Food /
Food culture /
Culture /
Art

In the Kitchen with Playwright Eduardo De Filippo

“‘O rraù

The ragù I really taste,

Was my mother’s best.

As since I’ve married you,

I’ve forgotten that menu,

I don’t want to give you a trouble,

But forget about it, you’re not able.

All right, as you want,

It’s not a quarrel that I want.

You pretend this is ‘ragù’?

And I eat it in front of you.

Let me please say something,

this is only a meat and tomato thing.”

 

–Eduardo De Filippo

The meticulous methods by which the well-known Neapolitan playwright directed were reflected in his preparation of dishes, the way in which simple steps had to be carried out and his well-defined preparations for each plate. Just as he demanded rigor in the memorization of scripts by his company’s actors, including punctuation (“Ellipses, in your opinion ellipses are not read!” Uomo e Galantuomo, 1922), his recipes had to be followed to every minute detail. If they were not, he was quick to express his displeasure: take just this ode ‘O rraù, a small poem in which the lyrical ego insults his wife’s ragù. The real ragù is his Mama’s. 

The culinary heritage of De Filippo’s family––in particular, the traditional dishes of Naples–played a visceral role in both his private life and within his theatrical works. His was a poor cuisine, learned from his grandmother Concetta Termini De Filippo during his mother’s tours, when young Eduardo was already revolving around pots and pans. He began to collect and guard little culinary secrets of his family and of his Naples, and took moments throughout his career to slowly reveal them here and there. 

In the volume Effetto Eduardo (2021) edited by Giulio Baffi, De Filippo’s nephews recount the Sunday lunches and the plate that those in the De Filippo house could not miss: pasta with ricotta sauce. The pasta that traditionally should be used is manfredi, a long pasta with curled edges that binds perfectly with the sauce of buffalo ricotta and passata. The dish is linked to the arrival of Sannio of Manfredi of Swabia, king of Sicily, in Campania in 1250, when his majesty was welcomed precisely with pasta with ricotta, his favorite cheese.

But above all, ‘o rraù, a classic Neapolitan dish, was a recipe that the director particularly cared about. Embedded within his comedy Sabato, domenica e lunedì (Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 1959), part of the recipe’s instructions–the secret to best results–is explained through the dialogue between Donna Rosa Priore and the waitress Virginia: “The more you put in onion, the more aromatic and substantial the sauce becomes. The whole secret is to sauté it slowly. When slowly sautéed, the onion will wear away until it creates a kind of black crust around the piece of meat…” The scene continues as De Fillipo provides us with other valuable elements, such as the dark color the sauce must reach or the sacredness of the four to five hours in which it must pippiare (cook for a long time, slowly “puffing” until it has reached the right intensity of flavor). Luckily, the small booklet Si cucine cumme vogl’ i’  (If I Cook the Way I Want To…, 2001), completed by his wife Isabella Quarantotti De Filippo, divulges the ingredients for the much-loved ragù:

 

  • 1 kilo and 1/2 of lacerto (the piece of meat between the rump and the underbelly)
  • 1 kilo of pork ribs
  • 400 grams of tomato paste
  • 200 grams of oil
  • 200 grams of chopped onion plus the inside (white) of a rib of celery
  • 300 grams of dry white wine
  • 200 grams of grated Parmigiano cheese
  • About 2 liters of tomato sauce
  • 1 carrot
  • A lot of basil

The work is a real collection of Eduardo’s recipe book–including first courses, second courses, side dishes and desserts–in which Isabella tells of the playwright at work with the stove, amidst anecdotes and small tricks. Parmesan cheese should be grated from the rind, otherwise it tastes different—more moist. Or to be properly al dente, spaghetti should be pliable. Or again, when Giulio Einaudi was in Rome and went to their house for dinner, the playwright always prepared spaghetti with broccoletti for him.

Beyond home, scripts and dialogue, De Filippo was also keen that there really was physical food on stage in the theater as the medium through which characters relate to each other is often the kitchen or the set table. To remain faithful to a concept of verisimilitude that was intrinsic in his works, De Filippo’s set design included dishes from steaming ragu to al dente rigatoni, from broth-ready capon to fragrant fish, from soft onion omelet to heated coffee.

In the preface of Si cucine cumme vogl ‘i’…, Dario Fo recounts a staging of Sabato, domenica e lunedì in which the scent of Donna Rosa’s ragù was projected not only on the stage, but also towards the audience and the boxes, intoxicating all the spectators with the rich aroma. But even when the food is not seen in action with the characters, it is presented in a way that the public can imagine in a crystalline way, like when a capitone (eel) jumps out of the pot in Natale in Casa Cupiello (Natale in casa Cupiello, 1931). Although we do not see Donna Concetta and Ninuccia at work in the kitchen for the Christmas Eve dinner, from the noises and the commentary of Tommasino’s character (who comes in and out just to inform the audience) we are catapulted along with the two women who chase the eel, trying to get it back into the boiling water.

Also iconic is the balcony scene in Questi Fantasmi (These Ghosts, 1946), in which De Filippo dedicates an entire monologue to coffee. It is a true tribute to a drink that has become a symbol of the Neapolitan tradition. The main character Pasquale Lojacono, played by Del Filippo himself, sits out on his balcony at the beginning of the second act, explaining the preparation of coffee with a typical Neapolitan coffee pot. His interlocutor is Professor Santanna across the street–an off-stage, silent witness. Lojacono recites in detailed description every small step he takes, from the trick of the paper cup on the spout of the coffee pot (so as not to disperse the thick smoke from the first coffee that comes out) to the half teaspoon of grounds that must be sprinkled inside the pitted capsule.

It is a lengthy process that creates an excellent “cloak of monk” colored coffee that Eduardo sips towards the end of the monologue. “I can give up everything except this cup of coffee taken on the little terrace with a bit of sun.” How can you blame him?

All this makes Eduardo De Filippo–both then and today–a forerunner of a dramaturgical technique that will be much used on the big screen, in which food becomes the main reference of the narrative arc. Food and drink are more than just mere objects of set design: the coffee, the ragout, the onion omelet, the eel play with the characters, influencing their moods from joy to anger, from simplicity to pride. The coffee break, the Christmas Eve dinner or the Sunday lunch recreate the little pictures of everyday reality that made Eduardian theater unique and inimitable.