Ioften pass La Torricella at about 11am, as they are setting up for lunch. Under a long, narrow awning, there are 18 or so tables for two, which get pushed together in different ways depending on the bookings. Each table gets swamped by two tablecloths. It’s a good sound, the heavy cutlery meeting the table. Each place also gets a thick napkin and two glasses, one a bit larger than the other, but of the same tulip-shape with a short stem. I like these glasses; they are solid and reliable to hold. According to the restaurant supply website, they are called Bormioli Rocco 28.7cl or 20.7cl for a tavern or trattoria, a classic glass che non tramonta mai (that never goes out of fashion).
Like many trattorie and restaurants in Rome, and especially in Testaccio, the family that runs La Torricella has roots in the neighbouring region of Abruzzo – a reminder of the surging migration, especially when Rome became capital in 1860, and also of the Abruzzese as cooks and hosts. Unlike other places, though, which are dedicated to classic and meaty cucina Romana and the right amount of offal, La Torricella offers mostly fish. Time has made us forgiving and affectionate; we have been going to La Torricella regularly for years. The flattened polpette of salt cod or cuttlefish, spaghetti with clams, short-sleeved mezze maniche pasta with tiny flying octopus, red mullet alla Livornese and pan-fried sea bass with potatoes are all favourites. But most of all, maybe, I enjoy both the smell and the taste of fried things: tiny, bristly artichokes, small, musky octopus and anchovies.
There is a drawer filled with seasoned flour in the kitchen of La Torricella. It is right next to the deep-fryer, one of the few kitchen situations that causes me envy. The gutted and cleaned fish are tipped into the drawer, tossed around so they are well coated, then lifted out in a wooden sieve before being toppled into the fryer. Immersed in the hot oil, the butterfly fillets seize into almost-white curlsthat need just a squeeze of lemon and eating as quickly as possible. Not everyone eats fish, so equally delicious are long matchsticks of courgette treated similarly (that is, tossed in flour and fried until golden).
The thing about fried food is that it needs eating as quickly as possible, so pass the first batch around while the next is in the pan. This is why it is helpful to have a co-fryer, someone you trust to take over while you fill glasses with wine or beer or lemonade.
Deep-fried little fish and courgette matchsticks
Serves 4 as a snack or starter
500g small fish – anchovies or whitebait, say
2 large courgettes
200g plain flour
Peanut or sunflower oil
If you are using anchovies, clean them by pulling away the heads, in which case the innards should pull away, too. Gently ease and open the body, then use a nail to ease away the spine, and in doing so open out the fish like a butterfly. Rinse and pat dry. Whitebait, meanwhile, just need washing and drying.
Top and tail the courgettes, then, using a cheese slicer, mandoline or with a steady hand, cut into 5mm-thick strips. Cut the strips into long matchsticks.
Mix the flour and a generous pinch of salt in a large bowl, add the courgettes and toss until well coated. Lift out, shake off any excess flour, then put on a plate. Now flour the fish in batches.
Line two plates with kitchen towel. Bring a pan of oil to frying temperature, which is 350F/177C if you are working with a thermometer, or, if you are gauging by eye, when a cube of bread fries steadily. Working in batches, fry first the courgettes and then the fish, until both are golden. As each batch is done, lift it out with a slotted spoon, blot on the lined plates, sprinkle with salt and serve. Then fry the next batch.