisine and the right amount of offal, La Torricella mainly offers fish. Time has made us indulgent and affectionate; we have been going to La Torricella regularly for years. The flattened polpette of salted cod or cuttlefish, spaghetti with clams, maniches mezze maniches with small flying octopuses, red mullet go livornais and seared sea bass with potatoes are all favorites. But above all, perhaps, I enjoy both the smell and the taste of fried things: tiny spiky artichokes, small musky octopuses and anchovies.
There’s a drawer full of seasoned flour in La Torricella’s kitchen. It’s right next to the fryer, one of the few kitchen situations that makes me want to. Gutted and cleaned fish are poured into the drawer, shaken to coat well, then lifted through a wooden sieve before being tossed into the fryer. Immersed in hot oil, the butterfly fillets sear in almost white curls that only need a squeeze of lemon and are eaten as soon as possible. Not everyone eats fish, so equally delicious are long matchsticks of zucchini processed the same way (i.e. tossed in flour and fried until golden).
The problem with fried foods is that they need to be eaten as quickly as possible, so skip the first batch while the next is in the pan. That’s why it helps to have a co-fryer, someone you trust to take over while you fill glasses with wine, beer or lemonade.
Small fried fish and zucchini matchsticks
Serves 4 as a snack or starter
500g small fish – anchovies or whitebait, say
2 large zucchini
200g plain flour
Peanut or sunflower oil
If using anchovies, clean them by removing the heads, in which case the entrails should also come off. Gently lift and open the body, then use a nail to spread the spine apart, and in doing so, open the fish like a butterfly. Rinse and dry. Whitebait, on the other hand, just needs to be washed and dried.
Core and stem the zucchini then, using a cheese slicer, a mandoline or a steady hand, cut into 5 mm thick strips. Cut the strips into long matchsticks.
Combine the flour and a generous pinch of salt in a large bowl, add the zucchini and toss until well coated. Lift, shake off the excess flour, then put on a plate. Now flour the fish in batches.
Line two plates with a tea towel. Bring a pan of oil to frying temperature, which is 350 F/177 C if you’re working with a thermometer or, if you’re measuring with the naked eye, when a regularly fried bread cube. Working in batches, fry the zucchini first, then the fish, until golden brown. As each batch is done, lift it out with a slotted spoon, blot onto the lined plates, sprinkle with salt and serve. Then fry the next batch.