A traditional Italian dessert, the monte bianco is a mountain of chestnut puree topped with a snowy peak of cream
In La Torricella are three cabinets with domed glass covers. The first contains fish, which changes daily, but almost always includes a scowling monkfish, shoals of anchovies and scarlet prawns. The second has an excavated round of pecorino cheese and the day’s vegetables, which in December means artichokes and leafy greens in all their plainness: chicory, spinach, broccoli, chard. The last is home to a vase of corks, a row of champagnes and a sea of loose fruit: apples, pears, clementines and, filling the gaps, hundreds of castagne, or chestnuts.
Like virtually all the trattorie and ristorante owners in Testaccio, Augusto, the owner of La Torricella, originally comes from the neighbouring region of Abruzzo. He still has family and a house near the small village of Santa Lucia, or what’s left of it after the devastating earthquakes in 2009 and 2016. He also has a piece of land that is home to a castagneto, a small, sweet-chestnut wood, that dates back to Roman times.
There is nothing Augusto likes more that talking about his castagneto and chestnuts. Like many Abruzzesi, he calls chestnut trees bread trees and chestnuts the bread of the poor, and is all too aware of the vital role they played in the survival of his ancestors. “Chestnuts saved us,” he tells me. A true and quietly obsessional collector, he has spent a lifetime gathering stories, tools and machinery related to harvesting his crop of prickly cupules containing smooth and shiny treasure. Pietro, the most unreadable of the three waiters, is also Abruzzese and he too has his own castagneto. Between them, at chestnut time, they fill the cabinet with small, mahogany nuts.
Most of the nuts in the third cabinet are for caldarroste, which means hot roast, the same you find on the dodgy stalls that dot Rome at this time of year. At La Torricella, most chestnuts are slashed, roasted in the oven, then served as a ritual and sociable pudding, everyone peeling their own and making a right mess on the table. Others become soup along with tiny, cannellini-like fagioli del purgatorio, or a sort of polenta, modern-day versions of the poor dishes that sustained generations. Then there are the riches: Augusto’s chestnut gelato, which reminds me of malted milk biscuits and marrons glacés, chestnuts drowned in brandy and, my favourite among favourites, monte bianco, which, like its namesake Mont Blanc, is a mountain, but of pureed chestnut capped with whipped cream snow.
Luxurious it may taste, but making a mound – and there’s no way round this description – of brown, worm-like chestnut puree look beautiful requires skill. In fact, pasticcerie and some restaurants have sophisticated ways of making and presenting monte bianco. Mine is more anthill than Alpine mountain, and requires a food mill or potato ricer. You need 500g peeled chestnuts, which you boil for 20 minutes, then peel with the help of knife – a right palaver. Alternatively, you can score and roast them in a hot oven for 30 minutes, then peel, or simply buy vacuum-packed ones.
500g peeled chestnuts
150g dark chocolate
75g icing sugar, plus more for dusting
Meringue base (optional)
500ml whipping cream
Put the peeled chestnuts in a small pan and pour over enough milk to cover them. Simmer until all the milk is absorbed.
Pass the milky chestnuts through the mill or ricer and into a bowl, add the melted chocolate and icing sugar. Leave to chill for at least an hour.
Working over a big plate, meringue base or six bowls, pass the puree through the mill/ricer, letting it fall on the plate or into the bowls like a mountain. Cap with whipped cream and a dusting of icing sugar “snow”.