There is surely no meat more typical of the Mediterranean basin than lamb. Sheep husbandry began in pre-historic times and is thought to have gotten its start in Mesopotamia, quickly spreading to Asia Minor and southern Europe—it played a major role in the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, including the Romans, who did much to spread sheep husbandry and introduced it into the British Isles. And it is still going strong today. When we moved outside the centro storico to the nearby countryside, near a small town called Castel di Leva, the sight and sound of flocks of sheep grazing below our house was a daily occurrence. (Our dog would go crazy!) And from these sheep we got not only wonderful meat but lovely pecorino and ricotta cheese from their milk that we could buy just down the road and—I have to assume—wool, as you would occasionally see a few in the flocks with ‘crew cuts’.
In Rome, they sell a wonderful baby spring lamb called abbacchio. If you are ever there, you owe yourself to try it, either grilled (as in the recipe I am about to explain), breaded and fried, stewed with anchovies, rosemary, garlic and vinegar (abbacchio alla romana or abbacchio alla cacciatora) or roasted with potatoes (abbacchio al forno). Abbacchio is practically mandatory for Easter dinner in Rome. But these dishes can be made with regular Spring lamb with excellent results.
One of the most typically Roman ways to prepare lamb is costolette «a scottadito», or ‘finger burning’ lamb chops, a humorous reference to the fact they are generally eaten with your hands–a rarity among Italians, who even eat pizza with a knife and fork. The preparation is remarkably simple, typical of the Italian approach to grilling meat but also to secondi in general: you slather rib lamb chops with lard and season them generally with salt and pepper. (You can allow them to marinate for 30-60 minutes, but this is not essential.) You then slap them on a hot grill. A wood fire is the traditional way, but I use a gas grill. Personally, I use a vegetable grate over the grill grates, as the parallel grill marks so beloved by barbecue mavens is the US and elsewhere is not typical of Italian grilling. (It is, admittedly, a small and purely aesthetic point.) In any event, continue grilling, turning the chops from time to time, until they are well done and nicely browned on both sides.
Although I generally like my lamb pink, Italians in general do not, and it would be uncharacteristic of this dish. Serve nice and hot—remember the name!—with a green salad and, if you like, some pan-roasted potatoes. Beans or green beans would also be lovely accompaniments. Have lemon wedges on the side for those who want them.
Use rib chops for this dish. Look for some that are nicely marbled with fat–the relatively long cooking process would otherwise dry out the meat. For the same reason, avoid loin chops, which are far too lean for this kind of treatment. Loin chops are, admittedly, quite expensive. If you like, you can substitute shoulder chops (Angelina’s favorites) but, in that case, don’t use your hands!
Lard is quite hard right out of the refrigerator, so let it come to room temperature before you attempt to spread it on the chops. (It is an operation best done with the hands.) If you’re skittish about using lard, you can substitute olive oil or even, if you prefer, use no fat at all. But a bit of fat does help the meat to brown nicely, and the lard gives the meat that extra ‘something’.
You will occasionally see recipes–particularly non-Italians ones—that call for rubbing the chops with fresh chopped herbs, including tarragon, which is fairly unusual in Italian cooking, although I understand that it is used in Tuscan cooking. Other variations call for marinating the chops in wine and herbs. I’ve never tried these variants and, frankly, they don’t much interest me. I am firm believer in leaving good enough alone—and these are actually far better than ‘good enough’. The genius of this dish lies in its utter simplicity.
Speaking of abbacchio, there is another classic Roman pasta dish that is, unfortunately, impossible for me (or, probably, you) to reproduce in my kitchen, called rigatoni alla pajata. The ‘pajata’ of the title is the intestine of the slaughtered baby lamb. It has an ‘interesting’ taste and texture, but the most intriguing part is that since these baby lambs are entirely fed on their mother’s milk, then you bite or cut into the pajata just a little bit of milk squirts out… it is enough to turn some people into vegetarians.