Cost: $90 for 2 kilograms
Season: November into February
Prep: Tear the outer leaves away from the center, exposing the hearts. Shave the hearts thinly, and sauté or blanch the leaves.
Substitutes: Chicory, dandelion leaves, or fennel
When Chef Dante de Magistris opened his eponymous restaurant in Cambridge in 2006, he found success combining his roots—an Italian-American heritage and years spent working in the best restaurants in Italy and Boston—with award-winning creativity (including earning a StarChefs.com 2002 Boston Rising Stars Chef Award). His artful presentations and intricate dishes wowed us on many occasions.
But as the economy turned bad, de Magistris realized his diners no longer wanted the pomp and circumstance of fine dining. He gradually switched the gears at Restaurant Dante to a more casual vibe, and in 2009, he opened Il Casale in Boston’s Belmont suburb, with a menu focused on the Italian classics he grew up with. Now de Magistris highlights the family favorites (like ignudi con tomato sugo, and miale) with ingredients flown straight from Italy—mozzarella from Apulia and Roman puntarelle—items he served during our most recent trip to Beantown.
Although de Magistris can find puntarelle—a variety of Catalonian chicory with the spiciness of arugula and a center bulb similar to fennel—in the United States, he orders it two-day mailed from Rome (the only Italian locale the vegetable is grown in, and a source of that ardent Roma pride). “The hearts, shaved, that’s what’s really special,” he says, explaining the stateside versions he has found don’t attain a large enough center stalk to shave. We imagine it’s just something about that Italian terroir. But punterella’s VIP status (Very Important Product, that is), makes all the more reason to seek it out; though you’ll be hard pressed to find the good stuff outside Rome and de Magistris’s two Boston enclaves.De Magistris uses puntarelle (translated literally as “little tips”) to prepare a typical Roman salad, thinly shaving the hearts and tossing them with anchovies, capers, and lemon zest into a refreshing slaw-like dish. The hearts may be the true gem of puntarelle, but the serrated leaves—which resemble dandelion—offer a peppery bite and can be used raw in salads or sautéed with olive oil. De Magistris suggests blanching the leaves and hearts to reduce the bitter flavor, but boasts that this was the main attraction to him during childhood trips to Rome. “It’s not a kid’s dish, but I loved it,” he remembers.