The Food Maven Diary
I participated in a three-hour pork feast in a town just north of Naples called Giugliano. As Bette Davis said in Beyond the Forest (1949), “What a dump!”
The last time I was in Giugliano, not quite two years ago, it was, in fact, literally a dump. The town was strewn with garbage because of the Naples/Campania garbage problem, a complex issue involving organized crime and corrupt and/or ineffectual politicians. However, even without garbage on the streets, Giugliano is a shabby place, even though the narrow streets are lined with fancy storefronts selling expensive goods. The townspeople have much illegal money, and so there are very nice cafes and smart restaurants, too, but even the main thoroughfares of Giugliano are ugly with their hodgepodge of commercial signs and unrestricted development.
For this grand feast, I went to a friend’s elegant, contemporary-designed restaurant, Fenesta Verde (Green Window), also known as La Marchesella. Chef-owner Giovanni Iodice serves more or less traditional Neapolitan food but presented in a modern way and on fine china with good crystal. This party was to celebrate the slaughter of the last of Cecilia’s 10 pigs, and he gave every bit of its meat a typical Neapolitan treatment. Ettore and Massimino Bellelli, Cecilia’s sons, took me along because … well, to have a good time and a good meal, not that I am deprived of either. The guests were 25 of their and Giovanni’s friends – all men, no women, speaking Neapolitan dialect at one end of the table and Cilentani dialect at the other. Cilento is the mountainous area to which Paestum, with its ancient Greek temples and Cecilia’s farms, is the so-called “door.” I was in the middle of the long table, so both sides could talk to me in Italian.
The background here is that Cecilia preserves much of the pork as pancetta, capocollo, ctktktktkt, dried sausage and such, and last night we consumed the meat that needs to be eaten fresh or is at least best eaten fresh. Actually, Giovanni, who is also a butcher, slaughtered the pig last week on the Bellelli farm. I arrived moments after the kill itself, just in time to see the skin being shaved with boiling water and a sharp knife, and the pig hung, using a fork lift, so it could be cut up. I won’t go into the gory details of this procedure, as it would turn most stomachs. Suffice to say, some parts, like the liver, need to be cooked as soon as possible, plus it is traditional to cook some of the pig immediately to show that the killing is not for sport but for food.
Giovanni had a charcoal fire ready to do that cooking. I couldn’t stay for the ritual because on that day Cecilia and I were hosting a group of 25 students from the Culinary Institute of America. Their trip is sort of a junior year abroad, except that it was only 18 days. Just as Giovanni was about to cook the pig’s blood over boiling water, then cut it into squares and fry it, I needed to take the CIA students back to the kitchen for their cooking lesson – mozzarella in carrozza (mozzarella fried on a slice of bread), carne alla pizzaiola (meat cooked pizza-maker style, with tomatoes, garlic and oregano), and pastiera (whole wheat grain and ricotta pie).
Last night’s dinner started with mozzarella di bufala and buffalo-milk ricotta, both brought to the restaurant by Giovanni Barlotti, whose family owns the dairy where the Bellelli’s buffalo milk is turned into cheese. (We always take our Cook at Seliano groups here, to see the process and taste the cheese only minutes after it is made.)
Next was zuppa di sofritto. In this case sofritto is a mix of pork innards cooked with hot pepper and tomato. (Sofritto can also be the vegetables and herbs cooked as a base for a sauce or stew.) It was called “zuppa” not because it was a soup, but because Giovanni put it over some bread, which sops up the sauce. Later, peeking into the kitchen (I can’t help myself), and another friend, Pietro, noted that some of the other restaurant patrons were getting sofritto on pasta – bucatini. So we took a plate of that for ourselves, too.
Next came the pasta course, pettole with a ragu made from sausage, ribs, and bracciole di cotica. That last item is pork skin tied into a roll stuffed with parsley, garlic, pine nuts, raisins and bits of cheese, in this case caciocavallo. It’s the same as you would do with slices of pork or beef, but pork skin, which is full of gelatin, gives the sauce a velvety texture and the skin itself becomes meltingly tender. (See my pork ragu recipe in “The Southern Italian Table,” my latest book.)
Around Naples, pettole is a word used for any flat sheet of pasta, like what you would cut lasagna from or other noodles, to use an English word. In this case the sheets were cut into approximately four-inch squares. Giovanni’s mother, who works in the restaurant with his father, who started it many years ago, made the pasta, with eggs, and it was as thin and delicate as pasta can be.
After the pasta with ragu, we ate the meats that had cooked in and flavored the ragu, one sausage, one rib and one roll of cotica each.
If this had been a sensible meal, we would have stopped there. Okay, some fruit and a dessert. But Giovanni then served loin pork chops with sautéed pickled peppers – pappucelle. And along with that came another pork sausage, browned in a skillet, as opposed to the one that was cooked in sauce – as if … . These meats came accompanied by heads of very young escarole in a dressing with hot pepper – our salad.
Okay, there was yet another course, minestra maritata, an ancient soup of pork broth and a variety of cooked greens. But the group moaned that it was impossible to eat more, except for one of my tablemates, a thin guy no less, who insisted that since the spoon was already on the table he and I should have at least a small bowl. I just couldn’t do it. I took a sip of the soup, a spoonful of greens, and a taste of the chunk of pork in the center. E basta! And enough! I couldn’t bear another mouthful.
By this time, half the guests were outdoors having a smoke or just sitting with those who like to smoke. (I find it very interesting that Italians, especially Neapolitans, who are rarely mindful of the law, are having no trouble with the one that prohibits smoking in all public places. The really respect that one.) I, however, stayed indoors and at the table with those who were talking politics. This gave me the opportunity to try a new liqueur that one of them had brought along. It’s called Melanurca, a shortened form of mela Anurca, which is the special apple of Campania. It’s a red, sweet and very perfumed apple, and this liqueur is just as perfumed and fresh tasting as the fruit itself. I have to see if I can get a bottle to take home. It has yet to hit the States. Not so incidentally, we not only ate well, but drank well. Among other Aglianco wines, Agliancio being the noble red grape of Southern Italy, there were three vintages of the much vaunted (and available in the U.S.) Terredora Taurasi on the table. I much preferred 2000 to 1999 and 2002.
It took almost two hours to get to Giugliano from Ettore, Massimino and Cecilia’s house in Battipaglia, but only one hour to get home. We drove home so fast that I fell asleep to escape the frightening experience. I woke up to Ventura Highway by America on the radio, a song that is very nostalgic for me (early 1970s), and for a second I thought “Okay, I’m dead.”
So, today, my feeling full didn’t last very long. I couldn’t look at food for breakfast, but by 1:30, lunchtime around here, I was a bit peckish (Hi Debra!). For lunch we had pasta and cauliflower, baked ham and cheese sandwiches (we’d call it “strata”), and some boiled Swiss chard, but I skipped dessert – baked apples.
Tonight, we are going out to a friend’s birreria (beer hall), Mermaid Tavern in Pontecagnano, where, I hope, I think, they serve only snack foods. Maybe I’ll have the will power to not eat at all, but then I don’t want to be impolite. Tomorrow, we have some meetings in Naples, and Cecilia has a restaurant she wants to try. We’ll see.