Coniglio all'ischitana (Ischia Rabbit)
I have come to a shocking conclusion: I sound like Dr. Phil. whenever I speak the local dialect. It is not that I am proffering sage advice to my small town Neapolitan compatriots. That rickety yola sailed off into stormy seas long ago when I realized these yokels prefer the counsel of more salubrious individuals, like Berlusconi or Don Corleone.
I am starting to sound like a Dr. Phyllis because I have adopted a new disturbing habit of speaking in ridiculous American clichés that prominently feature animals, and usually animals behaving badly. I imagine Dr. Phil confidently pontificating to a group of incestuous Arkansans getting ready to start the Atkins diet and finally quit the meth—You can’t wrastle a gator with out breakin’ into a back sweat. Or some other similarly vacant zoological aphorism that masquerades as wisdom. I laugh. I don’t speak that way. The electrically dulcet tones of my voice sound more like E.E. Cummings making love with Emily Dickinson.
Or not. I don’t know why but lately when faced with linguistic confusion or uncontrollable life drama, I resort to cliché. This is how it goes: bad thing happens such as 90 year old mother-in-law threatening to run away from home or family pig taking ill because nefarious neighbor conspiratorially fed him wood chips. All domestic hell breaks loose. Much shouting and chaos ensues. Two minutes of welcome silence pass. Kristin, in an act of yogic equanimity attempts to make a sage observation. She translates, “There is more than one way to skin a cat” into Neapolitan, adds some poetic flourish and says to nobody in particular, “Cats don’t just walk around naked.” Neighbors nominate her to be town poet laureate, and/or make arrangements to commit her to the Italian version of Bellevue, which, it being Italy would likely be known as Bella Vista. Sounds like a lovely sanatorium on the Amalfi Coast. I’ll take it.
Delusions of grandeur and aspirational insanity aside, I just can’t get enough of my cliché. Last week when discussing a stubborn old neighbor who refuses to build a new retaining wall for his crumbling property, I had a real zinger for Giuseppe: Don’t give advice to old dogs. Giuseppe looked at me dismissively, “We don’t take our dogs to psychiatrists in Napoli. Not like in America with your Cesare Sotto Voce.”
Yes, Giuseppe was referring to Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer as Cesare Sotto Voce. No, he did not understand the tacit intention of my newly translated cliché. All of this just led me to think of dogs going to psychiatrists and funny New Yorker cartoons perhaps featuring a bespectacled basset hound analyzing a schizophrenic chihuahua. Maybe I need to develop a new strategy for articulating my wry observations in Neapolitan.
For the sake of my linguistic integrity and the general comfort of my fellow citizens, I really am trying to come up with my own witty bon mots, not just the borrowed anthropomorphic axioms of complacent English.
But then, Friday was just such a lovely day for a cliché. Because we were going to buy a rabbit….for dinner. I am not generally a rabbit eater. We actually had two pet rabbits growing up: Sugar, whom our cat Mittens once famously chased into the swimming pool, and Benny who used to hump our father’s leg. Having had pet rabbits, I am generally less inclined to eat farm-raised rabbits. But then, when in Napoli….
The rabbit saga started last week when Giuseppe’s car broke down and we needed to pick up 10 kilos of quickly fermenting anchovies, which a fisherman had delivered to our cousin’s, uncle’s, cousin’s house. Giuseppe had made small talk in the piazza a few days prior with said fisherman, and had mentioned that if he happened upon a flock of fish, Giuseppe would be interested in some anchovies.
Unannounced, said fisherman delivered said fish (A LOT of it), but he did not have our address or telephone number so he dropped the bounty off at the nearest relative’s house. Somehow through the tin can telephone grape vine that still runs in our town, we found out about the delivery and so set off on foot to retrieve it.
