All in Primi


Tuscan and Neapolitan cuisine are natural cousins.  Both hark back to days of poverty in their use humble, oft-discarded ingredients.  Both feature beans prominently. Both do weird things with offal, although that is true for nearly every Italian region.  Nowhere is the cucina povera link more apparent then with the peasant dish of ribollita.  Literally meaning, re-boiled, ribollita utilizes a mish-mash of ingredients that may have found their fates in rubbish bins were in not for the ingenuity of Tuscan home cooks in leaner times. The most compelling use of an otherwise discarded food would of course be stale bread.  Every region in Italy has its own take on stale bread usage.  This Tuscan version is among the most famous abroad.  Strangely a bastard cousin of ribollita is often called Tuscan White Bean Soup on generic restaurant menus in the United States  The resulting dish is a flaccid and less nutritious version of the original and oddly includes entirely too much pancetta.  Ribollita it is not. 

Scarole e Fagioli (Escarole and White Beans)

I could walk for days in Napoli.  Down the Pedementina stairs, past the Pignasecca market through the centro storico, under the streets and even out the city gates.  As I walk, I smell the town.  It is easy to detect who is making stuffed peppers or Genovese or friarielli.  Sometimes I wonder if I hang around below a barred apartment window for long enough whether an ancient nonna in house slippers and curlers might invite me for luncheon.  Mercifully, I still retain a few shreds of dignity and have thusly not allowed this to happen.  YET.

Zuppa di Castagne e Fagioli (Chestnut and Bean Soup)

Gym behavior in Naples is really not unlike gorilla behavior in the wild.  The old ladies in cat pajamas are the gorilla gals that pick nits out of some old man monkey’s scalp.  She probably eats the same nits when no one’s looking… don’t be judging these nit snackers or cat pajama wearers. They mean well, plus their doctor told them to do it. The middle-aged ball sack stranglers are barely bipedal and like to smack their own asses and grunt a lot.  Give them a smart phone at your own risk. The painted ladies roll around in grassy patches with come hither stares and jiggling breasts.  I guess that means Peppe is the monkey that throws poop?

Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)

I wanted a caipirinha and feijoada and Ipiranga and Sao Joao.  But then again, I was in Napoli.  I had Aglianico and ragù and all of these crazy people running around town fretting about laundry, public transport strikes and the upcoming soccer match against Real Madrid. I continued singing Águas de Março. If I couldn’t have feijoada than I would make pasta fasule. My Paulistano past and my Napolitano present didn’t seem so dissonant after all. 

Minestra Maritata

Minestra Maritata gave rise to what Americans call “Italian Wedding Soup.”  This soup is not in fact served at weddings.  Maritata means married in Italian and refers to the married flavors of rich meat broth and bitter wintergreens.  This is dish is typical of Napoli’s characteristic coquina povera (poor man’s cuisine) and is often served on the Christmas Day.  I served it a week late because as mentioned, I had no electricity for the Christmas holiday.  You will notice that I add little meatballs or polpettine.  In Naples this is uncommon, however in Agerola it is preferred.  Serve as you wish.

Spaghetti alle Vongole (Spaghetti and Clams)

Spaghetti alle vongole is a Neapolitan staple and Christmas classic.  It is for that reason I set out to make this dish after my recent visit to Porta Nolana. There are two critical decisions once must make when preparing the dish: whether or not to shell half of the clams and whether or not to serve “macchiato” or “stained” with tomatoes.  I really happen to like the aesthetic vibrancy of the added tomatoes.  It is a matter of personal preference.  As with every time I prepare spaghetti alle vongole, I enjoyed this dish with a glass of greco di tufo wine and lots of bread.  Perhaps the most delicious ritual in these parts is the performance of the time-honored ritual of scarpetta, mopping up residual sauce with a little shoe of bread.  There is no better dish for scarpetta than spaghetti alle vongole.  And there is no better way to conclude a bella jurnata a Napule.  

Scialatielli con Gamberi e Zucchine (Pasta with Shrimp and Zucchini)

This year I spent yet another uneventful Fourth of July in Agerola, which now makes it the third consecutive year that I have been outside America for the holiday.  As it were, in addition to being the heralded anniversary of America’s independence from Britain, the Fourth of July also marks my independence from America or rather the date on which I left my native country to ridiculously establish my life as an “ex-patriot” in Italy.  Two years ago, I was en route to Napoli, Italia.  And as it seems that my invitation to Taylor Swift’s Fourth of July party was lost in the mail, I have spent the day reflecting, somewhat nostalgically, on just what sort of mad woman I must have been to leave a perfectly nice life in Washington, DC to live in Agerola, crazy-town, Napoli, Italia.

Fusilli Con Fave (Pasta and Favas)

"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate"- DANTE

Renovating a house is trying in the best of circumstances. Renovating a house in the South of Italy is chaos, not even controlled chaos, just chaos.  Tiles go missing.  Parts of wall fall from the ceiling.  Artisans come and go according to their own indecipherable schedules. Occasionally doors get left open and stray dogs wander into the house, albeit it with more regularity than the local craftsmen. All of this means that I have unwittingly become part project manager, part zookeeper.  Or as my by old boss used to trill when I worked in the federal government, "It's like herding cats around here." More depressingly, when I tell friends I am renovating an old house on the Amalfi Coast, they often imagine Under the Tuscan Sun.  My situation is more akin to another book that loosely takes place in Italy: Dante’s Inferno.  I occasionally imagine dipping local craftsman into vats of cement, meting out my punishment Dante style.

