The complex historical events of this region justify on the one hand the French and Spanish influences in the preparation of the dishes eaten at the dining tables of the rich, dishes which were very showy, very striking in their appearance and often not very nourishing; on the other hand, they are also a justification of the cuisine of the poor, the one reserved for the population at large, with plenty of vegetables and dairy products, but where meat is almost non existent and fish is reserved for feasts.
This is a region in which the poor were truly poor and the rich led a pleasure-filled life in the palaces and castles of the noblemen as well as, of course, in the court of the Kingdom. Over the centuries, it has had a cuisine divided by wealth, without the possibility of reciprocal influences and entrusted to the fantasy of the poor people on the one hand, and to the great chefs on the other.
The only common element was the large number of dishes which were elaborated over the centuries, making the cuisine of the Campania Region particularly rich in dishes which are the fruit of invention as far as the poor are concerned, and of great abundance as far as regards the rich.
This latter finds space in the historical texts written in Italy above all in the 1400’s and in the Renaissance. Indeed, Cristoforo di Messisbugo was such a writer who, although probably born in Flanders in the first decades of the XVI century, was working as a steward at the court of the Estensi; his reputation was such to merit being created Conte Palatino by Carlo V (January 1533).
In the section of his Work dedicated to recipes, we find foods of various origins, amongst which also those of the Neapolitan cuisine, foremost being the macaroni. In fact, he writes: «To make ten plates of Neapolitan style macaroni». «Take eight pounds of the best flour, and the soft, internal bread of a large boffetto loaf, soaked in rose water, and four fresh eggs, and four ounces of sugar; and mix all well together, and make your pasta, kneading it for a little time. Then you will make sheets which should be quite thick rather than thin and you will cut them into narrow and long strips; and you will lay them so that they keep their shape. Then you will cook them in a fatty, boiling broth, and you will arrange them in plates or on top of capons or ducks or others, with sugar and cinnamon inside and on top. And for the days of fish, you will cook them in water without butter, or with fresh butter, if you wish».
Regarding the historical notes concerning the wines of this area, it is worth taking note of the letter from Sante Lancerio (who lived in the XVI century) to the cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza, which speaks of the nature and the quality of the wines.
Amongst those mentioned, many come from the area around Naples. Such as the «Greco
di Somma», the «Greco di Posilico (= Posillipo)», the «Greco d'Ischia», the «Greco di Torre» etc. There is an interesting exert regarding the «Vino Sucano»: «It comes to Rome on the backs of mules and pack animals. Such wines are for the most part red, and it is a truly perfect wine both for the winter and for the summer. Sucano is a small castle two miles away from Orvieto, and, after the Monterano wine, no drink equals it as a red wine. These wines are fragrant, beautiful and of good substance, more than the Monterano, but they do not have much body. For their perfection, they must be fragrant, beautiful and not sour. There are some whites which are very adapt for the winter , with a vein of sweetness, but they should be biting, not full flavoured or matrosi. If a red is desired for the summer, the wine can be taken young, and from an old vine, as the old vine has the property that if it makes a sweet wine, this is maintained, and if it makes a dry one, it is maintained; wine from young vines does the opposite. S.S. (his holiness) enjoyed drinking of this wine, especially when he was in Orvieto. The captain Jeronimo Benincasa (= an unidentified historical character; probably an official of the Curia at the time of Paolo III) kept a good stock and had it brought to Rome and on his journeys».
After these, comes the «Il Mangiaguerra» (‘the War-eater’) so called because it was very strong, «The wine from Salerno», the «Vino Santo di San Severino» and the «Vino Aglianico». A plentiful production which witnesses to the fertility of this land and to the wine producing capability of its inhabitants.
Lancerio, in describing these wines, also supplies us with news concerning the reality of the Kingdom of Naples: talking of the Fistigno wine, he writes: «It is red and comes from the Kingdom of Naples, from a place above the Somma mountain. This wine known as Fistignano relative to the kind or the vine of the grape. In this place, there are grassy vines and very red and sweet grapes, and the wine made is mature and sweet and full of colour. There are also some dry kinds which are excellent wines. For their perfection, they must be full of colour and be strong, that is of good substance, neither weak or watery, or matroso, and above all they must have body. S.S. enjoyed drinking these wines and praised them. The best wine made is the possession of Mons. Domenico Terracina, but it rarely comes to Rome because the Viceroys want it for themselves, and it is certainly a good drink».
