Romeo Salta was a renowned restauranteur back in the 1950s through the 1980s. His swank namesake Manhattan restaurant attracted luminaries from the worlds of business, politics and entertainment.
My father, who was quite the buongustaio back in the day, used to take our family there from time to time when I was a kid. It was a thrill to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. But Romeo Salta was also my first introduction to Italian food other than Angelina’s Neapolitan cookery. Salta served what was at the time called “Northern Italian” food. That was the rather ludicrous catch-all phrase used at the time for any regional Italian cuisine besides the ones from Naples and points south brought to America by the mass immigration of the early 20th century. These cuisines from central and northern Italy were new and different and became very fashionable. So-called northern Italian food was considered “lighter”, and certainly more “sophisticated”, than the southern Italian cookery Americans were familiar with, although that wasn’t really the case.
In 1962, Romeo Salta wrote a cookbook for anyone who wanted to try recreating the dishes he served up at his restaurant. The book, called The Pleasures of Italian Cooking, didn’t have much of an impact on the way Americans actually cooked. For that, we would have to wait another 11 years, for Marcella Hazan’s landmark Classic Italian Cookbook, published in 1973. Still, Salta’s cookbook is a piece of culinary history, the first cookbook published in America to present “real” Italian cookery. (The first such book in the English language had probably been Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, published in the UK about eight years before Salta’s book.)
I recently inherited my mother’s copy of The Pleasures of Italian Cooking. What surprised me the most, given Romeo Salta’s glamorous reputation, was just how homey most of the recipes are. Antipasti like mozzarella in carrozza and fagioli e tonno. First courses like zuppa di scarola e fagioli, gnocchi, spaghetti aglio e olio, carbonara, polenta pasticciata, and risotto alla milanese. Second courses like saltimbocca, bollito misto, pollo e peperoni, frittata… In other words, everyday home cooking—and from all corners of Italy, not just the center and north.
I did find one recipe that appears to be Romeo’s own creation. Dubbed Insalata di Pasqua or Easter Salad, it’s lightly blanched green peas, garnished with ham, anchovies and olives, and dressed with a citronette enriched with hard-boiled egg yolk. It sounded intriguing and certainly seasonal, so I gave it a go, playing with the recipe a bit to suit my own tastes.
I was well pleased with the results. Other than a Russian Salad, I’d never tried using green peas in a salad, and never with a simple oil based dressing. It worked beautifully. The fresh taste of the peas was complemented by the savory ham and other garnishes. The salad was filling yet light. And it was rather pretty to look at, too. All in all, a fitting antipasto to begin Easter dinner.
So if you feel like a little bit of nostalgia this Easter, why not give Romeo Salta’s Easter Salad a try?
- 1 lb (500 grams) frozen peas, blanched, drained and cooled
- 1/4 lb (150 grams) cooked ham, cut into cubes
- A head of Boston lettuce
For the garnish:
- A few anchovy fillets
- Olives, green and black
- 2 hard boiled eggs, cut into wedges (optional)
For the dressing:
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
- The juice of one lemon
- Salt and pepper
Blanch the peas in boiling water. Just let the water come back to the boil and let it simmer for perhaps a minute, then drain in a large colander. Rinse the peas in cold water to stop the cooking, then let them drain until they are perfectly dry.
Line a salad bowl with the Boston lettuce leaves, using as many as you need to line your bowl.
In a separate mixing bowl, mix the drained peas and cubed ham together, then pile the mixture on top of the salad leaves.
Arrange the anchovy fillets, olives and, if using, wedges of hard boiled egg on top of the peas and ham.
Whisk together the dressing ingredients until they are perfectly emulsified. Taste and adjust for seasoning, then pour over the salad.
Notes on Romeo Salta’s Easter Salad
Truth be told, as fascinating as it is as a piece of culinary history, The Pleasures of Italian Cooking is not always a pleasure to cook from. Salta’s instructions are fairly telegraphic, typical of many Italian cookbooks. But more to the point, a good number of his recipes, such as the one for peperoni alla piemontese, simply do not work. (Yes, I tried.) In others, the measurements seem off, such as his recipe for sedani alla parmigiana, which calls for braising three bunches of celery in a half-cup of stock. I wonder if he tested—or even proofread—his recipes?
