Abbacchio alla romana (Roman Style Roast Lamb)

FrankLazio, secondi piatti22 Comments

Abbacchio alla romana (Roman Style Roast Lamb)

Abbacchio alla romana, Roman Style Roast Lamb, or abbachio alla cacciatora as it is called by Romans themselves, is perhaps the most iconic main course for Easter dinner in the Eternal City.

The preparation is a simple pan roast in the Italian manner, with a twist. You cut up the lamb into serving pieces, then brown it in olive oil (or lard for true traditionalists) scented with garlic and herbs. You then simmer the lamb in a bit of white wine. So far, so typical of many Italian pan roasts. What makes this dish distinctive is its finish—a paste of garlic, anchovies and vinegar added in the final few minutes of cooking—which gives this dish intense umami and mild touch of acidity.

The challenge in reproducing this Roman classic elsewhere is the lamb itself. Abbacchio, the incredibly tender, delicately flavored baby milk-fed lamb so beloved by Romans, is hard to find outside central Italy. The lamb so small (usually no more than 7 kilos or a bit over 15 pounds) that a whole abbacchio can be cut up into serving pieces, much like a chicken. But even if you can’t find lamb that young where you live, you can make a fair simulacrum of abbacchio alla romana with more mature lamb.

Abbacchio alla romana might not be quite as impressive as a whole roast leg of lamb. In fact, to be honest it comes up a bit short in the looks department. But for my money, you can’t find a tastier way to cook lamb. And more practical one if you’re preparing a meal for a smaller group.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 1.5 kilo (3 lbs) bone-in lamb shoulder (about 6 chops), cut into serving pieces (see Notes)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 sprig of fresh rosemary
  • 1 sprig or two of fresh sage
  • Olive oil (or lard)
  • Salt and pepper
  • White wine

For the finish:

  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 2-3 anchovy fillets
  • A spoonful or two white wine vinegar, enough to form a liquid paste

Directions

In a large sauté pan or braiser, brown the lamb pieces in olive oil (or lard) well on all sides over a lively flame. Seasoning them generously with salt and pepper as you go.

Lower the flame and add the garlic, rosemary and sage. Sauté for just a few moments, until you can small the garlic’s fragrance.

Add a good splash of white wine, turning the lamb pieces around once again to coat them well.

Now cover the pan tightly. Let the lamb braise, covered, over very gentle heat until very tender, about 30-45 minutes. At first the lamb will likely exude a fair amount of liquid and turn a rather unappetizing grayish color. But don’t fret. The liquid will eventually cook off and, as it does, the meat will begin to turn a lovely, glistening golden brown. After that point, moisten the pan as needed with a few drops of wine or water to keep things from drying out.

Meanwhile, mince or mash together the garlic and anchovy into a fine paste. Moisten with a good drizzle of the vinegar.

About 10 minutes or so before the lamb is done, uncover the pot and remove the garlic and herbs you added at the beginning, then add the garlic-and-anchovy paste and mix well. Cover the pan again and finish your braise.

Serve hot.

Abbacchio alla romana (Roman Style Roast Lamb)

Notes

As mentioned at the top, in Rome, they make abbacchio alla romana by cutting up the whole baby lamb into serving pieces. When dealing with a more mature lamb, I particularly like bone in shoulder. And where I live that means shoulder chops, which I cut in half, either crosswise or lengthwise depending where the bones are. Lamb shoulder has wonderful flavor and stands up to pan roasting very well. And the cut up shoulder chops looks vaguely reminiscent of the abbacchio I remember so fondly from my Roman days.

That said, you could also use of mix shoulder with leg. (The leg is quite lean and on its own would, to my mind, be a bit too dry.) Lamb shanks also take very nicely to this treatment, but need a longer braise, say about an hour. I’ve seen recipes for rib chops, but I prefer to reserve that extra expensive cut for dishes like grilled scottadito or breaded cutlets.

The finishing paste needs at least a few minutes simmering at the end so its flavor penetrates the meat and the vinegar loses some of its bite. As a general rule, the closer to the finish, the stronger the flavor. I find 10 minutes or so is the sweet spot. But recipes vary on this point, ranging from anywhere between 20 minutes and just five, with a few even calling for adding the paste at the very last minute.

By the way, don’t worry about the anchovies if you don’t usually care for them—they melt into the sauce as the lamb simmers and lend a savory, but not at all fishy, note to the dish.

Variations

In some recipes for abbacchio alla romana, chopped rosemary and sage is added to the finishing paste as well as at the beginning. One I’ve read called for capers and hot red pepper, too. Personally I find that this gives it too strong a flavor. Famed Roman cookbook author Ada Boni, on the other hand, uses a finishing paste of anchovies and nothing but. (She adds vinegar at the start and omits the wine.)

Some recipes call for sprinkling the lamb with flour after browning. This of course provides for a thicker sauce. Some call for a pinch of hot red pepper. Some omit the sage but none, to my knowledge, the rosemary.