In the same years, lived Bartolomeo Scappi who also refers to Neapolitan cuisine in his Work when, for example, he gives the recipe «For making royal pigeon pie, called by the Neapolitans pizza di bocca di dama (‘lady’s mouth pizza’)» or «For making pie with different substances, called by the Neapolitans pizza» which, however, has nothing to do with the famous pizza which, in the twentieth century, has had so much success all over the world. In fact, he wrote: «Take six ounces of trimmed ambrosine almonds and four ounces of trimmed, soaked pine nuts and three ounces of fresh, stoned dates and three ounces of fresh figs, three ounces of seeded muscat grapes and crush all in the mortar, wetting at times with rosewater so that a paste is obtained; add to these substances eight raw egg yolks, six ounces of sugar, one ounce of crushed cinnamon, one ounce and a half of powdered Neapolitan mostaccioli muschiati cakes, four ounces of rosewater; and all these must be mixed together, line the pie tin with a layer of royal pastry of the correct thickness, and put the mixture into the pie tin, mixed with four ounces of butter, making sure that it is not higher than one finger’s width, and without covering it, cook it in the oven and serve hot and cold as preferred. In this pizza one can put every type of dressing».
Towards the end of the Sixteen hundreds, ‘Lo scalco alla moderna’ (‘The modern steward’) by Antonio Latini, from the Marche region, would appear to signal the end of the hegemony exercised by Italian gastronomic literature, and to represent, due to a mysterious awareness of the Author, the «sum» of all the previous literature, from the introduction of humanistic gastronomy to Messisburgo’s, Panunto’s, Scappi’s, Cervio’s and Stefani’s treatises, to mention just the most important, of the Renaissance age. It is recounted by the sheer bulk of the treatise and is better borne witness to in the summary of the topics which lists «the art of arranging a banquet well», «the most important rules of stewardism», «the easiest and most dignified method of carving», of roasting, of making boiled meats, stews, soups, morselletti cakes, broth, fried foods, pies, tarts, pizzas, sauces, flavourings, vinegars, preserves, «how to make a centre-piece», «to lay well a banquet table», «to know the quality levels» of the single foods together with the name of their «inventors», as well as a catalogue of fruits and wines which leads, in the second part, to a treatise regarding the preparation of dishes for meatless days.
This author also refers to Neapolitan cuisine, proposing, for example, the «di foglia soup Neapolitan style» upon which he dwells with a number of specifications. «Although I have made no mention of this in the composite dishes, I believe it better to put it into the section of soups, since it is exquisite and very much in use. Take a hen and boil together with the cow, when this is more than half cooked, so that the hen will not come apart; and put in salted pork tongues, but which have been boiled, salted meat, which has been previously soaked, a soppressata (= a type of salami which has been pressed between two wooden boards), a piece of fillet, a piece of pork ‘ventresca’, large bones, annoglio (= or anduglia, from the French andouille, a type of sausage stuffed with small pieces of meat and finely chopped intestines), a piece of beaten lard with its salt, in proportion; and when the afore-mentioned things are cooked, you will put the broth which has been collected into a pan, cutting the afore-mentioned things into slices and the hen or capon; keeping everything to one side, you will put one third of the afore-mentioned sliced things into the broth, and then you will add pumpkins and onions stuffed to the top with minced veal with egg yolks, a little crustless bread soaked in the broth, raisins, pine nuts, at the correct time, verjuice grapes and the mixture that you have made will be used for stuffing the afore-mentioned things, with the usual spices and aromatic herbs. You may also add lettuce of stuffed escarole; the other meat which remains, you will arrange tidily in the saucepan or in another receptacle, interspersed with slices of stuffed fianchetto beef, with previously boiled udder, sausage broken in half and skinned, thin slices of Parmesan cheese, mushrooms from Genova, first desalted and boiled with large bones, making sure that the broth is good, that it will be a good tasting soup and that can be made in any convivial meeting and will always result as being tasty if the afore-mentioned rules are observed; and many times I have brought this soup to the table with the whole saucepan which gives a good show and betters the flavour and it can be divided between the plates».
And he continues to instruct us as follows «To make half a barrel of acqua di passi (raisin water), so-called in Naples». «You will take sixteen pounds of duracina raisin grapes, you will crush them diligently; after you have crushed them, you will put them into a half-barrel, keeping a prepared cauldron of water on the fire and when it boils well, you will pour it into the half-barrel, closing it up well and rolling it a number of times over and over in order that the raisins mix together; then you will leave it to stand beside the fire for a day and a night; then, you will place it facing towards the north, in a place out of the sun and after eight or ten days, depending on how cold it is, it can be ready to drink since it will have taken on a spicy flavour. This water is good for chest affections and is cordial; it can be drunk freely, without fear of injury; it should be made in the winter against the cold.».
