They're not center-stage like artichokes are in and around Rome. But when I see those bright green, grassy bunches of agretti in the markets, I know it's springtime again in The Eternal City. Known in English as saltwort or friar’s beard, or barilla plant – or “land seaweed”, in Japan – agretti can cause stampedes in the markets of central Italy as locals make a run for the bunches of crunchy, grass-like leaves. A Mediterranean native, agretti (Salsola soda, in Latin) were first cultivated as a source of soda ash, which plays a key role in glass and soap making (and an important element in Murano's famous glass-blowing tradition for the wine goblets and chandeliers of the grand Venetian palaces). Then as alternative methods of extracting soda ash were discovered in the 19th century, agretti entered the culinary realm to become a seasonal niche food among peasants in Lazio and Umbria, central Italy.
Saltwort is a succulent shrub and a halophyte -- a salt-tolerant plant -- native to the Mediterranean basin, and can be irrigated with saltwater or fresh. Agretti are harvested in bunches when small, or cropped to encourage new growth among mature plants. Most commonly, they're lightly boiled and then served warm, room temp, or cold -- with some olive oil and lemon. Much like samphire, or sea asparagus (asparagi di mare), they shouldn't be overcooked, so that some crunch remains to the green.
In flavor, agretti are somewhat comparable to spinach, but livelier and with a slightly more verdant bite, half way to chives, without the onion-y, allium aftertaste. They can be eaten raw as well, and can also be used almost like an herb, as chives might be.
Romans love their greens, so like the ubiquitous and delicious cicoria (chicory leaves) in cooler months and other springtime specialties like wild asparagus, agretti can be spotted from markets to trattorie to the most refined ristoranti in Italy's capital city, and outside in the hills of Lazio. As for pairings, agretti are excellent mixed with eggs, in springtime frittate with other spring veggies like fava beans and fresh peas. Of course, the classic Italian way to utilize any fresh, seasonal item at the market is to either A.) saute it in a pan with a little garlic and olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon, or 2.) toss it with some pasta (and a little garlic and olive oil). So yes, agretti pasta is always a good idea (plus, the name: "spaghetti con agretti": fabulous). It's an easy, mistake-free way to use agretti when you find them. But outside of Rome/Lazio and central Italy, that may be your biggest challenge: finding agretti. In bocca al lupo (good luck), and keep your eyes peeled!