Campania is the area just south of Rome’s Lazio region. This is the part of Italy that most of us think of when we entertain our fantasies of sunny weather, Sophia Loren, and the soundtrack of those classic Italian folk songs. “O’ sole mio…”
For Italian-Americans in particular, this area holds a sentimental place in our hearts because many of our ancestors came from this region. Consequently, many Italian-American dishes were largely influenced by the food of Campania.
Notice I said influenced. Most recipes underwent a complete makeover in the New World, bowing to the different ingredients that were locally available. Even if the names are the same or similar, the final result shows a great deal of variation from one continent to the other, and can hardly be called the same thing.
Food of Campania
A typical meal in Campania might start with a caprese salad as an antipasto. This colorful creation resembles the Italian flag and gets its name from that storybook island floating languidly in the Bay of Naples (CA-pri, with the accent on the first syllable). It is the height of simplicity: San Marzano tomatoes, fresh leaves of basil, and a bit of olive oil lightly sprinkled over slices of mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk cheese). A pinch of salt and you’re off to a great start for your meal. Or at home during the hot summer months, this Italian version of “fast food” could be a wonderful meal by itself.
You can also use fior di latte mozzarella made with cow’s milk, but I think that the mozzarella di bufala from the Battipaglia area just south of Salerno is the best for salad purposes. It has a much higher fat content than the cow’s cheese, and therefore a much richer, tastier flavor. To me, the fior di latte just tastes like, well, latte (milk).
I mentioned tomatoes, and the ones from San Marzano are known throughout Italy as the most delicious, both for eating raw, as in the caprese salad, and in sauces.
Most #Italian #recipes underwent a complete makeover in the New World, bowing to the different ingredients that were locally available to the immigrants. #Italy #food
You can't talk about the food of Campania without mentioning pizza. Naples is the birthplace of pizza and to try the original version will make you believe that you’ve never eaten pizza before in your life. In fact, it is so good and so original that the Italian government petitioned the European Commission to designate Naples’ three (and there are only three) versions of pizza as Specialitá Tradizionale Garantita “Pizza Napoletana” And I quote:
In the designation “Pizza Napoletana,” we define the following names: “Pizza Napoletana Marinara,” “Pizza Napoletana Margherita Extra,” and “Pizza Napoletana Margherita.”
The ingredients include garlic and oregano for “Pizza Napoletana Marinara,” buffalo milk mozzarella, fresh basil and fresh tomatoes for “Pizza Napoletana Margherita Extra,” and mozzarella STG or Fior di Latte Appennino and fresh basil for “Pizza Napoletana Margherita.”
Are we starting to get a sense of how serious this is? These guys aren’t joking around by putting chicken, pineapple, barbecue sauce, or God knows what else on top of their capolavori (masterpieces). They take pride in doing one simple thing. But doing it perfectly.
Pasta is found throughout Italy, and the first course in Campania often includes a seafood spaghetti or scialatielli in some form; for example, alle vongole veraci (clams). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on my blogs, seafood normally goes with the long, thin pasta shapes. But here in Campania is where you find the exceptions made with thick l’oro di Napoli from the best “golden” durum flour. Some typical shapes include crusicchi or paccheri—order the paccheri ai frutti di mare wherever it’s available and without hesitation. The velvety gnocchi alla sorrentina is another good choice for a first course, although it's a bit heavier.
Fish is abundant in this area of Italy, and acquapazza (literally, “crazy water”) is a great way to cook almost anything that swims. Despite the name, the technique could hardly be more sane: you simply simmer the pesce in water with garlic, tomatoes and parsley. A little glass of white wine on the side and you have an incredible, light second course.
For a heartier main dish, you might try the famous parmigiana di melanzane, which of course is made by layering lightly fried eggplant, mozzarella, tomato and Parmigiano cheese, and then baking it in the oven. Now, here’s where we will highlight a few common sins committed in so-called "Italian" restaurants abroad…
Parmigiana is ONLY made with eggplant, and not with chicken, veal, or God forbid, shrimp. Americans in particular insist on their daily overdose of protein, so it’s easy to see how we’ve wandered from the path of righteousness. (It’s OK, you’re forgiven. Just don’t continue to make the same mistake in the future or you’ll be swimming with the fishes yourself.)
Well, we might as well exorcise all these demons. Let’s talk about polpette (meatballs). Yes, meatballs are fairly common in this part of Italy, but remember: they are a separate (second) course to the meal and should NOT be indiscriminately strewn across a mountain of pasta.
And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that we have our dimensions in correct proportion. An individual polpetta should not be the size of a bowling ball. Rather, if you cut it with your fork, you should have two normal-sized bites. There is also something called polpettone, which as the name implies, is bigger than a polpetta. But this is closer to what we might call meatloaf and one of them is enough to feed an entire Italian family. Or one average Italian-American goombah, like myself..
I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention wine somewhere along the way here. In fact, I devoted a recent post to the language of wine, where I write about some of the wines from the region that we'll be drinking during my tour next September to accompany our food in Campania.
Wine, no matter the level of quality, just plain tastes better when enjoyed in its home environment, surrounded by the food that evolved alongside it.
A Few Wines of Campania:
White: Lacryma Christi, Greco di Tufo, Falanghina
If you have a sweet tooth, then you’re in the right place. Most famously, there are the ricotta-filled pastries known as sfogliatelle, and the sticky-sweet babà, which are soaked in rum! But for name appeal, it’s hard to resist the tempting tette della regina (the Queen’s tits), which is a pastry filled with lemon cream, covered with white icing and topped with a candied cherry (you don’t really have to strain your imagination to visualize the end product).
To finish the meal in Campania, you must have a caffè, which many say is the best in Italy, if not the whole world. Then to “kill the coffee,” you can opt for a limoncello or one of its many variants like finocchietto (fennel) or arancello (orange).
But be careful! Just because they’re sweet, don’t let them fool you—they’re strong, too. A couple of these and you’ll be singing “O’ Sole Mio” a cappella, even if you don’t speak the Neapolitan dialect.
If this sort of scenario appeals to you—the full bounty of Mediterranean cuisine, enjoyed with breathtaking vistas—consider joining me in September and we'll indulge to our hearts' content. Click on the banner below for more details...and start practicing your rendition of “Torna a Surriento.”
Hope to see you in Italy!