21 May 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Naples, the Mecca of Pizzalandia

CHIAVARI,  Italy – Ahhh, Naples, the Mecca of Pizzalandia.  It’s a place where they take their food very seriously. So seriously they even got the European Union to pass a law stipulating how a pizza must be made, and what it must be made of in order to be called a Neapolitan pizza.
Pizza Neapolitan Style 
The number one qualifier is the crust; it has to be soft and light. To get to that quality of texture the dough must be made the day before and allowed to rise for at least 10 - 15 hours. Then it’s up to the pizzaioli, or pizzaiuoli in Neapolitan dialect, to work his magic. It is a craft that must be learned. In most cases it takes at least two to three years of apprenticeship just to learn how to handle the dough. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Neapolitan pizza is not finger food. The centers are goopy, slightly undercooked, and you need a knife and fork to eat it. Pizza served in Italian pizzerias are about 8 or 9 inches across, individual size, and even if they don’t have a goopy center Neapolitan style, you still eat them with a knife and fork. The only pizza you pick up and eat is the pizza you buy on the street. And even then, it comes wrapped in paper so your hands never have to touch the slice.
The Queen of Pizza, Margherita 
Under the pizza law, unless a pizza is cooked in a wood-burning oven, it can’t be called a Neapolitan pizza. But then again, no self-respecting Neapolitan pizzeria would cook their pizza in anything but a wood-burning oven. Pizzas cooked in that blazing heat cook fast, 60-90 seconds, and taste better.  It’s a very old method of cooking food and the traditional wood-burning ovens you see today are based on designs handed down from the Romans.

It’s hard to believe now, but for a long time tomatoes were thought to be poisonous and were only used as ornamental plants. But somehow the pomo d’oro, which eventually morphed into pomodoro (tomato), found its way into pasta dishes and toppings for the flat breads that were already being sold in the streets of Naples.  
Pizza Delivery Neapolitan Style 
The pizzas were baked in ovens and then sold by “scugnizzi pizzaioli”, street urchins, usually poor kids who only went to school when they had to. They worked for the pizzerias, earning pennies hawking pizzas in the streets and piazzas of Naples.  The pizzas were kept warm in a tin stove, a “stufa” that they balanced on their heads.  

About that same time, the early 1800’s, the wives of local fishermen had started making pizzas to feed their husbands before they set out to sea. Along with tomato sauce the wives would add olive oil, oregano and salt. If they had a little meat, cheese or sardines they would add those as well, but the basic pizza was sauce, oil and oregano and it became known as pizza marinara. 
Pizzeria and Friggitoria Di Matteo  
In the Pizzaria Brandi there is letter dated June 1889 that has been framed and hung on a wall. It is from the head of the Royal Household of the House of Savoy thanking pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito for the excellent pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil he prepared for Her Majesty, Queen Margherita. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pizza Marinara and pizza Margherita are still made and sold in Neapolitan pizzarias  – and pizzarias around the world.  But it’s a little unfair to call them pizzarias in Naples for like Pizzaria Brandi, which has been around since the late 1700’s, they are Pizzarias with a capital P, the keepers of local traditions. The 114 year old Starita is another capital P Neapolitan pizzeria.  
  The Perfect Pie
In 1901 Alfonso Starita opened a cantina and began selling wine. It wasn’t until 1933 that Guiseppe Starita, one of Alfonso’s eleven children, started selling food along with the wine. About five years later, pizza was on the menu.  Locals have always known about the quality of the pizza at Starita, but it was Sophia Loren, who sold pizza here in the 1954 classic film L’Oro di Napoli or The Gold of Naples, who introduced it to the rest of the world.