With the XVII century, French cuisine exerts its predominance over the Italian cuisine, something which may also be deduced from the gastronomic dictionary of the great chefs like the Neapolitan Vincenzo Corrado (1734-1836); although revealing great loyalty to the traditional practise of Italian cuisine, in his work ‘Il cuoco galante’ (‘the gallant chef’), he does not disdain the use of French terms, at times Italianising them at the cost of compromising their comprehension.
In this work we find a great number of Neapolitan recipes such as those for the timbales, the vegetables, fish and game with various proposals such as, for example, how to cook thrush: «The meat of these birds has an excellent flavour; in fact, it is considered to be the best amongst bird meat. The season for them begins in the month of October and lasts right up to January.
Roast thrush. The most tasty food which can be made with thrushes is to roast them in various ways; that is, wrapped in pig’s caul fat or covered with slices of lard or with prosciutto and bay leaves or, lastly, adorned with oil and lemon juice and then served with caper sauce. They can also be roasted alla parmigiana, greased well with butter and served with a crust of Parmesan cheese.
Imboracciati (= dipped in breadcrumbs and fried). Blanche the thrushes in broth, cut off the wings and the feet, then flour them, dip in egg and roll in breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, fry them and serve with fried sage placed around them.
Alla villana. The thrushes are stewed with a good meat sauce, a hint of garlic, bay leaves, sage and thyme; served with prosciutto sauce and finely chopped shallots
Alla fiorentina. The thrushes are cooked in beef broth with garlic and bay leaves, they are served with a coulis of white beans in which there is spinach sautéed in butter.
Per entremets. The thrushes are cooked in wine with bay leaves, cinnamon and whole cloves and afterwards are served cold with a sauce of raisins and malvasia».
But we should certainly not forget the precious preparations offered to us by Francesco Leonardi in his ‘L'Apicio moderno’, a true gastronomic encyclopaedia, tidily divided between six volumes and preceded by an introduction in which, for the first time, a history of Italian cuisine is outlined; it is reconstructed from the Roman epoch up to the times of the Author, crossing through the moments of its greater fortune – during the Renaissance age – and through the successive regression until its definition through the hegemony exercised by French gastronomy. The author, «chef to Her Imperial Highness Catherine II Empress of all the Russias», displays considerable experience of foreign cuisines, not only Russian, but also Polish, Turkish, German, English and French. These are widely documented in his recipe book and in the large catalogue of foreign wines; but, at the same time, he makes a point of showing his interest in recording the gastronomic customs of the various Italian regions and cities, thus supplying us with a rich repertory on the subject.
From Neapolitan cuisine, he mentions the «Zuppa di ogni sorte d'erbe alla napolitana» (‘Soup of every kind of herb Neapolitan style’), and also the rissole (= fritters) and many other dishes well known to him.
It is only with the work titled ‘La nuova cucina economica’ (‘New economic cuisine’) by Vincenzo Agnoletti that we begin to take into consideration the poorer cuisine of all the Italian regions, and a version of the Neapolitan pizza which is reminiscent of the one which we all know: «When you have made a pastry like the Easter one (= a kind of short pastry), but with one pound of lard and one pound of sugar, you will mix slices of prosciutto ham, caciocavallo cheese, ventresca and provature (= fresh cheeses made with buffalo milk); and so you will make the pizza and you will cook it like all the others».
Whereas, for the rural pizza, he suggests: «When you have put the yeast with two pounds of flour, after ten hours you will add another two pounds, four eggs, four ounces of sugar, a little salt, ten ounces of lard, warm water as necessary and slices of provatura cheese, prosciutto or ‘ventresca’. And so you will make the pizza and when it has risen, cook it and serve it as usual. This pastry may also be made without eggs».
Another recipe which appears in this work is that of the «zeppole (= crostoli) di semolella (= of semolina dough) Neapolitan style», a type of fritters fried in lard and sprinkled with sugar.
Today, the differentiation between opulent cuisine and popular cuisine is almost non-existent; many dishes have disappeared with the evolution of taste and the shortening of the distances of different tastes and the economic possibilities between the various classes of the population, although it is often not particularly difficult to reconstruct the derivation of certain preparations.