Frittata di Maccheroni (Fried Pasta Cake)

It is not often my mother-in-law praises my cooking.  Generally she is of the school of thought that I use too much olive oil and not enough pig fat, my pasta is too al dente, and my use of black pepper too ribald. Yesterday was a rare exception and I continue to savor the simple words of praise (?), “Cristina…this dish is not so terrible after all…..”

Of course the dish was not so terrible because I followed mamma’s recipe precisely and occasionally let her take over when she guffawed, “oh, just let me do it.”  We were making Savory Pastiera, a noodle cake of sorts that is so thoroughly Agerolese it could be emblazoned on the city seal and offered the town key. 

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti, Garlic and Olive Oil)

We don’t eat meat during holy week in our house (or at least if we do, we do it in secret where mamma can’t see us).  Yesterday, Giuseppe made the mistake of scarfing down a piece of salami and we are all paying the piper now.  We are also technically not supposed to work during holy week, but with a house under construction, we have no choice but to bend the rules a little bit. It is entirely possible our names are written on naughty list somewhere.

So with hungry mouths to feed and penance to pay, we eat the classic spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil) every afternoon the week before Easter.

Orecchiette con Broccoli e Salsiccia (Pasta with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage)

In Italy, we often say, “Marzo è pazzo….March is crazy.” My adopted hometown of Agerola is particularly neurotic the entire month of March.  Gale force winds blow up from costal Amalfi to create cyclones of plastic recyclables, vineyard trellises, garden vegetables… It rains for days. Then a glimpse of sublime sun might peak above our mountains only to fade again and leave us to our seasonal depression.

Last week we had especially operatic weather.  With fierce winds tearing through Agerola, Giuseppe’s mother woke up uncharacteristically early one morning, stalked into the kitchen and shouted, “Where are my sausages?” I struggled for a moment to grasp why she woke at 7am (her usual wake-up time is roughly noon) to determine the location of a missing, but apparently treasured pork product. 

Zuppa di Porcini (Porcini Soup)

Tuscany always gets the romantic treatment. Americans love Tuscan sun, wine, hills, olive oil….  Tuscany is a magic word in America and especially at silly restaurants where the word ‘Tuscan’ is used to sex up uninspired menu options in a pinch.

I often have to remind myself that Tuscany is a special word in my native lands.  Not because I don’t find Tuscany beautiful, (it is beautiful) but because Tuscany is usually the site of epic road trip meltdowns for Giuseppe and me.  Generally by the time we reach Tuscany, we have been in the car for eight hours and we start realizing Tuscany is big, like really big. 

I am a food romantic.  Before venturing to a new destination, I envision what typically regional dish I will eat, what sort of carefully paired spirit (there always seems to be some sort of alcohol involved in these ruminations) I will enjoy with said dish and most importantly what kind of effortless characteristic ambiance will surround me as I eat.  At times this overly calibrated romantic approach to dining leads to my inevitable disappointment or bemusement. 

Around the beginning of the New Year, I generally feel that I am the ideal candidate for bankruptcy and/or gastric bypass surgery.  And for some unknown reason my desire for financial and dietary parsimony translates into my cooking dishes that consist largely of dried beans.  Last year I overzealously purchased 10 pounds of dried black beans at a cheap Mexican bodega and then mostly forgot about their existence for the rest of the year.  Then when I was preparing to move from my apartment, I cooked those black beans for days on end in efforts to rid myself of them.  Giuseppe said I was turning into a Tuscan ‘mangiafagioli.’ Tuscans are famous for the adoration of beans. And so am I.

I am stuck in Grenoble now and the past week has been cold, rainy and somnolent. I miss the South of Italy! Aside from offering the exciting opportunity to wear my new electric orange Hunter rain boots, the grey weather has made it impossible to enjoy venturing outdoors.  Yesterday, I could not bring myself to leave the house in search of market ingredients. Instead, I decided to make this quick risi bisi style soup, and then watch ten consecutive episodes of Downton Abby. It was just that kind of day. Meaning ‘rice and peas’ in local dialect, risi e bisi is a culinary classic throughout Venice.

In Naples, it is a sin to throw food away!  What remains from left over dishes in Giuseppe's family,  is either turned into new dishes (such as this Pasta al Forno) or fed to the family pig, which we turn into prosciutto every winter.  The family pig and I are on tenuous terms ever since I accidentally fed him a metal spoon several months ago so I prefer to take the former tract, and make Pasta al Forno.  Plus, why should the pig enjoy my lovingly braised ragu when all he does is glare and snort at me (I shall very much enjoy our winter sausage this year).  If you too suffer the same predicament, or don't happen to have a family pig, I suggest you make this recipe for Pasta al Forno.

Ragù alla Napoletana (Sunday Sauce)

The first time I experienced Neapolitan Ragu was after attending a three hour long Sunday procession of the Madonna in Naples.  While I enjoyed the mass, this dish felt like the ultimate reward for my three hours of Sunday penance parading behind a very large, disturbingly life-like statue of the Virgin Mary.  Ragu is a typical Sunday dish throughout Southern Italy, and now that I have learned to make it, Giuseppe and his family have entrusted me with its preparation every Sunday. Of course what they don't realize is that making this dish is the perfect excuse for not attending three hour long masses.  I make the Ragu with Giuseppe's 88 year old mother and we watch mass on TV.  It's the perfect solution for everyone. The family eats, and thanks to the national television broadcast of Sunday mass in Italy, my eternal soul is not in jeopardy.