Many of the pizzerias in Naples started out as friggitori, little fast food places with walk up windows where you buy stuffed rice balls (arancini) or fried sardines and other fried treats. There are still plenty of friggitori/pizzerias in Naples. One of the best is Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente – so named after President Bill Clinton ate there. DiMatteo is another. One of the specialities at DiMatteo is called a portafoglio – wallet. It’s an eight-inch pizza with a springy crust folded and re-folded over a tasty topping.
Pizzeria Starita - Worth the Wait  
You’ll also find portafogli on the menu at Pizzeria Port’Alba, the oldest pizzeria in Naples. It too started out as a friggitori back in 1738. About a hundred years later it became a pizzeria. If your family is from Naples, and you are in town, you might want to make a stop at the Pizzeria Port’Alba for chances are someone in your family ordered pizza from this place long before they immigrated to America, and it’s nice to carry on family traditions.

Via Tribunali, 120/121Tel. +39081210903
In the heart of Spaccanapoli, the historic center of Naples. Signore Ernesto Cacialli, a pizzaiolo since he was 7, invited former US president Bill Clinton – who was in Naples in 1994 for the G8 – to taste his pizza.  And that is how Signor Cacialli became known as the Pizzaiolo del Presidente, the President’s pizza maker.

Via Port’Alba, 18
Tel +39 081 442 1061)
This is the oldest pizzeria in Naples and Italy. Founded in 1738 as seller of street food, it became a real pizzeria in 1830, and is still run by the same family.

Via dei Tribunali, 94
 Tel +39 081 455 262)
Fifty years ago Raffaele Marigliano created an amazing pizza with alici (anchovies) and cicinielli, tiny fish just past the larval stage, also known as bianchetti. If you are not a fish eater try the pizza fritta, a deep fried pizza with ricotta cheese, provola cheese, tomato sauce and sugna (lard).  

Via Materdei 28
Tel +39 081 557 3682
It was in 1933 that Giuseppe Starita, one of Alfonso Starita’s 11 children, came up with the idea of adding food to the wine cellar his father had opened in 1901. Giuseppe and his wife Filomena started serving simple dishes like bean soup, fried anchovies, fried cod and tripe all served with homemade wine. It wasn’t until 1948 that it became a pizzeria friggitoria.

3. Brandi on Salita S.Anna di Palazzo, 1- 2 (corner of via Chiaia)
Tel +39 081 416 928
In 1889 Brandi’s pizzaiolo, Raffaelle Esposito, was asked to make three pizzas for King Umberto 1 and Queen Margherita. Margherita picked the simple tomato, mozzarella and basil pizza as her favorite.  I’ve often wondered what the other two pizzas tasted like.

17 May 2015

LIFE: The Story Starts Like This

CHIAVARI, Italy – The first city in Italy that I lived in was Rome, and like a first love it holds a special place in my heart. I had enrolled in a language course at the Dante Aligheri Society, determined to conquer Italian once and for all. Through the school I found a room to rent on the Via della Vite, near the Spanish Steps. An old woman named Niola owned the apartment, and her only other ‘tenant’ was a girl from Argentina who was studying at the Universita’ La Sapienza in Rome.   
 Rome's Spanish Steps in the Spring
Every weekday morning I would take the bus from Piazza San Silvestro out to the school on the Via Nomentana and spend four grueling hours trying to get a grip on Italian grammar. It was torture trying to wrap my tongue around all the complicated verb forms, but from two o'clock on the day was my own, and oh how I treasured it. 

I loved living in the center of the Rome.  Every afternoon as the stores re-opened from their mid-day break, the narrow streets of my neighborhood, which included the famous Via Condotti, would slowly fill with Romans and tourists alike. I used to spend hours window shopping and dreaming of the day I would live in Italy forever.
Carriage Ride Along the Via Condotti in Rome  
On days I didn’t have school, I would walk to the small outdoor market near the Trevi Fountain and stock up on groceries.  I would cross the Via del Tritone, go up Via del Stamperia, then turn and head toward the vendors. It was just at that point, near the corner bar, that I would be greeted by a Rudolph Valentino look alike who would bow ever so slightly and say,  "Buon girorno, Contessa."  I'd stutter and stammer and finally come out with what I hoped was "and a good morning to you too." 

