All in Secondi

Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs in Sauce)

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. 

Baccalà Fritto (Fried Cod)

Christmas Eve in Naples is all about fish and lots of it.  While this whole concept of seven fish seems to be distinctly and Italian American thing, we do eat fish in its myriad forms on Christmas Eve.  The logic for this being that we should be abstaining from meat to recall the birth of Jesus.  Obviously gavaging ourselves with 15 kilos of seafood should really do the trick. 

The most common dishes on Christmas Eve often include antipasti of marinated and fried fish, kelp fritter and maybe just a touch of good mozzarella (Although not all on the same plate. Fish + Cheese = BAD in Italy).  For primi we often have Spaghetti all Vongole (Spaghetti with Clams) or Risotto al Pescatore (Seafood Risotto).  

For main dishes or secondi, we enjoy fish both baked and fried.  Generally we bake Orata, Brazino or Spigola (Sea Bass) aqua pazza style with tomatoes, parsley, garlic and olive oil.  And then comes the fried fish.  After soaking salt cod for days, we pat, flour and deep fry.

Pollo alla Cacciatore

Anxious to impress her with my culinary prowess, I blabbered about browning the meat first and slowly braising it in tomatoes.  She silently nodded her head and declared, “why don’t you do the cacciatore your way and I do it my way and we’ll see what the family thinks.” In a swift move, she had thrown down the only gauntlet a bored, angry housewife in a place with no there, there knew how to throw.  We were having a chicken off. And the fifteen members of the family would be our judges. 

Parmigiana Bianca di Zucchine (White Zucchini Parmesan)

This morning on a trip to the market, I bought 2 kilos of zucchini for 2 euro.  Batch by fucking batch, I grilled those zucchini and thought about that day at Georgetown years ago.  It is hard not to feel nostalgic for the days in which the most interesting thing about myself that I could think of was that I liked sushi.  And yet I sigh with the satisfaction. I am in Napoli, grilling zucchini and making lunch. 

Spezzatino con Piselli (Stewed Beef and Peas)

Then I remembered I had about 4 kilos of fresh peas to shuck.  I also remembered something somebody like Dr. Weil or Lao Tzu or Dr. Phil or Dr. Seuss once said about keeping your hands busy with something productive when anxiety strikes.  And while I was unsure of the provenance of this sage advice, I am pretty sure that the intended activity was not freebasing aspirin and furiously typing outlandish word combinations into 21st century search engines.  Fucking envelope. Fucking post office.   Fucking peas.  I shucked and contemplated.  It almost felt as if I were reciting a novena, peas in place of the rosary. 

Braciole Napoletane (Beef Rolls)

Braciole, a dish of braised meat rolls, is typically served on Sundays.  It is essentially two dishes in one with the residual red sauce tossed in rigatoni or penne to serve as a primo and the meat rolls served as a secondo.  It bears noting that in the North, braciole is a grilled pork chop.  In Napoli, braciole universally refers to a thin cutlet of beef stuffed with garlic, parsley, pine nuts, raisins, pancetta and Parmesan and then slowly braised in a tomato sauce.  I have seen this dish stuffed with breadcrumbs in the United States, which I consider both foolish and sacrilege but to each his own.

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.

Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan)

When I first arrived in Agerola, Giuseppe liked to go around telling people that I was a “great cook,” which in retrospect was just about the most ridiculous thing he could say about me. I remember a man I worked with in Washington who once told me, referring to his wife, “Oh Hillary is a great cook.” This same man later invited me over for dinner, probably so that he could later gloat that Hillary was indeed a great cook!!!! 

For some reason beyond my current comprehension, I actually accepted this man’s invitation to sample Hillary’s great cooking.  Upon arriving at their home (yes, you guessed it, they lived in suburban Virginia), I quickly learned that this Hillary lady was a ‘HUGE’ fan of Food Network chef Melissa d’Arabian. Unsurprisingly our night’s feast featured a full menu exactingly prepared according to Ms. d’Arabian’s much touted testament to parsimony: Ten Dollar Dinners.  I don’t even recall what we ate that night.  It was uninspired, but not exactly bad.  I am sure that Hillary prepared everything according to Ms. d’Arabian’s precise instructions. What I do know is that the pièce de résistance of the evening was pot de crème and that Hillary spent the entire evening proudly trilling the words ‘pot de crème’ as if she were a modern day Charles de Gaulle (or a current day Stéphane Bern).  It’s just fucking custard I thought to myself.  I was never invited back for another ten dollar dinner, and I’m not complaining.  They served Cupcake Chardonnay, which was probably out of budget.

