Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Jewish and Comedy Food in Italy

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death
Pasta Time!
Miscellaneous PIzza
Sfogliatelle Shootout in Naples
Desserts and Lodgings
The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples

Roman Jewish cuisine is something I reluctantly felt obligated to try. I'm always skeptical of trendy cuisine; that's how crudely wonderful Neapolitan pizza became something refined; that's how Spanish tapas - cheap pub grub - turned into swank Iberian sexy swankness. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't believe there are remaining Roman Jewish grandmothers who grew up cooking this sort of thing, and art forms seldom lend themselves to artificial respiration.

But, again, I had to give it a go. There are a handful of places specializing in Roman-Jewish cuisine, all very famous, and the least pandering of them seemed to be Piperno.

I'm especially uncomfortable whenever cuisines get associated with one single dish. "You're going to Japan? Have some sushi!" Or "hey, Jewboy, betcha been munchin' on a whole lotta bagels, amiright?" I don't see much difference between insta-associating Russians with borscht and associating black people with watermelon. But I went ahead and ambivalently ordered the famous (famous!) carciofi alla giudia, described in my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere, thus:
It was heavy with its oil saturation, reminding me of the Belarussian food I had in Brooklyn that channeled my late grandmother's cooking and floated my boat in primal ways I'd have preferred to keep moored.
I'd normally continue with "....but delicious!", after "heavy with oil saturation" but, as I wrote in that other report, a part of me harkens to sodden disgusting grease. I keep that part locked up in an inaccessible lobe of my brain, and normally don't let him order.

But even if you don't share my self-surprising old world proclivities (btw do you know where I can get a rickety cart full of second-hand pots and pans and filthy washcloths to hawk around my neighborhood?), you'll still find it delicious despite - if not because of - the oiliness. I wouldn't describe it as "good-oily", but it's every bit the special treat the photos convey.
Also: filetti di orata in crosta di patate, aka sea bream fillets in potato crust. Another dish from a bygone, mildewed era that excited my less enlightened and modern faculties, perhaps even engaging some sleeper agent encoding. I do, in fact, feel a certain yen to agitate against the czar.
Crostata con marmellata di visciole, aka tart with sour cherry jam. I'm unschooled in the fine points of 19th century European pastry, but my genome enables me to pronounce this a descendent from the Austro-Hungarian tradition. I can't tell you where this conclusion popped up from. It's like a child spontaneously speaking fluent Basque after some crisis, or an old uber-WASPY girlfriend of mine who once joined me for dinner in a restaurant doubling as an antique store. Without once glancing directly at any furniture, she declared with haughty certainty that they're "not real antiques". How can you tell? "I just know."

In that spirit, I just know this is Austro-Hungarian, and if you doubt me we might be forced to duel. I am, after all, a man of honor.

There's something stately about this kind of cooking (probably not a function of the Jewish/Italian hybrid so much as general old-school traditionalism). I wasn't raised eating with proper silverware on proper china, so whenever I pick up fork and knife with real heft to them, I feel a bit cowed and disoriented. But this food absolutely requires them - and starchy, heavy linen napkins, to boot. Have another look at that anachronistic potato-crusted fish fillet, and expand the photos for greater detail, and ask yourself: Wouldn't you'd need to eat that with a silver fork weighing about a half a pound - preferably a special purpose potato-crusted-fish-fillet fork with the second-to-last tine slightly inset for a perfectly logical reason People Back Then understood?

I've spent my life gulping tacos and pork buns, and, when flush, perhaps a paella or t-bone steak. But this sort of cooking is why people in olden times used heavy forks and starchy napkins. It's why they ate in jackets. It's why they sat rigidly for photos.
I have never, ever, in my life felt more shmucky to be wearing a t-shirt and sneakers. If I were sitting there stark naked, I'd scarcely have felt wronger. Not because of the ambiance or social morés (it wasn't a formal place, especially at lunch) or fancy decor, but because of the heft of the fork, and the heft of the food requiring that hefty fork, and the heft of the restaurant that cooked that hefty food that required that hefty fork. Lightweight chowhound idiot was not an apt terminus in that chain. All at once I get it: the silverware, the napkins, the dress code, the whole damned thing. The ways of older generations are suddenly ravelling. Martin, bring me my walking stick!

Jews may be famous for comedy, but Roman-Jewish Piperno was extraordinarily un-funny. Naples' Trattoria da Nennella, however, was a laugh-riot.
Bustling crowds straining to enter; a perfected-yet-undignified procedure for herding them in, and then back out again in 25 mins flat - all performed with a wink and a grin. There are private clubs in London where high-powered bankers pay big money to be scolded and slapped by imperious matrons while they dutifully sip their milk through straws. This is a bit like that. It's the kind of place where waiters theatrically berate you for not finishing your pasta. They're "real characters", the noise and the crowds and the dense-packing and fast turnovering are inherently barbaric, but, again, there's always that wink-and-nod.
If this were New Jersey (and it could definitely exist in Jersey) it would be played straight. But here it's played for farce, so you find yourself rolling with it. The crowd isn't just eager tourists; working class locals eat here, too. As do what look like bankers, perhaps there for some nostalgic disempowering.
I came for their big specialty dish (I had one job to do!): pasta with potatoes, swimming in a sauce of provolone cheese; a seriously old-school item that's otherwise been evaporating into the Neapolitan ether. I stole this photo from Yelp.
But I was distracted by a special of rigatoni with swordfish and potatoes, which I foolishly imagined would afford similar starch-on-starch bliss. Idiot. I should have returned another day and ordered correctly. It's one of those weighty regrets one carries with one.

How's the food? It's cheap. Really cheap, at 12-15 euros for the entire meal.
And it's exactly as it looks: prepared by untrained cooks with supermarket ingredients (the menu discloses the use of frozen foods; I wouldn't be surprised if my swordfish chunks came from a can) with the talent of a mediocre Italian home chef (i.e. damned good) but who've grinded out these dishes way more than the 10,000 iterations required for task mastery, so there's a certain snazzy sizzle to it all. Great...though obviously not-great. Or, perhaps, not-great....but obviously great. After mulling over Naples' culinary koan for a while, I texted my BnB host, Giancarlo, to say:
If I lived in Napoli I would go to Nennella either every day or else absolutely never. I honestly don’t know which.
He replied :
I can understand what you mean. In my opinion pasta with potatoes and provola cheese of Nennella is one of the best in Napoli.
My bad.

Light forks. Light knives. Light napkins. T-shirt fine.

Next installment of my Italy trip: Mama Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface

1 comment:

Display Name said...

Fun read but I am waiting eagerly for the lasagna edition. My first lasagna ever was at Maruca's in Trenton NJ. I was seventeen when I got my cherry popped. Now I just make lasagna at home. With supplies from Bova.

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