Neapolitan cuisine, so bright, imaginative and spectacular, did not shirk from the rule of being included in literature: writers such as Matilde Serao, Giuseppe Marotta, Eduardo De Filippo, poets such as Salvatore Di Giacomo have immortalised dishes and inventions, as protagonists and characters. Thus, to speak of Neapolitan cuisine (which sums up that of the whole region) without citing these illustrious names is almost impossible; what more to say of «ragù» (meat sauce) after Marotta dedicated one of the most memorable chapters of the ‘Oro di Napoli’ to it? A traditional preparation, for Sundays or, however, for feast days, this sauce which, together with the pizza, is at the apex of Parthenopean gastronomy, requires, in the first place, an interminable cooking time. «Right from the first hours of the morning, a tender steam takes leave of the terracotta pots in which onion is turning golden and the small stalk of basil, just picked, exhales its noble essences on the window sill». Thus begins the small poem in prose which Don Peppino dedicates to the incomparable sauce which will dress what in Naples is the real heart of any meal: the pasta. In order that the result be what it should be, and not just common meat with tomato, the ragù meat sauce should never be left on its own at any stage of its cooking, because «a neglected ragù ceases to be a ragù and, indeed, loses any possibility of becoming one». The meat, which is at the base of the recipe, is chosen with care – neither too lean nor too fat –, it is put into the saucepan, being controlled as it browns on the outside and the first layer of tomato sauce is spread over it. Others follow «at scientific intervals», and so the heat and the spoon come into play: the first, very low, the second with expertise, sensitive to understanding the moment in which to intervene. And finally, here is the steaming pot, ready for the table, and the red and aromatic ragù which «throbs in the macaroni like blood in the».
At the base of this, as we have seen, there is an ingredient which merits a mention in its own right, and this is the tomato. Bright, full of vitamins, easily united with a thousand other flavours, the obvious question which comes to mind is how it was possible to do without it for so many centuries. The use of the tomato is, in fact, a relatively recent development: it arrived in Europe, and hence in Italy, from Peru or Mexico after the discovery of America and, for two centuries, it was ignored from the alimentary point of view. It can be found mentioned for the first time in 1743 in a song for Carnival, but it is only between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries that it became a common ingredient to many recipes and its cultivation spread to become one of the most important in Campania.
In Naples – it has been said – the tomato is "half a religion"; the quality is certainly excellent and its use very widespread. In Naples, the food preservation industry has developed which has brought the famous "pelati" and the tomato "concentrate" throughout the world. There are many ways of preserving tomatoes at home, from bottling them, cut into pieces or puréed so that they can always be ready for the most various uses, to the famous "conserva" in which the tomato is cooked at length until it becomes a dark red and velvety cream.
Fresh and juicy tomatoes are perfect on a pizza because their flavour unites in a wonderful harmony with that of the mozzarella and the anchovies. The pizza, the most famous creation of Neapolitan cuisine, is an invention which is even more remote than the epoch of the tomato, in fact, it is one of the most ancient. A first type of pizza was made in Roman times and it was a kind of flat bread made from wheat. But the pizza par excellence, that is, shrill with tomato, sizzling and cheerful as is no other type of food, is only just over two hundred years old. It soon became extremely popular amongst the masses, but also with barons and princes: it was the protagonist at the receptions of the Bourbons, who were very fond of it, and Ferdinand IV even went as far as to having it baked in the ovens of Capodimonte, the same ovens which gave forth the precious artistic ceramics.
The Piedmontese king and queen were also won over by this humble southern food: it was
for Margherita of Savoia in 1889 that the pizza-maker Raffaele Esposito created the patriotic “tri-colour” pizza. The three colours, white, red and green consisted of mozzarella, tomato and basil and, since then, this pizza is called, in fact, "pizza Margherita". There are numerous varieties of pizza: from the quattro formaggi (four cheeses), the frutti di mare (seafood), with olives, alla marinara (tomato and garlic), but the presence of tomato, at least in Naples, is practically garanteed.
Today, pizza and pizzeria are both magical words wherever you go: often, abroad, it is the signs on the restaurants which try to reconstruct the pictorial or oleographic idea or illusion of the faraway Italy.
Since everybody likes pizza, it does not cost very much to make, it fills the stomach and can be the “solution” of many occasions, it is often also easily made at home. It is certainly tasty and cheerful, but it will never be the same as the one made in the big, wood-burning oven, created by the pizza-maker who, with and expert hand, flattens the disc of dough, thinner in the centre than around the edges and, who quickly spreads over it the previously prepared ingredients and sprinkles over a little oil. Then, with a swift and decisive gesture, he slaps it onto the baker’s shovel and slides it into the oven heated to the right temperature. He turns it around so that it cooks evenly all over until, with another decisive gesture, he pulls it out with the shovel and finally places it on the plate of the lucky person who, before eating it, will be able to consume all its hot, exuberant beauty with his eyes. A Neapolitan, if he is a true expert, folds it in four "a libretto" (like a book) and eats it with his hands.
