It's a warm hug of a salad, much like ones that you imagine Casella -- a man famous for carrying a bushel of rosemary sprigs in place of a pocket square -- himself would give.
Though Insalata Pontormo probably sounds unfamiliar, Casella has been making variations on this recipe since 1978, first inspired by the painter Jacopo Carucci (Jacopo da Pontormo). "I read a story about what he could see when he looked out upon his surroundings from his room," Casella told me. "He said that he could see: the chicken coop, a garden with lots of lettuces growing, and pieces of carne secca (like pancetta) hanging from the ceiling. It was these visuals that inspired me to create the Pontormo salad."
It defies everything we expect out of salad -- which is probably why it has more pull than most. You'll want it to be your whole dinner tonight, and won't need anything else.
We're so well-trained to not mistreat our lettuce; this recipe mocks our dedication. Usually we do all we can to keep our greens pristine and untrampled by dressing or climate or time. We're careful not to toss it too early or weigh it down; to dress the vessel and not the greens; to eat it from giant mixing bowls to keep the leaves free and unencumbered. Just like with an especially volatile friend or when dating someone moody, we condition ourselves not to put too much pressure on it.
But lettuce can take some well-intended roughness. You can pour a pan of hot, crispy pancetta and scrambled eggs on it and it won't collapse in ruins. It will warm, then soften, then settle in to the rich bath.
Should salad have this much pancetta in it? (Not to mention rendered, but not discarded, pancetta fat?) How about all those muscular wintry herbs, singed into the meat? Is it still a salad? Well, who's going to tell you no? A little loose richness does amazing things for feeling sated and restored, in ways that no amount of kale ever will.
It's a dinner that you'll want to scoop up faster and faster as you go, volleying tugs of bright acid and salty meat and slippery greens and soft eggs spurring you on. This is the salad to get us through the winter, but we might not want to stop there.
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to our Provisions Editor Posie Harwood for this one!
Photos by Linda Pugliese
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."