Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs in Sauce)
Siena has the Sisyphits
About two weeks ago, I moved to Siena to complete a project. Living in Tuscany as an American transplant from Napoli confuses me and nearly every Tuscan I encounter. The single strangest source of confusion, antipathy even, is my accent. I had never realized how forcefully I spoke Italian- truncating words and peppering nearly every request, observation and enquiry with hyperbolic exclamations. Even more troubling, I had never fully grasped the extent to which I mixed Neapolitan with Italian, particularly when shopping at open air markets, of which there seem to be few in these Tuscan parts.
On my first day wandering around the hilltop town I anxiously sought a decent espresso. I had been to Siena before but it was early in my tenure as a resident of Italy- at a time when my neophyte palate still struggled to ferret out the great from the merely good. Within roughly twenty minutes of my latest arrival in Siena, I swiftly deduced that coffee here is terrible. Burnt, flaccid with no character, no texture, no depth, no verve. The same could be said for the Sienese people on further reflection.
The Sienese are a linear people. They are bankers of Etruscan extraction and while the Medieval town is old by new world standards, it lacks the decadent volcanic patina that characterizes Naples. While Greek mariners were visiting the Cumaean Sybil and divining their fates as the founders of a new greater Grecian civilization in Naples, the hairy Etruscans of Siena were likely still rubbing sticks together and triumphantly roasting chunks of protein. Siena was a nothing town during the height of the Roman Empire. Napoli was already a nearly 700 year-old bastion of cultural refinement when the native sons of Siena where still sucking a wolf's teet. But don’t tell a Sienese this. For he will quickly report to you that the oldest bank in the world is Monte dei Paschi di Siena. What he may fail to also tell you is that the oldest bank in the world, is also BANKrupt.
Taking the piss out of people who harbor deep-seated superiority complexes has always been a favorite pastime. I sharply perfected this skill at Georgetown while listening to blowhards recently returned from their Oxbridge study abroad experiences debate the finer points of Chaucer in Middle English and attempt to play cricket, yes fucking cricket, on the University’s front lawns. These were the kind of people I loved to loath. The same ones who called Fulbright scholarships the dummy grants. The same people who often tried and failed to win Rhodes scholarships after citing intramural cricket as their ‘sport.’ It was impossible to not enjoy just the faintest rush of Schadenfreude when these ding dong dandies failed to secure their scholarships.
I feel much the same in regards to the colossal failure that is the Monte dei Pascha di Siena bank. Ha fuckin ha. It is tempting to laugh as Sienese wipe their crocodile tears from their faces. The arc of history is long and it bends towards, god knows where- but one thing we know in Naples is that a little bankruptcy would never result in the same collective bumhurtedness we see here in Siena. We have bigger things to worry about- like volcanic eruptions, and whether San Gennaro’s blood will liquefy this year. And most importantly what we are eating for dinner, and desert and luncheon. If Sisyphus had been Neapolitan he would have been slaving over an open hearth. The Sienese, on the other hand seem to be experiencing one gigantic SisyFIT!
The Sienese are also curiously tied to their contradas. Each contrada, which are really just slivers of territory within the Medieval city walls has an animal mascot. Twice a year ten of these contradas compete in a quaint horse race- the Palio- around Piazza del Campo and the winner…..well I have never really figured out what the winner wins. I guess pride for the contrada. Over 10,000 people gather in the piazza twice a year to watch this thing. They dress up in period costume with the colors of their contrada and wait hours with no refreshment to cheer on a ten-minute race around a shell shaped track. Imagine 10,000 Neapolitans locked into a piazza for several summer hours with no access to toilet or tidbit feting some cute event straight out of Medieval Times. I dare say most Neapolitans, would fail to see the point. Most of us would prefer a day at the beach with a Nastro Azurro and a tarallo. Never say a Neapolitan isn’t pragmatic.
The effect of the contrada is that there are really two Sienas. There is the Siena that exists purely for touristic entertainment. This Siena happily sells souvenirs from Southern Italy to unsuspecting tourists. Limoncello, Graganano pasta, pizzas and bottled San Marzano tomatoes all decorate Siena’s store fronts. The shopkeepers who hawk these Neapolitan wares will also unironically tell you that Naples is hell- which in a literal sense is nearly true as the reported ancient entrance to hell is just outside of Naples at Lake Avernus. But I don’t think that’s what most Senesi are getting at when they call Naples an inferno.