Salta’s Original Recipe
This Easter Salad recipe also needed some interpretation. Here are his verbatim instructions:
Put peas on the bottom of a salad bowl. Arrange the anchovies and ham over them, then lettuce wedges around the edge of the bowl. Beat together the oil, [hard boiled] egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pour over ingredients in the bowl. Garnish with olives.
Good luck with that! If you followed these cryptic instructions to the letter you would wind up with something rather odd. So as you can see, I played around. For one thing, I used the lettuce as a bed rather than an edging. Salta doesn’t specify the type of lettuce, but given the period and his instruction to cut it into wedges, I’m guessing iceberg. I used whole leaves of Boston lettuce instead.
And then I mixed the ham, cut into cubes with the peas rather than laying slices of it on top. Rather than using a whole can of anchovies as Salta calls for, I used enough to make a cross on top, symbolic of Easter. And rather than adding hard-boiled egg yolks to the dressing, which struck me as probably unsightly, I used whole hard boiled eggs—also an Easter tradition—cut into wedges, as part of the garnish.
On Romeo Salta and his restaurant
Romeo Salta himself was born a southerner, in Puglia in 1904. After his father died when he was six, Salta was raised in a state-run orphanage in Florence. He had no formal culinary training, learning his trade working as a kitchen boy on several Italian cruise lines. Arriving penniless in New York in 1924, he made his living for a few years doing menial work at various hotels around town. After a stint in the midwest, he moved to Los Angeles in 1933, founding a restaurant called Chianti in 1938. After a low start, Ed Sullivan stopped for dinner one night and wrote about it in his newspaper column. Chianti soon began to attract celebrities like Lucille Ball and Errol Flynn. Salta’s career finally took off.
Returning to New York in 1951, Salta opened a place called Mercurio with a partner, then branched out on his own in 1953 with his storied namesake restaurant on West 56th Street. At a time when Italian restaurants were synonymous with red checkered tablecloths with candles stuck in straw-covered Chianti bottles, his elegant ambience and offerings of Italian food as it was and is cooked in its native land were a revelation.
You can read more about Romeo Salta in his 1998 New York Times obituary.
A funny story…
A great part of the fun going to Romeo Salta was the chance to catch a glimpse of its rich and famous patrons. I remember, for instance, we once sat next to an elderly James Farley, who had been FDR’s campaign director, Postmaster General and later head of Coca-Cola International. Since the tables were close together, he and Dad struck up a conversation, and we got to hear a few of his fascinating reminiscences.
But the most memorable moment from our visits to Romeo Salta was seeing Raymond Burr. He was an actor best known for playing Perry Mason in the eponymous 1960s TV series and later “Ironside”, a wheelchair-bound detective for the San Francisco police force, in the 1970s. We happened to be seated near the entrance to the restaurant. From our table we could see the patrons coming in and out. Well, in saunters Mr. Burr. One of my sisters, who was a big fan of Ironside at the time, blurts out—well within earshot mind you—”Look, it’s Ironsides! It’s Ironsides!” We all squirmed in embarrassment, trying to look as nonchalant as possible. As soon as he was out of sight, I turned and replied: “Yeah, and it must be a miracle, ’cause he’s walking!”
Romeo Salta’s Easter Salad
- 1 lb 500g frozen peas blanched, drained and cooled
- 1/4 lb 150 g cooked ham cut into cubes
- 1 head Boston lettuce
For the garnish:
- A few anchovy fillets
- Olives green and/or black
- 2 hard boiled eggs cut into wedges (optional)
For the dressing:
- 1/2 cup 125 ml olive oil
- 1 lemon juiced
- Salt and pepper
- Blanch the peas in boiling water. Just let the water come back to the boil and let it simmer for perhaps a minute, then drain in a large colander. Rinse the peas in cold water to stop the cooking, then let them drain until they are perfectly dry.
- Line a salad bowl with the Boston lettuce leaves, using as much as you need to line your bowl.
- In a separate mixing bowl, mix the drained peas and cubed ham together, then pile the mixture on top of the salad leaves.
- Arrange the anchovy fillets, olives and, if using, wedges of hard boiled egg on top of the peas and ham.
- Whisk together the dressing ingredients until they are perfectly emulsified. Taste and adjust for seasoning, then pour over the salad.
- Serve immediately.