Buying food in Napoli can often be a bit of an unexpected fiasco. While there are certainly chain grocery stores that sell everything from paper napkins to octopus, don’t ever expect to buy Vodka, toilet paper, magazines, cigarettes and fresh produce from the same outlet. I have always preferred specialized shops such as the pescheria (fishmonger) and the macelleria (butcher) for most of my needs, but there are certainly days when I grow wistful towards Target and Whole Foods.
Then I remember how privileged I am to buy produce at daily open air market on Via Antignano and soap from the soap store that dispenses any number of detergents and cleansers directly from a spigot as one might expect to see Slurpees dispensed at a 7 Eleven mini market.
We recycle old plastic water bottles to collect our detergent once a month, thereby limiting our plastic consumption and saving money. This soap dispensing system so amazes me in its economy and ecology that I damn may well leave Italy and open an artisanal detergent shop in Brooklyn employing this same new fangled, and yet strikingly obvious technology.
It takes time to figure out where specific items can be purchased throughout Italy. For example, you buy stamps, metro tickets and cigarettes at the tabaccheria. You buy wine at the enoteca, often “sfuso” or directly from the tap for roughly 2 euro a liter. You buy bread at the panetteria and sweets at the pasticceria. Usually the sweet shop decidedly does not sell bread so forget trying to refer to such establishments with the general term “bakery.” Bread shops are bread shops and sweet shops are sweet shops and neither the twain shall meet.
As a former denizen of both Washington D.C. and New York, I was once accustomed to popping into a Duane Reade or CVS to do everything from having my klonopin prescription filled, buy cigarettes, coke zero, gossip magazines and even the occasional piece of fruit—often at the unlikely hour of 2AM.
Not so in Italy! Even if you choose to shop at the Carrefour supermarket (which I do sometimes because it is blessedly open 24 hours), you must still learn to navigate the incoherent array of specialized retail establishments. I learned the hard way when I once asked a salumeria in Agerola if I could also buy a case of toilet paper. To me the salumeria essentially resembled the catchall Korean owned bodega I used to frequent in Washington. But not so here! One must never expect to find TP at the salami shop. What a cretin I once was.
Now I relish the civilized routine of stopping by each “….ria” while in search of my day’s bounty and today was no different. As I had set out to make the traditional Neapolitan Christmas dishes of insalata di rinforzo and baccalà fritto, I needed to first go to the dried goods and pickle store.
These shops are among my favorite food purveying establishments in southern Italy. There you can find dried cannellini beans and cod, prunes and pickles. All sold buy the etto (100 grams) and usually occupying a tiny space no larger than a walk-in closet. I am still not sure under what byzantine taxonomical system it was decided that dried cod, beans and dehydrated pineapple should all be sold together but I have learned to no longer question this logic, instead calling these shops “pantry goods” stores.
Fortunately most of my day’s shopping list would require only one simple stop at the pantry store as opposed to stops at 18 different “….ria.” Consisting of cornichon, red peppers, capers, olives and cauliflower, insalata di rinforzo is made for Christmas Eve dinner and then served again for the New Years feast, as Neapolitan believe the flavors become “reinforced” the longer they marinate. Baccalà (cod) is a classic Christmas dish because as we know, Neapolitans have a bit of a thing for fish around the Christmas season.
And so I made my obligatory stop at the pantry goods store where I enjoyed a pleasant conversation with the owner about Americans’ generally lamentable diet of hamburgers and hotdogs. I no longer attempt to correct know-it-all Neapolitans' militantly held belief that all Americans eat trash food all day long. There is really no point bringing up Sean Brock, Roy Choi, Chang and gang to the man who sells me salt cod. However, for my magnanimousness, I rewarded myself a healthy sampling of about 12 free cured olives and 19 lupin beans. When the schnecken beckons!
Just as I was about to congratulate myself for the brevity of my shopping trip, I remembered I needed toilet paper, and thusly made my way to the paper and soap store. There you can purchase in addition to toilet paper, party supplies, tinfoil, shampoo and laundry detergent.
As I contemplated the various plies of the toilet paper on hand and remembered I only had 89 cents left with which to purchase said toilet paper (let’s not even get started on the retailer’s open hostility to credit cards here in Italy), I heard an odd voice squawking in Neapolitan dialect, “pretty lady... pretty lady…..” I felt, as I usually do when odd men call me princess on the mean streets of Napoli, both mildly irritated and shamefully validated. Who was the strange man that was “complimenting” me today. I turned around and with a startle, realized it was a grey parrot.
“Oh, don’t mind him,” said the store clerk, who then glared at the parrot, admonishing him in local dialect, “Bacco, be quiet, your bothering the white lady.” White lady that I am, I wasn’t about to turn down a perfectly good compliment even if it was from a parrot. “Grazie,” I told Bacco as I left the store, thinking Neapolitans, even the parrots are really such congenial folk. Next time I need a little confidence boost, I know where to go-to Bacco the parrot. Now if I could only get Bacco to fill that Klonopin prescription……
Insalata di Rinforzo (Reinforced Salad)
Serves 6 as a contorno
- 1 head cauliflower, cleaned and cut into medium florets
- 2 tablespoons salt packed capers, rinsed and dried
- 2 salt packed anchovies, rinsed, dried and finely minced
- ¼ cup pitted green olives, sliced in narrow strips
- ¼ cup pitted cured black olives, sliced in narrow strips
- 6 cornichon sliced lengthwise into quarters
- ½ pickled bell pepper sliced into narrow strips (if you live near an Italian market, look for Neapolitan papaccelle, a local pepper which is often exported to the United States around Christmas)
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil
- Once boiling, add cauliflower and cook for 5 minutes until barely cooked
- Place cauliflower in an ice bath and allow to cool
- Drain cauliflower in a colander and pat dry
- In a large bowl, mix cauliflower, capers, anchovies, black and green olives, cornichon, peppers, olive oil and vinegar
- Place salad into a hermetically sealed container and marinate for at least 24 hours and no more than 5 days
- Serve at room temperature as a side dish
Baccalà Fritto (Fried Cod)
Serves 4 as a primo
- 1lb salt cod, soaked in several changes of water for at least 48 hours
- 1 cup flour
- Sunflower oil for frying
- Rinse and drain cod and pat dry
- Remove the skin with a small paring knife
- Cut cod into 2” cubes
- Place oil into large wide brimmed frying pan enough to come up about 1”
- Heat oil over medium heat until roughly 325 degrees
- Dredge cod in flour, shaking off excess
- Gently place in cod in oil and fry until golden brown on all sides (about 6 minutes)
- Serve hot with lemon wedges