My first journey into the Italian south was to Naples, the capital of the Campania region. “A city to be reckoned with” I was told “charming but also chaotic!”
Although Neapolitan cuisine dominates the region, Campania is much more than just the city of Naples. Its costal plains and low mountains stretch south from the region of Lazio on its northern border then down a rocky coast to Sorrento, Amalfi and Salerno. Inland are the fringes of the Apennines mountain range and the rolling countryside around Benevenuto.
The coastal strip from Lazio to Naples is one of the most fertile areas in all of Italy, its lush terrain capable of producing an abundance of crops. Rich, loose volcanic soil and a sunny, warm climate allow a myriad of fruits and vegetables to grow to huge and luscious “jolly-green-giant” proportions. Because of the mild climate, the growing season in Campania lasts very nearly the entire year.
We flew into Naples early in the morning. Our drive from the airport into the center of the city was completely crazy. Cars came at us from every direction paying no attention to lane designations, speed limits or traffic signals. I was astounded at the number of children playing on concrete islands right in the middle of congested, heavily trafficked streets. How did these bambini cross to the other side without some lunatic driver running them over? Even my partner, Paolo – a “real” Italian – was astounded. He said he felt like a foreigner whenever he visited Naples. Was this comment revealing a northern Italian disdain for the south? That would be a discussion for another time. For the moment our only goal was to get to our hotel without killing any Neapolitan children along the way.
Once out of the car I was astounded at the beauty of this southern city. Every vista amazed: the deep blue sea filled bay, the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius looming to the west, the intricate puzzle of narrow streets winding up and down the steep hills of the old section of town. It is truly a breathtaking place.
But the other side of Naples, as we would discover, was one of impossibly jammed streets teeming with people; cramped buildings with makeshift laundry lines strung between balconies – shirts, towels and sheets fluttering in damp, sultry breezes; dark alleys knee-high in trash; and always close by, the tragedy of the polluted waters of its otherwise glisteningly, beautiful bay. One minute we were enjoying the gaiety and robust enthusiasm of it citizens, the next witnessing abject poverty. Rather schizophrenic!
Like the city itself, the history of Naples is incredibly complex. Actual recorded history begins in the 7th century BC. Filled with ups and downs and manic power struggles, Naples’ economic pendulum swung repeatedly from prosperity to poverty. The Greeks, the Romans, the Ostrogoths, the Lombards, the French, the Spanish and numerous others occupied, seized or controlled this city during one part of its history or another.
Although history has always fascinated me (I was a history major and taught it in junior high school) I was here for something quite different – the tomato! It is one of my very favorite foods. Although the tomato did not make its appearance into Italy until the 16th century, it dominates much of southern Italian cooking today. It grows everywhere, even on the ashen slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. The most famous Italian tomato– the San Marzano (from the nearby valley of that name) is a cousin of our own plum tomato but thinner and pointier in shape than what we are familiar with. It also has thicker flesh and fewer seeds. I love the taste which is much stronger, sweeter and less acidic than most tomatoes. Chefs consider them to be the best sauce tomatoes in the world.
I looked forward to testing the old Neapolitan saying “you can live forever on bread, oil and tomatoes as long as they come from Naples.” My first “tomato experience” came at dinner that very evening in a lovely restaurant overlooking the Bay of Naples. The dish was delivered in a plain white bowl; spaghetti tossed with a sumptuous tomato basil sauce. I was in heaven. This is a dish I can easily eat over and over again – but only if it is made with delicious succulent tomatoes (even canned ones if they are of excellent quality), a little sweet onion, fresh basil and an equally exceptional olive oil. Tossed with high quality pasta, this dish represents what I love most about this country’s food – simplicity.
For the most part, the cuisine of southern Italy is based on readily available products from the land and the sea, determined as much by regional availability as it is by low-cost foods affordable to its less affluent populace. Meat was never a dominant ingredient, the exception being pork and pork related products. So for my second course I ordered a dish called Braciole di Maiale alla Napoletana (stuffed pork rolls). The rolls were filled with a blend of sweet and sour ingredients, and the sauce – partly tomato, partly beef stock – was rich and savory. Sweet and sour is a popular style on the Neapolitan menu. It can be traced back to the influence of Roman cooking from the Lazio region on Campania’s northern border.