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 waters long ago when I realized these yokels prefer the counsel of more salubrious individuals, like Berlusconi or Don Corleone.  No, 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.

Frittata con Rucola

The frittata isn’t fancy—though the word has a nice ratatata ring to it.   There is also nothing particularly creative about the humble frittata.  It is simply a dish made at the last minute for a hungry family, or carried to the beach for a convenient picnic.  In my case, it is usually a “meal” consumed in a frenzy after returning home from a long day at the beach, and a several hours on a public bus.  Lately, I have been adding arugula because it grows wild like a weed in our garden, and given all of the time spent in beaches and busses, I can’t be bothered to grocery shop.  We have literally been reduced to eating garden weeds and breakfast for dinner due to my housewifely negligence.. This week has been no different. 

Vitello con funghi spugnole (Veal and Morels)

I seem to have developed the curious local habit of never leaving the house without a busta—plastic bag.  After ridding our house of hundreds of hoarded plastic bags, I now can’t seem to get enough of them, and there is chiefly one reason for that— food foraging. It pains me to admit that I am now not only a bag lady, but also a forager.  Food foraging has become a somewhat twee, overly precious pastime in the much of the world thanks to the rise of René Redzepi and the reign of hipsters

Like many pesky habits, my food foraging developed so gradually, that I failed to realize what was happening.  In Washington, my good friend Kareem and I liked to nance around Logan Circle with kitchen sheers, furtively snipping rosemary out of other peoples gardens.  We weren’t serious ‘foragers.’ We just couldn’t bear to purchase overpriced herbs at the Whole Foods so we pounced around our urban jungle gossiping about who we saw at the gym and what we would make for dinner, all the while snipping rosemary from public parks and private gardens.

And then I moved to Italy.

Carciofi Ripieni

Sometimes when we are out in public, Giuseppe pretends not to know me. Such occasions have occurred in public busses, ferries to Capri, airports, shopping malls and most recently, the misleadingly named electronics store, Expert, in Castellammare di Stabia.  These events usually follow the same arc: I sense general Neapolitan chaos is about to erupt; Giuseppe tells me to calm the f*ck down; I develop an imperious American attitude; Giuseppe walks away and whistles ‘o sole mio; I loose all grip on reality and respond to said chaos in much the same way Joan Crawford responds to the Pepsi Boardroom in Mommie Dearest…’Don't fuck with me fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo.’

After a hair-raising drive down the Napoleon Route and through the Maritime Alps, Giuseppe and I arrived in Sanremo two days ago. Our half-baked travel planning resulted in a screwy journey through slushy conditions 1800 meters above sea level in the height of winter.  We had no snow chains, but we did have according to my count: exactly two bottles of Riesling, four walnuts and a block of foie gras.

Around the time my butt warmer stopped working and our old BMW convertible started swerving, I wondered if we might have a little Donner party situation on our hands. Giuseppe invoked the name of Saint Rita.  I contemplated fashioning a shiv out of a twig in the car.  And somehow, aided by Saint Rita, cigarillos and the plaintive crooning of Serge Gainsborg, Giuseppe maneuvered the car out of the Alps and finally to Grasse. 

 read a lot of cookbooks as a child.  We only had five and they were like crack to me.  There was a Better Homes & Gardens cookbook from circa 1970. It was covered in clumps of dried flour (also likely from 1970) and had a prominent soy sauce stain after my childhood attempt at making rumaki. Why a seven year old wanted to make a dish consisting of chicken livers and water chestnuts is beyond me. I just knew I always wanted to order it from the local Chinese restaurant Gongs, and my mother would not allow it.  We didn’t eat chicken livers in our house. So I took matters into my own hands.  There was another book I remember well.  I believe it was zealously titled 1,802 Ways to Make Chicken Breast.  I tried cooking from that book.  I never really liked it.

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.