The second Siena, the one which the Sienese inhabits is the contrada. This alternate world is hidden in plain sight and often decidedly closed off to the outside intruder. Some report that certain contradas- namely snail (chiocciola) are more open to outsiders and may even let a stranger enter their community hall. On the other hand, the caterpillar (bruco) is virtually impenetrable. A true contradaiolo, is born and baptized in the contrada. And the buck(or the caterpillar, or the wolf or the snail…..) stops there.
It is cute in away. If not for all the smugness that comes spewing forth from these Sienese. Perhaps it is the bubbling resentment towards Florence, stemming from 1555 when the Duchy of Florence took control of Siena. No love is lost between the two Tuscan towns- they supported opposing sides in the Guelf -Ghibelline wars and not much has changed since. When the Monti dei Paschi di Siena Bank failed the Sienese were quick to blame it on Northern Italian politicians. We’ve all heard that story before in Naples. Get used to it…. And yet for all the kvetching, Sienese still refer to Napoli as a posto di merda, a place of shit. It is good to see that the town’s fall from grace has resulted in a humble grounding in reality.
What strikes me most about Siena is its willful resistance to the outside world coupled with an intrinsic desire to be recognized for its singular greatness. Being an American of adopted Southern Italian provenance allows me access to conversations I would not otherwise encounter. The open disgust boarding on visceral revulsion towards Italy’s Mezzogiorno is almost comic. Then the mining for Made in Italy cultural tropes, all of which tend to come from the South- Pizza! Limoncello! Tarantella! to be sold by Sienese to foreigners is nothing short of cultural appropriation.
And let’s not even get started on the wine. The open hostility towards Campanian wine delights me to no end. The sureness with which Tuscans speak of the categorical superiority of their viticultural traditions to the exclusion of all others is precisely what is wrong with Italy da roma ‘ncoppa- from Rome on up. Why this zero sum outlook? Does Tuscan wine have to be superlatively excellent to the exclusion of all other wines? Campania in fact has more enological diversity than Tuscany and our grapes display an earthly minerality that is arguably more interesting than the more docile Brunello. But really who cares? Down South we aren’t too interested in whether you like our wine or not. We know it’s good. Take or leave it.
Dante, a Tuscan son, was fond of meting our curiously appropriate punishments to his victims in hell. And considering most Sienese consider Naples hell- I think that is a good place to start. Consign them all to an infinite loop of eating Margherita pizza and drinking Campania wine while sitting on Naple’s Lungomare gazing at Vesuvius. But that sounds entirely too heavenly. Let them have their contradas. And their chiantis. And there pici. I’ll take my bella Napoli every day, with Virgil as my guide and ragù my companion.
Polpette al Sugo
Serves four as a secondo
- 1 slice of country bread, crusts removed (save for making bread crumbs)
- ½ cup whole milk
- 1 lb ground beef
- 3 minced garlic cloves + 1 whole peeled clove
- 1 tablespoon minced parsley
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 tablsepoon oregano
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese
- 1 Egg
- 16 oz San Marzano tomato puree
- Soak bread in milk and mix with hands to form a loose pulp
- Mix beef, bread mixtures, garlic, parlsey, pepper flakes, salt, pepper and cheese with hands
- Beat egg with a fork and add to beef mixture
- Roll into balls about 1” in diamter
- Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat
- Brown meatballs batches on all sides, careful not to overcrowd
- As each batch finishes browning set aside on platter
- When finished browning meatballs, remove excess oil from dutch oven
- Still on medium heat, add whole garlic clove, a swish around to release essential oils (no more than 20 seconds or it will scorch)
- Add tomato puree, salt, pepper, oregano
- Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer
- Add browned meatballs back into tomato sauce and simmer for two hours
- Serve warm as a secondo with a garnish of parsley and cheese (add basil in summer). If you like, you can toss cooked penne or ziti in tomato sauce and you have a pasta primo and meatball secondo. Please refrain from serving meatballs with the pasta--- no si fa!!!!