Every year, in April, the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C. have a theme supper when members explore the flavors of historical foodways. This year’s theme is Eating en Route. I’m making farinata.
My grandmother, Ida DeJoannis, left Liguria at 16 for Manhattan where she was to keep house for her parents who worked as tailors. But in some ways, she never left. Her memories of the village that raised her, Valeriano, became our family’s defining stories.
One of her most vivid memories was of farinata, a chickpea flour flatbread. You may know it as socca, a Nicoise street food, cooked in a copper pan and served hot to market shoppers. Julia Child featured a film snippet of the socca vendor on his bicycle in one of her shows.
And just as fougasse crosses from France to Italy and becomes focaccia, socca becomes farinata, served the same way—finished with olive oil, salt, and pepper, sliced into wedges and handed over to hungry shoppers, including little girls on trips to the city.
Ligurian food is noted for its leanness. It has none of the butter and cream of Bologna “La Grassa” and none of the baroque styling of Sicilian pastries. “A relationship with simple things is so developed here that humble products…little appreciated elsewhere enjoy the highest consideration,” writes Elena Kostioukovitch in Why Italians Love to Talk About Food. But it is often cucina povera, the simple things, which have the strongest hold on us.
And it is the simple things are the hardest to reproduce. My grandmother never forgot farinata, and we tried to recreate it for her—hunting Italian chickpea flour in Boston’s North End, recruiting an engineer uncle to translate measurements and temperatures from Italian recipes, experimenting with cast iron pans and aluminum cookie sheets.
But it was never quite right and we blamed it on the water or the flour or the oven. Of course it wasn’t right. She was no longer a little girl and no longer home. One day when we were again discussing this elusive food, she said, “Some rich Italian should set it up here, so people would know, or go back and bring it over, so we could have it, because it is so good. People should know, they would like it.”
It would have to be a rich Italian, because the economics of farinata make no sense. You can’t meet restaurant overhead selling chickpea flatbread. You keep the overhead low by selling it from your bicycle, or you add value like Ben Barker of the Magnolia Grill does—he serves it with confit of shrimp and crabmeat dressed with saffron vinaigrette.
But Italians also took their foodways to South America and created a different kind of abundance. They added prodigious amounts of beef to their diets, but held on to humble foods. Farinata became faina in Argentina and Uruguay, countries with significant Italian populations. And taking the value-added approach, it is often served on top of a slice of pizza.
I found faina in Miami Beach, in cafes like Manolo—a North American outpost of an Argentine snack shop and at El Rey del Chivito, an Uruguayan sandwich shop where I realized it was the farinata that my grandmother described. Faina persists on menus filled with excessive dishes like hot dogs wrapped in bacon or chivito sandwiches—layers of skirt steak, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a fried egg. Even amid abundance, the simple can last.
After tracking and tracing, I feel as though I’ve finally had a small taste of what my grandmother remembers.
The varied descriptions of farinata—crepe, pancake, flatbread, focaccia—fall short of describing it. Without leavening, it is flat, but without gluten it is also a bit crumbly and blistered from the oven’s high heat. It doesn’t have the sweet wheaty flavor of a pancake, but has a nutty savoriness highlighted by a liberal dousing of olive oil. This recipe will get you started:
1 cup chickpea flour (try to find Italian rather than Indian flour)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
2 tablespoons olive oil
chopped fresh rosemary (optional)
freshly ground pepper, salt, chopped rosemary, olive oil
Mix the flour, salt, water and 2 tablespoons of olive oil with a whisk until smooth. Let the batter sit for an hour (or up to overnight in the fridge). Stir in the rosemary, if you are using it.
Pour the batter into an oiled jelly roll pan or a 12-inch cast iron skillet. The batter should not be more than ¼ inch deep.
Place the pan or skillet in a 450 degree oven for about 12 minutes, drizzle on some olive oil, and set the farinata under the broiler for a few minutes to brown.
Sprinkle with pepper, salt, rosemary and more oil, serve in slices.
If you want a less lean dish, farinata goes well with caramelized onions, fresh arugala, or slivers of pecorino.