Tortellini with cream and prosciutto, bow-tie pasta with crab meat, pennette with vodka and salmon, beef filet with green pepper, veal escalopes with mushrooms, mayonnaise and gelatin, arugula always and everywhere. When I think of food in Italy the ’80s, these are the first images to come to mind.
I am an ’80s girl through and through, having grown up with frozen food and pre-cooked risotto in a bag, pouring cream on everything, and believing that shrimp cocktail and profiteroles were the foods to order if you wanted to sound up-to-date, like a real food connoisseur.
Looking back at those dishes now, they and their ingredients still suffer a sort of social stigma. Many Italian chefs have admitted that the problem back then was not in the ingredients themselves, nor in the pairings—cream and prosciutto is still one of my favorite combos—but in the carelessness applied to cooking. Professional cooking was usually not considered a revered job, but rather an assembly line business.
Arugula is one of those ingredients immediately associated with a certain kind of ’80s cuisine, pretentious and heavy on cream. But to me, it is entirely underrated. Used well, it deserves a comeback.
Be it cultivated or, better yet, wild and foraged, arugula is delicious, slightly hot, with a peppery flavor that tingles your tastebuds. After the cold winter weather, I feel a thrill of excitement finding fresh bunches of arugula at the market. It’s a sign that my cooking is about to change, incorporating fresher ingredients and lighter preparations.
Arugula belongs to the Brassicaceae family—along with broccoli, cabbage, kale, and the like—and nowadays, it’s often considered a superfood, as it’s rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Nutritional aspects aside, arugula is an adventurous green, and welcomes spring back into the kitchen with its bright, lively kick. It combines very well with other leaves and herbs in big, seasonal green salads. These can be a fresh side to grilled meat or fish, or a main course when enriched with nuts and some aged cheese.
Arugula’s vibrant green also makes it a perfect ingredient for pesto. Pair it with your favorite nuts—walnuts are the best complement to its pungency—add a shower of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and finish with a glug of olive oil. You’ll find yourself with a pungent sauce for pasta that doubles as a dip for vegetables or a spread for toast.
In Romagna on the Adriatic coast, arugula is often paired with prosciutto crudo and stracchino, a soft, slightly sour cow cheese, as the stuffing for piadina, a local flatbread, and one of the most beloved Italian street foods.
A natural match with beef, you’ll also find it generously scattered over tagliata, a sliced grilled steak bathed in good extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt, and carpaccio, co-starring with paper-thin slices of raw veal or bresaola, a lean dried salted beef from the Valtellina in the North of Italy.
So to kickstart spring in your kitchen, simply pick up a bunch of arugula at the closest farmers market. Mingle its peppery notes with some Italian inspiration with the following dishes.