I’ve already written an article on Neapolitan street food, could I miss one on typical Christmas dishes in Naples? When it comes to abundance, especially during the holidays, you can’t fail to mention the city of Pulcinella.
In many families, the menu agreed for Christmas Eve, Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve is a decision that is made once in a lifetime and remains so forever: fish on December 24th, meat on December 25th, “leftovers” and other specific delicacies on the 26th. On New Year’s Eve more fish, and obviously lenticchie e cotechino.
I’m from Puglia, so I speak for my family: at the D’Addetta’s there was never a fixed rule, we cooked what we liked, but basically, apart from the great twists created by father Gino, we followed the Neapolitan guidelines with a strong propensity for seafood, our great passion.
Now, listen: if you are in Naples at Christmas, what would you eat? There are some essential dishes, those that once you name them everyone around you knows a party is getting started. We start with the appetizers and side dishes, two above all: i broccoli di Natale and la pizza di scarole or, a variant that some people prefer, la scarola m’buttunata.
I broccoli di Natale or vruoccole ‘e fronna are so called to distinguish them from cime di rapa, which are shorter and woody, and because they can only be found during a short period in December; they are served as a side dish to fish or meat, but they aren’t to be confused with the more famous friarielli. La pizza di scarole, on the other hand, could be a first or second course on its own: a great element of the Neapolitan culinary tradition in general, la scarola is a beloved vegetable, almost always prepared with raisins, capers, olives and pine nuts. When we talk about pizza di scarole, however, we mean a sort of stuffed focaccia: below and above we find two disks of dough and the seasoned scarola to fill. If you want to step it up, forget the dough and keep the whole scarola and stuff it (hence m’buttunata) with the same ingredients as before, raisins, pine nuts, capers and olives, and bake it in the oven (or fry it, if you are more daring).
The recipe of some families also includes the use of meat or tuna fish, but the authentic recipe excludes such changes.
We continue the menu with the first courses and let’s make a distinction: on Christmas Eve the fish is on stage. A must that never fails is spaghetti a vongole. A vongole, with the a. The first time I heard this expression, I acted as a smartass. “Si dice spaghetti CON le vongole”, I said (it’s spaghetti WITH the clams). They replied: “Signurì, a Napule ‘e cos’ girano ind’a nata manera! ‘Cca s’ rice spaghettoavvvongole! Accussì, rafforzativo!” (Miss, in Naples things run differently! Here we say spaghetti A vongole, not spaghetti WITH vongole!).
I couldn’t argue. So, you do the same too.
Strictly “in bianco”, spaghetti of the holidays: very simple, garlic, oil, clams and lots of parsley. And pasta al dente, please, no strange things, simple spaghetti (or at best, linguine) is served and everyone will be happy.
Another great classic is virz’e rise, riso con la verza, a typical dish of poor Campania cuisine, a sort of hot and creamy soup rather than a risotto, a panacea on winter days. The history of this combination is old: before the advent of pasta, the Neapolitans were called mangiafoglia (leaf eaters), due to their diet based on vegetables and leafy greens, torze e torzarelle, as they are defined in the dialect. Then, when rice was introduced by the Aragonese between 1400 and 1500, the poor population, instead of preparing the sartù (rice casserole, very rich, with minced meat) for lack of funds, replaced the meat with the humblest vegetables and thus was born riso con la verza.
Outsider on the list is chicken broth, or as it is called in Naples, ‘a gallina a bror. This isn’t an actual dish, but it’s absolutely essential because it’s the basis for another very important recipe, typical of holidays, her majesty la minestra maritata, ‘a menesta’ mmaretata.
Defined by many as the one and only protagonist of the Christmas table, la minestra maritata would even descend from the Greeks and Romans or, more recently, from the Spanish domination. Why this name? “Maretata” in Neapolitan translates as “married”, therefore, in a soup of meat and vegetables, it’s clear how the two main elements happily come together in marriage. It’s traditionally prepared with leafy vegetables, such as catalonia, cabbage, escarole, spinach (the torze e torzarelle we were talking about before) and pork of various cuts, plenty of cheese and a long and patient cooking helped by the chicken broth.
There is a lesser known and lighter version, called the la minestra zitella, the less greasy sister; if the “married” has vegetables and meat, the zitella (spinster) is satisfied with vegetables and broth only.
Obviously, I’m not here to mention ragù, lasagna, pasta la forno, cannelloni and tricchebballache because, come on… those don’t even need to be said!
Similar but of different use (because it’s not a first course, but a passe-partout) is the famous insalata di rinforzo, usually consumed in the days following Christmas as a recovery dish or in the preceding ones as an accompaniment: based on cauliflower, pappacelle, pickles, anchovies, olives, it changes from table to table, from recipe to recipe. As with the soup, each family has its own version and is called “di rinforzo” (reinforcement salad) because it accompanies the main courses, “reinforcing” the abundance on the table. Some put only vegetables in it, others add cod, making the salad a second course.
And this is where I wanted to lead you, precisely to the second courses. If you ask for the most authentic, Neapolitans will answer two things: ‘o capiton and ‘o baccalà con le pappacelle.
Il capitone, number 32 on the Neapolitan smorfia, is a must dish, if only for a superstitious question: eating the capitone means eating Eden garden’s snake, thus exorcising evil. The origin of its use, however, can also be found in its peculiarity: being a very fatty fish, it has always been rather cheap and for those who, in the past, needed to eat something substantial it was ideal.
Il baccalà con le pappacelle instead is the more chic: typical of Christmas day, but also of New Year’s day, the fish must be strictly fried in large chunks and served, to “degrease it”, with Neapolitan pappacelle, small and round peppers, very fleshy and tasty, preserved in vinegar. The combination is so time tested that it’s impossible to dissociate: when in Naples you say cod, you say pappacelle too. It’s a bit like saying salt and pepper, Stanlio e Ollio, Bonnie and Clyde.
So, ready for the desserts? Yes, but first (just to keep yourself light) a little sciavecarie or otherwise called ‘o spass: almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried broad beans, lupins, pine nuts, small dried figs, all traced back to dried fruit, especially if in shell. They are eaten between meals, as a distraction, as an excuse to spend time, as a break between one game of cards and another, a game of tombola and another, also accompanied by the inevitable fresh fruit.
And finally, ladies and gentlemen, the desserts! The party! What is Christmas without desserts? I don’t even mention panettone and pandoro, because here we are talking about tradition: inevitable on Neapolitan tables, in addition to the timeless babà and sfogliatelle, we have the wonderful struffoli, mostaccioli, roccocò, raffaiuoli and susamielli. They make you laugh, right? They’re almost all dry pastry desserts, of different shapes, sizes and tastes: the mostaccioli in the shape of a rhombus, spiced and covered with chocolate; roccocò, taralli rich in almonds or hazelnuts, raffaiuoli, similar to mostaccioli, but covered with sugar icing and oblong in shape, and susamielli, S-shaped, hard biscuits to dip in milk or wine, enriched with honey and almonds. And of course, last but not least, the struffoli that need no introduction.
What did you say? Are you getting hungry? This Christmas, everyone to Naples!