Oven roasting

If you prefer, you can also make abbacchio alla romana in the oven. You place the lamb, mixed with the garlic, rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil, in a single layer baking dish. Roast in a hot (200C/400F) oven for a good 20-25 minutes, until the lamb is nice and brown. Then add a splash of white wine and continue roasting for another 20-25 minutes. A few minutes before the lamb is done, remove the baking dish from the oven. Add and mix in the finishing paste. Then return the dish to the oven to finish cooking.

Roasting a whole leg of lamb alla romana

And if you’re set on serving a whole leg of lamb roast this Easter, then proceed as follows: Combine the seasonings in this recipe—anchovies, garlic, rosemary, sage, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar—into a paste for use as a marinade. Slather the outside the roast with it, make some incisions and getting some of the marinade into those and let the leg marinate overnight in the fridge. Roast your leg in the oven as you normally would, basting the roast with white wine from time to time.

What you will be serving won’t be abbacchio alla romana but it will reminiscent of it. And very tasty.

Post scriptum

As is so often the case in Italian cookery, the nomenclature around this dish can be a little unclear. In many older Roman recipes, including the one included in the venerable Talismano della felicità, it’s called abbacchio alla cacciatora, or Hunter’s Style Lamb. The Talismano has another recipe styled abbacchio al forno alla romana, where the lamb is oven roasted with potatoes and red wine. As I got to know it, that would be another dish altogether, abbacchio al forno con le patate.

Anyway, I’ve called this dish abbacchio alla romana since I know of no more Roman a way to prepare baby lamb than this.

Abbacchio alla romana

Roman Style Roast Lamb
Total Time1 hour
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Lazio
Keyword: roasted

Ingredients

  • 1.5 kilo / 3 lbs bone-in lamb shoulder (about 6 chops) cut into serving pieces
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1-2 sprigs fresh sage
  • Olive oil or lard
  • Salt and pepper
  • White wine

For the finish

  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 anchovy fillets
  • 1-2 Tbs white wine vinegar or enough to form a liquid paste

Instructions

  • In a large sauté pan or braiser, brown the lamb pieces in olive oil (or lard) well on all sides over a lively flame. Seasoning them generously with salt and pepper as you go.
  • Lower the flame and add the garlic, rosemary and sage. Sauté for just a few moments, until you can small the garlic’s fragrance.
  • Add a good splash of white wine, turning the lamb pieces around once again to coat them well.
  • Now cover the pan tightly. Let the lamb braise, covered, over very gentle heat until very tender, about 30-45 minutes. Moisten the pan as needed with a few drops of wine or water.
  • Meanwhile, mince or mash together the garlic and anchovy into a fine paste. Moisten with a good drizzle of the vinegar.
  • About 10 minutes or so before the lamb is done, uncover the pot and remove the garlic and herbs you added at the beginning, then add the garlic-and-anchovy paste and mix well. Cover the pan again and finish your braise.
  • Serve hot.

22 Comments on “Abbacchio alla romana (Roman Style Roast Lamb)”

  1. If one cannot find young lamb and can only find the mature lamb lamb commonly found in the US, would you recommend finding a different recipe to cook it, or is this recipe still suitably delicious with that?

  2. Hey there! Your post on Abbacchio alla romana has me craving a taste of Rome right now! The way you describe the simple yet flavorful preparation has my mouth watering. While finding authentic abbacchio might be a challenge, your tips for using more mature lamb are super helpful. Who needs a whole roast leg of lamb when you have this delicious dish? Thanks for sharing this iconic recipe with us!

  3. Thanks for posting Frank! Looks great. I already bought another piece of lamb for Easter which I’ll roast but I’ll need to try this one. Happy Easter!

  4. Interesting. I had no idea that Roman lambs differ so much from what we traditionally find here in the States. Access to authentic Italian ingredients has increased substantially in the last 10 years or so, but I’m guessing baby lamb will still be a challenge. Either way, this sounds like a great recipe, Frank! Happy Easter to you and your family!

    1. Yes, it’s so much easier to find Italian ingredients these days. You can find most pantry items no problem. The challenge comes with fresh ingredients, fruits, vegetables and certain types/cuts of meat. There are usually work arounds, fortunately.

  5. We don’t eat lamb but this certainly sounds very tasty indeed Frank. Love the idea of the paste at the end. I am in favour of strong flavours. Happy easter.

  6. As a relatively new fan of lamb, I am just loving this recipe. The anchovy finishing paste really clenches the deal for me. What a lovely Easter meal.
    I have been away, wintering in the South of Spain so that is why I haven’t been commenting much. Looking forward to catching up.

  7. You’ve got most of my favourite flavours in there and I’m buying a lamb leg for Easter. As I was reading down the recipe, I did think of lamb shanks and a longer coking time …and there it was in your notes!

    1. Yep! And I’m actually going to make leg of lamb as well for Easter this year, butterflied and rolled “porchetta” style with pancetta, garlic and herbs. (This dish got devoured on Tuesday!) Anyway, Happy Easter to you and yours!

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