Genuine Neapolitan cooking, like most of the cooking of southern Italy, has been badly represented in this country. I am not talking about Italian-American cooking, another issue altogether, which, at its best, is an excellent and satisfying creation (See Nancy Verde Barr's We Called it Macaroni [Knopf, 1990] for an engaging treatment of this issue), but about all of those oily, tomatoey, over-garlicked and overloaded dishes that pass for Neapolitan or southern Italian. The cooking of Naples, about which I am currently writing a book, is a many-faceted wonder. Let me illustrate one basic aspect.
Neapolitan cuisine can be classically complex when descended from aristocratic and upper-class households, or it can be disarmingly simple. Both versions depend on absolutely fresh seasonal ingredients which are full of natural flavor. Let me deal with the "disarmingly simple" here and illustrate it with a specific recipe.
A popular Neapolitan dish is called "Pasta sciuè sciuè," which is local dialect for something like presto, presto, or "quickly prepared." However, this is far from "fast food" as we know it. What we have is a delicious pasta dish brimming with ripe summer flavors. "Summer" tells the story! This dish should be made only during the period when locally grown, vine-ripened plum tomatoes are available and are deep red, juicy rather than watery, and richly sweet. Even the best quality canned tomatoes do not work here. The apparent simplicity of this dish may lead many--those who think the only cooking that is serious is complicated cooking--to dismiss it; indeed, if you make it with ordinary out-of-season ingredients, it should be dismissed.
This version of the dish was taught to me by a close Neapolitan friend in her small but efficient kitchen in Mergellina, a lovely residential area of Naples. Traditionally it is made with pennine, which are smaller than penne, but penne work just as well.
Pasta sciuè sciuè
- 1 pound of good quality imported Italian penne (do not use fresh egg pasta for this dish, and imported Italian pasta is best)
- 2 pounds red, ripe, plum tomatoes
- 1/4 cup good quality olive oil
- Approximately 1/4 cup fresh, fragrant basil leaves, torn into pieces and loosely packed, plus another handful for the pasta bowl
- 1 ball of fresh mozzarella (not the plastic wrapped, yellow, rubbery supermarket variety, please, but a genuine, fresh white moist mozzarella)
- Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, to be grated to taste
- Salt to taste
As you can see, this is a Neapolitan dish without garlic at all, nor is it swimming in sauce. Nothing complicated here, just a sublimely delicious dish provided you use ripe, fully flavored tomatoes.
- Peel the tomatoes by plunging into boiling water for 2-3 minutes, drain in cold water and remove skins. Remove seeds if you wish, though I find this unnecessary. Chop the tomatoes coarsely. Reserve.
- Set a pot of at least 4 quarts of cold salted water to boil.
- While the water is heating, take a bowl large enough to contain and toss the cooked pasta. Into this bowl cut up your ball of mozzarella into small chunks and tear up another handful of fresh basil leaves. Reserve.
- Now the trick is to have your pasta cooked to the al dente stage at just about the time your tomatoes are ready. In a saucepan heat up the olive oil and pour in the chopped tomatoes and the 1/4 cup of torn basil leaves, season to taste with salt (and freshly ground pepper if you like) and cook quickly, stirring to mix well. You should cook the tomatoes for no more than 5 minutes over a lively flame, stirring often. The idea is to preserve a fresh tomato taste, minimally cooked, but brightly seasoned.
- Pour this quickly cooked, hot tomato sauce onto the mozzarella/basil mixture in your prepared bowl. When the pasta has reached the al dente stage, quickly drain it and pour it into the bowl on top of your sauce mixture. Toss well. Add freshly grated Parmesan or, if you prefer a sharper, more pungent taste, use freshly grated Pecorino Romano. Mix well again. Serve with a few leaves of fresh basil on top of each portion. Pass around extra cheese for those who want it.
by Al Cirillo