Other glories of Neapolitan cuisine, which is half a cuisine from the land (pasta, vegetables, dairy products) and half a cuisine of seafood (fish, crustaceans, shellfish) are the dishes with the base of the magnificent vegetables of the Campania countryside; like the parmigiana di melanzane (aubergines baked with tomato and cheese) or the stuffed sweet peppers. There are many of this kind of substantial dish, real "piatti forti" (‘strengthening dishes’) which are always excellent. Amongst the seafood dishes, the «polpi alla luciana» (‘octopus’ Luciana style) stand out particularly, so-called because it originates from the working class quarter of Santa Lucia; it is cooked with hot chilli pepper and the ever present tomatoes. Amongst the sumptuous merchandise of the ostricaro, a typical character of the Neapolitan streets and "teatrino" (puppet theatre), the "vongole veraci" (carpet shells) merit the first prize: meaty and fragrant, they can be made into an exquisite soup and for dressing "maccheroni" and "vermicelli" pasta.
The variety provided by the Neapolitan pastas is such that it would justify having a separate chapter to itself. Pasta was not invented in Naples, but here it has certainly reached the highest levels of perfection. To be more precise, at Gragnano, only a few kilometres from the capital city of the region, it was discovered how to dry pasta for its preservation, thus making way for the industrial production of the most Italian food which exists. Since the raw material is durum wheat, which is very difficult to mix and process, the Neapolitans rely with the utmost trust on their industrially made pastas, and do not in the slightest believe– as in other regions – that to be good, a pasta must be home-made. In reality, in Naples, the pasta is extraordinary both for its quality and for the perfection with which it is cooked, which must be correctly "al dente", and for its dressing. From the classic "pummarola" (tomato sauce), simplest "aglio e uoglio" (garlic and oil), the whole exhibition of sauces accompanied with vegetables or seafood up to the apotheosis of the ragù meat sauce, where the creativity of the South gives stunning proof of itself.
An important presence in Neapolitan and Campana cuisine is that of the dairy products. Provolone, scamorza, caciocavalloi, ricotta cheeses appear frequently on the cheeseboard and enter into the preparation of many dishes. But the queen of the cheeses is the "mozzarella", the fresh, soft product with stringy texture made from buffalo milk. Its production is concentrated most of all in the area of Aversa, Battipaglia, Capua, Eboli and Sessa Aurunca: whoever finds himself around these parts will find something which will remain stamped upon his taste-buds! One variety of mozzarella are the "burrielli" which are small mouthfuls of the sweeter type, preserved in terracotta amphorae and immersed in milk. Unfortunately, the real buffalo-milk mozzarellas are now very rare, and cows’ milk is often used: the resulting product is called "fiordilatte", and is less full in flavour.
Now, in Neapolitan gastronomy there exists a series of dishes which go back to the traditions of the courts or to the genuine French-inspired “school” which was followed by a group of noble families especially in the eighteen hundreds. In this way, recipes were created in which refined French contributions combined with typically Neapolitan ingredients and customs. This resulted in very elaborate and spectacular inventions: the masters of the house would entrust the management and the preparation of their feasts to expert chefs who were then to become famous. Amongst their preparations, the most well known is the «sartù», a timbale with the rice base stuffed with chicken livers, sausages, small meatballs, mozzarella, peas and dressed with ragù meat sauce or, in the “in bianco” version (without tomato), with béchamel. Another triumphal timbale is that of maccheroni al ragù.
Certainly, however, these elaborate and refined creations remained distant from the simple cuisine of the normal people which nevertheless continued to reap success in the alleys and at the taverns on the seafront, as in the restaurants and the luxury hotels. The Neapolitan, whether street urchin or baron, loves the same macaroni with the "pummarola 'n coppa" (topped with tomato), or with clams, maybe eaten outside with the sun filtering through a pergola and the view of the greatly renowned Gulf before his eyes.
The most classic cakes and desserts of Naples are those which were eaten in times gone by: ice creams, «babas», spumoni, «sfogliatelle», «taralli» and the magnificent «pastiera», the cake of the time which goes from Epiphany to Easter, with fresh ricotta and orange flowers, cinnamon and candied fruit.
The cuisine in Naples is made above all from "esterni" (outsiders), from show and performance, it is an experience to be shared with someone from the audience. From the "friggi e mangia" (‘fry and eat’), the many products of the local rosticceria (delicatessen), to the various “passatempi” (‘pass-times’) which are offered in the kiosks or stands and which are eaten at any moment during the day (seafood, small pizzas, tarts or fritters). Naples displays, as ever, to whoever wishes to see it, its legendary fantasy stretching back thousands of years.