As we tromped through Agerola, Saverio, a retired old butcher and former boxer offered us a ride. In the process, I felt stupid for having a butcher squire us around town with ten kilos of anchovies in tow, so being the free enterprise loving American that I am, I blurted out that perhaps we would like a rabbit for Sunday lunch. Quid pro quo right? But why I said rabbit???? And not something more pedestrian like a chicken or a flank steak is beyond me. It was too late to take back my words. Saverio would be slaughtering a rabbit for us on Friday. I had three days to find a suitable recipe and quash all memories of my beloved Sugar and Benny.
Saverio runs a sort of underground speak-easy of an abattoir these days. He used to have a brick and mortar shop in our main piazza but he gave the store to his daughter who now fittingly runs a rock climbing wall and outdoor apparel outlet there. Thusly, we had to go to Saverio’s house to pick up our rabbit on Friday morning. When we arrived, he proudly escorted me to several rows of cages and instructed me to select a rabbit. Much to my surprise, I would not be picking up my dead rabbit, but rather picking out my live rabbit, which he would slaughter al vivo!
This was some real farm to table shit. Thinking of how some Jivamukti yoga commando might scream at any time "rabbits are people tooooooo," I squeaked at Saverio, “anything is fine… any rabbit is fine.” There was no way I was picking out which rabbit needed to die that day. I didn’t want any blood on my hands, even if it was only bunny blood. With the casual banality of a trained assassin, Saverio yanked a rabbit out of the cage and I muttered what I promised would be my last psuedo-Neapolitan cliché ever--- “Quick like a bunny, velocemente come un coniglio” or in other words “Run……!”
Yesterday, I prepared coniglio all’ischitana for Sunday lunch. After marinating overnight in a mixture of white wine, rosemary, lemon and pepper, the rabbit reminded me less of Sugar and Benny and more of dinner. I followed the great rabbit preparation traditions of the island of Ischia to ensure that little thumper did not die in vain. I could be tempted to wax philosophical about circles of life and nourishment and respect for our food, but I will just say this: it was dinner and it was fucking delicious.
Thank you to the rabbit who ate nutritious pellets and grass and insects for in turn fueling this little organism that is ME. As you, my rabbit friend, cross into the threshold that is the next life, may you run “easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.” And thus concludes the story of how a butcher took me to a fishmonger and I ended up with a rabbit for Sunday lunch. I am absolutely done with this cliché business, but perhaps I should get into fable writing……
Coniglio all'Ischitana (Ischia Style Rabbit)
Serves 6 as a secondo
1 whole rabbit, butchered (if you prefer or don’t have a good rabbit butcher, you can use a whole butchered chicken)
3 sprigs rosemary (1 as whole sprig and 2 minced)
1 ½ bottles dry white wine (don’t bother cracking the Cakebread for this recipe)
½ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 dried hot pepper
1 tablespoon minced, fresh marjoram
8 oz grape tomatoes cut in half vertically
½ cup loosely packed basil, cut chiffonade style
Rub rabbit parts with salt, pepper and zest from one lemon
Place in bowl, add rosemary and cover with wine and juice from one lemon
Toss to thoroughly coat rabbit in wine/ lemon mixture and marinate in fridge overnight
Drain rabbit over colander and bring to room temperature
Place rabbit on platter and pat dry with paper towels
Heat olive oil with garlic cloves and dry pepper over medium flame in large cast iron skillet
When olive just reaches faint sizzle and garlic is barely blond, remove garlic and pepper (discard or reserve for other use)
Add rabbit parts to skillets and brown in batches, placing on paper towel lined skillet after each batch
When each rabbit part has reached a crisp golden brown, off heat and remove but all but two tablespoons olive oil from skillet.
Reheat skillet over medium, and add rabbit, 1 teaspoon salt, cracked pepper to taste, marjoram and rosemary
Toss rabbit to coat in aromatics and add remaining ½ bottle white wine
Bring to a boil, and reduce to simmer, cooking gently for 30 minutes as wine reduces
Add tomatoes, stir to incorporate and cook until tomatoes are softened for roughly 5 additional minutes
Add basil and stir to incorporate
Serve immediately, with bread of course!