I didn’t know it then but in Italy everyone calls everyone else carrissima, bellisima, amore or   any of the other hundreds of endearing names they have invented. Even my slightly senile landlady, Signora Niola, used to have imaginary conversations that always started with ‘ciao cara’ and continued as she walked around the apartment talking to herself.  It confused me at first as she always started her conversations with me that way, but then I realized she didn’t even see me during those interludes, so I just stayed out of her way.
Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy  
I liked shopping at the Trevi market, which was more of a meeting place than market where farmers sold their produce and goods like honey and jams and wine. The honey and jam came in a variety of jars that had once held pickled cauliflower or artichoke hearts or some other Italian deliciousness. If you wanted wine you had to bring your own bottles and they would fill them from the barrels they had on the back of their trucks. You also had to bring your own egg cartons if you wanted eggs.

Since I didn’t have egg cartons to bring, the old woman who sold chickens and eggs would wrap my eggs, one by one in torn off squares of newspaper and hand them to me to put in my shopping bag. Then she would hold out her wrinkled hand for the money. She never spoke to me. Never said a word. I figured out afterwards that it was probably because I was actually asking her for two or three grapes, confusing the Italian words for grapes and eggs and she realized any attempt at conversation would most likely be a complete waste of time.  
 The Dome of St. Peter's Cathedral at the Vatican
A more serious problem than knowing the difference between grapes and eggs was trying to convert my US dollars to Italian lira.  Since I had to be on the bus for school at 8:30 AM, when the banks were opening, and didn’t get back to the center of Rome until 2 PM, which was after the banks had closed for the day, getting my hands on cash was a challenge. The only solution was to take a day off from school, which I did not like to do.

But in those pre-ATM days my options were limited. Getting lira was a long, and grueling process. There were forms that had to be filled out, and not the kind of forms you could take with you and fill out while you had a cappuccino at the nearest bar. No. The bank clerk had to ask you the questions, and he would fill out the form. And he was never in a hurry.

I still remember the day he was filling out a form for a pretty Asian girl who was in line ahead of me.

“What is your name,” he asked.
She told him.

“Where are you from?” he asked.
She told him.

“Are you staying in a hotel?”
“No,” she said.

“Okay, where are you staying,” he wanted to know.
“With my uncle,” she said.

“That’s nice,” he said. “Where does your uncle live?”
“Over there,” she said pointing in the general direction of outside the bank.

“No, I mean what’s his address?” said the bank clerk shifting around in his chair. 
She just looked at him.

“Okay, well what’s your phone number,” the bank clerk continued.
She just looked at him, still not replying.

“Look, Signorina,” said the bank clerk who was now showing signs of exasperation, “I’m not asking you these questions for my personal benefit. Personally I don’t care where you live or who you live with or anything else, but the bank wants to know and it’s my job to write that information down, so what is your phone number?”

At that point the bell rang signaling the bank was closing. Please use the center door to exit. Another day shot to hell.

That wasn’t the first time I had been ushered out of the bank without changing money. I looked in my wallet. I had 10,000 lire, about $7.00 and I needed to buy a bus ticket to get to school in the morning, another to get home after school, and then there was the question of food. Faced with a choice of scrambled eggs again or deep fried rice balls called arancini, I opted for the arancini.   
The Pantheon, My Favorite Place in Rome  

That wasn’t the first time I had eaten arancini for dinner, nor would it be the last. As it turned out Rome was just a preview, the coming attractions like at the movies. How could I know what surprises destiny had in store for me, or that the best and the worst was still to come.

It took a few more years for all the planets to align and clear a path for me to actually make the move. This past week I celebrated 25 years of living in Italy. What an amazing adventure it has been. But looking back on those years today I understand that they too were only a preview, the coming attractions of what is in store for me next. If nothing else I've learned the difference between the words for eggs and grapes in Italian, which makes me think I'm on a roll. Yes indeed.