Braciole di Maiale alla Napoletana
(Stuffed Pork Rolls)
2# center cut pork loin cut into 8 pieces (4 ounces each)
¼ cup golden raisins
4 oz. prosciutto cut into cubes
¼ cup pinenuts
1 heaping tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons paprika
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1-cup beef stock
Cover each portion of meat with plastic wrap and gently pound to 1/8-inch thickness. Each piece should be approximately 5 x 6 inches.
In a food processor, place the raisins, prosciutto, pinenuts and capers. Process to a somewhat smooth consistency. Add the breadcrumbs and mix well. Place two tablespoon of this mixture in the center and spread over each slice of pork. Gently roll up and tie a string around the center of each roll. Sprinkle the rolls with paprika, salt and pepper.
In a heavy skillet large enough to accommodate the 8 rolls, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium high heat. Brown rolls– approximately 4 minutes per side. While the rolls are browning, whisk the tomato paste together with the beef stock. After rolls are browned, add the tomato/beef stock mixture to the pan, turn the heat to medium and simmer rolls for approximately 15 minutes basting occasionally with the sauce.
Spoon some of the sauce on the bottom of each serving place. Place the pork roll on top of sauce or slice each roll into diagonal slices and fan out over sauce. Especially good served with broccoli rabe.
It has been my habit over the years to record notable food and wine experiences in my journal over a morning cappuccino. I am an early riser and enjoy my morning “journaling” before anyone joins me for breakfast. This particular morning, however, I began to worry when Paolo did not appear at our agreed upon meeting time. He had insisted that we begin early for our day trip to Pompeii. A clear head was necessary for what would undoubtedly be a “thrilling” ride to the outskirts of Naples.
Finally he appeared. Looking quite gray and completely exhausted he announced “Ho vomitato tutti la notte”. My Italian was good enough to understand that! Oh my! It must have been some form of food poisoning, I thought – maybe from an errant mussel in his seafood dish the evening before – some little black shiny shell that had inadvertently collected some of the nasty garbage dumped haphazardly and frequently into the Bay of Naples.
After a therapeutic espresso, Paolo insisted he was ok so we began our trip to Pompeii. Ever the tour guide, Paolo reminded me on our drive to this historic partially-buried city, that it had been lost for nearly 1700 years before its rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided a detailed view of life during the peaceful period of the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It is undoubtedly one of the world’s best-known archaeological sites drawing hundreds of archeologists from all parts of the world every year.
Once we arrived and began walking amidst the ghostly outlines of ancient homes and shops, it became difficult to imagine how its citizens were so totally unprepared for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Signs had to be there I thought, but as Paolo pointed out, the link between seismic activity and volcanic activity was not understood at that time so whatever warning tremors might have occurred, the dramatic destruction that followed was a complete and total surprise.
I could have stayed for hours, even days, but I was aware that Paolo could not have been feeling one hundred percent after his miserable and sleepless night, so I suggested it was time to head back to Naples. He did not protest. On the way we discovered a funny little restaurant with an outside café and a great view of Mount Vesuvius. Paolo basked in the healing rays of the sun while I enjoyed a most intriguing soup and some good crusty bread. The soup contained some of my favorite ingredients; namely pork and cabbage. Although I mostly associate these two products with cold and wintry weather, the salty silky taste of the soup somehow matched the warmth and the mood of the day. For me soup should be sipped and savored slowly. It is a healing dish. Like sipping a morning coffee, it needs to be accompanied by serious contemplation; easy for me after our amazing journey to Pompeii.
My version of the soup was developed from my memory. I based it on my journal notes which described this dish as “satisfyingly savory”. I didn’t know the exact amounts of each ingredients but I knew the overall taste I wanted to achieve. Because of the pork, it is a naturally salty soup which of course, fits my taste perfectly. We make this soup at Convito to this day; especially popular in the winter months. I didn’t remember its Italian name so I decided to name it after the mountain whose presence was very much felt that particular day.
