Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pinoli Romani: The Art of Collecting Pine Nuts in Rome

The American tourists stared as they walked past us, not knowing what we were greedily gathering and tossing into our bags along the perimeter of the Circo Massimo, the large green space in the center of Rome that was the fictitious site of the chariot race scene made famous in the film "Ben Hur".

Roman Parasol Pines along the Circo Massimo
"They're collecting pine nuts" one of them said, stopping his family to show them what the prized bounty they were casually walking over looked like. “A small bag costs €4 to €5 in the stores” he excitedly explained to them. The group glanced over at our quickly filling bag, and then looked down to the sidewalk that a minute ago held no interest to them. And why should it? To the untrained eye, these camouflage-colored nuts of our fervent hunt are just part of the Roman street scene. But to anyone who knows, they were walking over one of the costliest ingredients in Italian cooking!
Circo Massimo, like other public parks, sidewalks, parking lots, private gardens and archaeological sites in Rome, is full of Pinus pinea, Roman Stone Pines or Parasol Pines as they’re more romantically called. At the end of Rome’s long, hot summer, giant, dry pine cones along with their seeds drop to the ground from trees (dangerous to cars and walkers, considering how many pine trees there are in Rome!) offering a free Roman delicacy to anyone willing to do a little hard work to get their prize.

Beware: Falling Pine Cones

There are lots of free edibles for the taking in and around Rome, like wild chicory, arugula, mint…spontaneous growths that appear along the side of a road, anywhere there is a bit of green. When the season’s right it’s not uncommon to see hunched figures along a major roadway digging up greens of all sorts. Pine nuts are another delicious freebie of Rome.

Empty Pine Shells
Every Italian school child knows the pleasure of cracking open tiny pinoli. The pine nut in its hard, outer shell is put on a rock and with another rock it is gently cracked open. Come down too hard on the shell, and you crush the delicate nut meat inside. The work is laborious and can be messy. If it weren’t, pine nuts wouldn’t cost up to €60 per kilogram.But your hard work will have paid off when you make your first batch of late summer pesto. The ingredients are few but must be of the best quality: a bunch of fresh basil leaves (preferably home grown), a handful of pine nuts (collected by you, of course), grated parmesan and/or pecorino cheese, garlic and enough olive oil to turn it all into a luscious paste. 

Or you can just eat them straight out of their shell. My boyfriend Alfonso has perfected his pine nut cracking skills over the years and now puts them to good use as part of his exercise routine in a pine laden park by our house. During his one-and-a-half minutes of recovery time between sets of lunges, sit-ups and push-ups, Alfonso finds, cracks open and eats a pine nut. Great source of iron and magnesium! But none of the precious nuts get brought home to me.


  1. Many years ago we used to live in the EUR area of Rome, on Viale Pasteur. It was full of pine trees and very often they used to fall off and even hit people. We were very worried walking around there, I used to always look up to make sure nothing would fall:)

  2. I know those pine trees! I used to teach English at the Berlitz school on viale Pasteur! Dangerous indeed!

  3. Lovely! I felt like I was Rome-ing there, pine nuts carpeting the ancient grounds.

  4. Tell Alfonso to start sharing the goods! Post a recipe for some pine nut cookies!!

  5. How very interesting. The thought of that late summer pesto has me drooling!

    1. I'll be posting my recipe for late summer pesto shortly! I still have to crack open all of the pine nuts!