How To Cook Lamb The Roman Way

In terms of meat in Lazio, the region of which Rome is the capital, the place of honor went to abbacchio, milk-fed lamb.  The name probably derives from bacchio, that is, the stick used for herding.  Dictionaries of Romanesco dialect define abbacchio as just-weaned baby lamb whose season in the centuries following the stabilization of meat prices in mid-sixteenth century Rome was determined by the papal ban on slaughtering from October to April of every year.  Meat may have been rare once, but “meat” is considered the highest quality and just miraculous, since only meat is substance.  This belief is expressed in popular wisdom as carne fa carne, vino fa sangue, erba fa merda (meat is meat, wine is the blood, grass is shit).  Called the universal plate of Rome, roast spring lamb is one of the most Roman of Roman dishes and utterly simple.  A process of making incisions is to pilottarlo with lardo and garlic, that is, to lard it.  I originally published this recipe as a butterflied lamb dish in Bon Appetit magazine in February 2001.

Abbacchio al Forno
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Lamb
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 6
  • One 6-pound whole leg of lamb
  • 2 ounces pancetta or lardo, cut into slivers
  • 2 large garlic cloves, cut into slivers
  • 2 tablespoons rosemary leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Extra-virgin olive oil as needed
  • 2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  1. Make incisions all over the lamb with a long fillet knife and enlarge the holes made with your little finger and stick into it a sliver of garlic, a piece of pancetta, rosemary and sprinkle salt and pepper over the whole lamb.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  3. Spread some olive oil over the surface of the lamb, season with salt and pepper and place the lamb in a roasting pan, place the potatoes around the lamb, and roast until the internal temperature is 140 degrees F, about 2 hours. Baste the lamb while it cooks with the wine and vinegar. The lamb will be pink in the center. Remove the roast from the oven when it has reached that temperature and is golden brown and leave to rest on a carving board or serving platter for 15 minutes before serving. Continue roasting the potatoes if desired or necessary.
  4. Meanwhile, transfer the pan juices to a skillet and reduce over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Slice the lamb and arrange on a serving platter, spooning the pan juices over all and serve.


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