(Cabbage, Pancetta & Sausage Soup)
8 – 12 large servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound mild Italian pork sausage (removed from casing)
½ pound pancetta, diced
1 cup chopped onions
½ teaspoon minced garlic
¼ teaspoon dried marjoram
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
1 head of cabbage (approximately 2 pounds) halved, cored and sliced into slices about ¼ inch strips
1-gallon chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
In a soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the sausage and the pancetta and brown, breaking the sausage into small pieces. After approximately 6 minutes when the meats are browned, add the onion and the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add the marjoram and oregano and mix well. Add the cabbage and mix into the ingredients sautéing for another 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock. Simmer for 45 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. (You may not need any salt because of the sausage and pancetta.)
Naples is famous for its white clam sauce. But since I had designated this journey as “my tomato trip”, I was more interested in their almost equally famous red clam sauce, especially the Neapolitan version that Paolo’s mother and my mentor Wanda advised me to search for: spicy red clam sauce with pancetta.
The concierge suggested a little restaurant not far from the hotel that he claimed had the best spicy red clam sauce in Naples. The restaurant – both charming and intimate – was crowded with small tables covered in light blue and white-checkered tablecloths. Flickering candles set a mellow mood. The smell of the sea filled the air. We ordered a plate of salami and marinated vegetables along with a bottle of local Greco di Tufo from the famous producer Mastroberardino. The Greco grape was imported into this area by the Hellenes before the foundation of Rome and the Mastroberardino family of winemakers has dedicated themselves to the rediscovery and re-evaluation of that wine. It is a zesty white with fruity flavors that matched both our food and our mood. I love this wine. Then came the highly anticipated Linguine alle Vongole alla Napoletana The concierge was right – it was succulently and spicily delicious.
Linguine alle Vongole alla Napoletana
Convito makes a red clam sauce with jarred baby clams, which we sell in our market. When we serve this sauce in the café we also add fresh Manila clams, the sweetest and probably the smallest hard-shell clams in the market.
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound pancetta, chopped
2 cups chopped onions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
¼ fresh minced parsley
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1-teaspoon chili pepper flakes
1-1# 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1-8 ounce jar clam juice
1-10 ounce can whole baby clams
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Optional: 1-½ pound fresh clams cleaned thoroughly
1-pound linguine cooked al dente
In a large saucepan heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and brown for approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Add the onions and cook stirring frequently, until soft and tender -. 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic, parsley, oregano and chili pepper flakes stirring constantly for 1 minute.
Add the tomatoes and clam juice. Simmer over medium heat for about 15 – 20 minutes. Add the baby clams. Simmer for approximately 7 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.
If you are using fresh clams, scrub the clams in cold water. While the pasta is cooking, add the fresh clams to the sauce and simmer for 4 – 6 minutes. If there are any clams that do not open, throw them out. Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce and clams until evenly coated. Serve immediately
Enough to serve over 1 pound pasta cooked al dente. I recommend spaghetti or linguine.
Sufficiently mellowed with good food and wine, we turned to our earlier conversation (left-dangling on our drive into Naples as we dodged careening trucks and unsupervised children) about how northern Italians feel about their noisier southern neighbors. I was curious about Paolo’s observations after our weekend visit. Neapolitans seem to turn up the volume on everything – their voices, their cars, even their food – very different from life in Milan. Paolo had to admit that he had enjoyed the over-the-top chaos, the vibrancy, and the utter gaiety of Naples. “But only for a weekend”, he proclaimed. We laughingly agreed that a long-term stay might be damaging to our northern, more organized, less frenetic sensibilities.
We could not leave Naples without visiting a pizzeria. Naples is considered by many to be where pizza was invented.. We stopped at a lively pizzeria on our way out of the city. Of course I ordered the famous Pizza Margherita, named just a little over a century ago for the first queen of a united Italy. It has become a classic all over the world. Topped with mozzarella cheese, basil and, beautiful slices of local tomatoes (the red, white and green of the Italian flag) it was a most perfect and fitting finale to a most satisfying and crazy trip to the south of Italy. My first but certainly not my last.