Why It Works
- Crisp, bitter puntarelle pairs well with anchovies and garlic, mellowing their intense flavor.
- If puntarelle is hard to find, endive is a great substitute.
- Soaking thinly-sliced strips of puntarelle or endive in ice water for a few hours forms spiraled curlicues.
For someone who is as obsessed with Italian cuisine as I am (by which I mean: a lot), I have only been to Italy but one time, for a mere 10 days one November awhile ago. But I packed a lot of eating into that one short trip, including tasting and falling in love with puntarelle alla Romana for the first time, then proceeding to order it daily the rest of the time I was in Rome. (Late autumn is the beginning of puntarelle season in Italy, which runs from October to April.)
Puntarelle salad is made by tossing crisp, juicy shreds of the mostly mild-mannered bitter green with a potent anchovy- and garlic-heavy dressing. The flavor of the salad is intense, no doubt, but, paradoxically, the texture and flavor of the puntarelle sands most of the edge off the garlic and anchovies, making it potent, but entirely pleasant. Case in point: My Midwest-raised wife does not care for salty, intense things like anchovies, olives, or capers, and yet even she loves this salad. It might seem like a strange dish to obsess over, but I love it madly, and I know I’m not the only one.
From a distance, heads of puntarelle look a lot like other members of the chicory family they belong to, with a crown of long, slender, serrated leaves, with pale white ribs and deep green dandelion-like fringes, not unlike escarole. But these outer leaves conceal a bizarre surprise within: a gnarled cluster of pale green asparagus-like shoots, often knotted around one another like a freaky, many-fingered fist. (The shoots’ vague resemblance to asparagus explains why another name for puntarelle in Italian is cicoria asparago, or “asparagus chicory.”)
While the heart of puntarelle is sometimes braised, it is most commonly served raw, either as individual spears on an antipasto platter, or in the aforementioned salad. For the salad, the shoots are sliced into fine, long shreds with a knife, or, better yet, using a dedicated puntarelle cutter made from a series of gridded metal wires strung tautly across a wooden frame, which makes quick work of it. The shreds are then placed in a bowl of ice water for an hour or two, after which they form elegant, spiraled curlicues. (Produce stands and supermarkets in Italy sell pre-shredded and pre-curled puntarelle, eliminating the work entirely.) After that, the curls are tossed with a dressing made from olive oil, red wine vinegar, loads of pounded garlic and anchovies, herbs , and other salty, cured things like chopped olives or capers.
When I came home from Italy, I looked high and low in my local farmer’s markets and specialty stores, but it seemed that nobody here in the Boston area grew puntarelle. Nor was it the sort of thing that showed up as an import from elsewhere, so my brief, passionate love affair came to an abrupt and well, bitter, end. (Puntarelle does show up in bigger markets like New York City and Los Angeles, so those of you living in places like that are fortunate enough to sustain an ongoing relationship with the vegetable.)
Until I decided I could live with a stand-in for the puntarelle, that is. While it doesn’t really resemble the vegetable, at least in its native form, its fellow chicory-cousin endive actually does make a pretty great substitute. Not only does it have a similar crisp-juicy texture and a mild-but-piquant bitterness, but—as I discovered after experimenting with it a bit—it also curls nicely when cut into shreds and iced down for a while! It’s note the same, by any means: Its texture is a bit more starchy-fibrous than that of puntarelle, and it doesn’t curl quite as dramatically. But it scratches the same itch for me, and I make it all the time.
The method is the same as described above, with a few differences owing to the substitution. For starters, I like to use a mixture of white (Belgian) endive and red endive, which resembles white endive in form and flavor, except streaked red like the treviso—another chicory that has red-and-white variegated leaves like radicchio—it has been crossed with. (My local Trader Joe’s sells a mix of white and red in small packages.) To prep it, you quarter the heads without removing the core. You then slice each quarter lengthwise through the core into 1/4-inch-wide pieces. Leaving the core attached lets the pieces form frilly florets that curl chaotically when placed in ice water, giving them a bit more of a puntarelle-like appearance.
If you can get your hands on actual puntarelle, by all means swap it out for the imposter here. Once in a blue moon, I’ve been able to procure the real deal myself, and it was as good as I remembered when made with this recipe. Either way, it’ll do until the day we can both get back to Rome again.