14 May 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Lovely Lentils of Ventotene

CHIAVARI, Italy – Ventotene is a tiny volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, 25 nautical miles off the coast of Gaeta, right at the border between Lazio and Campania. The island is less than 2 miles long (3 kilometers) and less than half a mile wide (800 meters). Today 708 people call Ventotene home, but back in the days of the Roman Empire, only a handful of people lived there. Ventotene was not a place you wanted to be, in fact you could say it was an ancient Alcatraz.

  Roman Port of Ventotene
The island was called Pandataria back then, and it was a strategic maritime hub that anchored the Roman trading empire. The Emperor Augustus radically transformed this remote barren island into his personal seaside resort and a thriving port community. Engineers of today marvel at what the Emperor constructed 2000 years ago, including a system of underground aqueducts that harvested rainwater and an impressive man-made harbor, hand-carved from the seawalls. 

Augustus may have turned the island into a thriving resort, but it soon became infamous as the island where he banished his daughter Julia in 2 BC. It seems Julia was the Paris Hilton of her day, and her father did not approve of her wild and wooly ways. He decided that she needed a time out, a five year time out, and so she was sent to Ventotene to rethink her behavior.
Quiet Island Life 
Apparently banishing unruly female relatives was the thing to do back in those days because the Emperor Tiberius also banished his grandniece Agrippina the Elder to Ventotene, and Agrippina’s youngest daughter, Julia Livilla, was also exiled there – twice. Then there was Claudia Octavia, the first wife of the Emperor Nero. She was banished to Ventotene in 62 AD and even Saint Flavia Domitilla, the granddaughter of the Emperor Vespasian, was banished to the island. She is the same Saint Flavia Domitilla the catacombs in Rome are named after.

So it is easy to see why, in the past, people were not exactly rushing to go to Ventotene, especially women.

But that’s all changed. Today, Ventotene is once again a resort island made newly famous as the place where five ancient Roman ships were discovered. The ships are between 1,600 and 1,900 years old, and were laden with - among other things - wine, olive oil and a fermented fish sauce called garum, which is much like the fish sauce used today in Asian cooking. 

It was not easy to grow food or develop a cuisine on an island made of volcanic rock, but with a little help, one plant seemed to thrive, red lentils. And from the red lentils, the Ventotenese made zuppa – soup. This is a perfect summer dish as it is served, like so many Italian soups, at room temperature.

Ventotene's  Lentil Soup 

Serves 4

250 grams of lentils (any color will do)
350 grams of tomatoes
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf (or a few basil leaves)
Extra virgin olive oil

The original recipe calls for dipping the tomatoes in boiling water for a half a minute and peeling them, cutting them into quarters, removing the seeds and dicing them.  The truth is you can use any good quality canned tomatoes and save yourself a lot of time and still get good results. 

Carefully check the lentils to eliminate any tiny stones or foreign debris, and then wash them very carefully with water.

Put the lentils, the garlic clove and the chopped tomatoes in a casserole dish with about 2 liters of water. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat and let it cook for about 25 minutes (or until the lentils are tender, but not mushy). Add a little more boiling water if needed. 

When the lentils are cooked, add salt and serve the soup in a shallow bowl with an added drizzle of olive oil. Serve at room temperature. If you want, you can also add cooked rice to this soup.

If dry lentils are not available here’s a quick and easy recipe from Chef David Rocco that uses canned lentils.

Quick Tomato and Lentil Soup
Lentil and Tomato Soup

1/4 cup/ 50 ml extra-virgin olive oil  
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped
1 (15-ounce/441 ml) can peeled plum tomatoes   
2 fresh chili peppers, chopped
1 (19-ounce/540 ml) can lentils, drained and rinsed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Water, optional

In a saucepan,  heat olive oil. Add garlic, parsley and chili peppers and sauté for a few minutes. Add plum tomatoes and juices from the tin. With the back of a wooden spoon, break up the tomatoes into little chunks.

Add the lentils, salt, and pepper. Add the water and allow to cook for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, until the soup has thickened.