Monday, May 20, 2019

The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples

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

I've trained myself to play "what doesn't belong here". If you drop me in Times Square I won't holler "Look! Hard Rock Cafe!" That's not where my attention goes. I photoshop-erase 95% of any landscape, and what's left is my bubble, which I pretend is all there is (this explains how I spot, say, a churro lady amid all the neon). It's a benign insanity; the sort of indulgence I once explained thus:
Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell. That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some reason, childish and loopy.
The "what doesn't belong" habit is so entrenched that I can't stop doing it even in places like Naples. And so, while waiting for Mimì alla Ferrovia (covered here) to open for lunch, I strolled the neighborhood, immediately zeroing in on a stealthy Moroccan joint. And couldn't resist going in. And, once in, had to try a bite, even though I was about to eat elsewhere. I wasn't specifically craving Moroccan food, but I was compelled to gratify my inner Moroccan.
There are two schools of food writers covering world cuisines. The first are like gringo anthropologists, poking and prodding. They are fixed points while the restaurants revolve around them. The second school is the one I subscribe to: the mergers. We eat Moroccan like Moroccans, Peruvian like Peruvians. The culture du jour is the fixed point, and we do the revolving, feeling at home everywhere thanks to malleable cultural stem cells, paisonified even when we look nothing like the rest of the crowd.

My school lost (this is surely why there's been little interest in Eat Everywhere, my smart phone app), so I'm the last of the Mohicans, endlessly questing for the old tribe's fry bread.
Ristorante Bourouta is a staunchly immigrant-facing operation (I'd bet you I was the first non-Moroccan ever to enter.....and it doesn't google at all). I gave it only the most perfunctory exploration, but what I saw and tasted there impressed me a lot. It's very close to the main train station, again, just down the block from the well-known (though faded) Mimi alla Ferrovia, somewhere between #37 and #26 on Via Carriera Grande.

The counter lady was all business until I asked for mint tea, which she, of course, failed to understand. I performed an elaborate pantomime of pouring tea into a cup, exaggerating the traditionally lengthy Moroccan pouring stream...
Stolen photo, sorry

...into something cartoon-like. I watched her mental gears operate as she 1. snapped instantly into comprehending my request, 2. registered amusement at my display, 3. recognized my unexpectedly easy familiarity with Moroccan tea-pouring technique, and, finally, 4. couldn't restrain her mirth over the whole damned vignette - and meta-vignette - gigglingly connecting, against all instinct, with the suddenly-hip stranger who'd a moment earlier been a clueless tourist. Her precise and fast mind (in a just world, she'd be an engineer or lawyer) went click-click-click-click while I watched appreciatively - which she also registered, along with my registration of her registration. She won't forget me, nor me her.
The appreciation of tiny, fleeting things - I call it nano-aesthetics - is a core tenet of my religion.
This is harcha, described in the Moroccan section of my Eat Everywhere app like this:
It was perfect. Staunchly traditional, with no nuances sacrificed to expediency. It didn't need to be so deeply brown (snatched from the oven a nano-second before drying out and burning), or so crusty, or so moist inside. And the tea contained multitudes.

The kitchen staff were filling earthenware tagines with devastating-looking stews. I'd figured this would be a humble snack shop, but it's a completely below-radar Moroccan virtual reality; a direct portal. I didn't feel comfortable taking sweeping photos, but I hope you can feel it a little.

I never managed to return for a proper meal (that high priority to-do item was a casualty of my second glimpse of ridiculous death). But if you ever get there, please report back.
I captured something special while shooting the restaurant's sign from the sidewalk for reference purposes. A fellow who'd walked into the frame was less than overjoyed to be there. I think I captured something not often caught on film (at least not by photographers able to tell the tale).
To grok how fleeting it was, here's a video loop made of the "live" photo.

Kudos to my new friend for packing so much expression into a mere fraction of a second. It's more than the greatest actor could pull off.

I want to reaffirm that every single person in this restaurant - none of whom spoke my language, and all of whom had reason to be startled by my incongruous presence - could not have been more hospitable. In fact, those were the warmest 10 minutes I spent in Italy (aside from my time at the table of Mamma Grimaldi, who we'll visit in the final trip report, and who's not in Italy so much as hovering over it from some celestial realm).

So what's going on here? Easy: Hearts that open all the way can snap shut just as tightly. I noted earlier that the soulfulness of a place like Naples is easily confused with peril. Morocco (a place where I've spent time) is orders of magnitude more soulful...and thus proportionally more dangerous-seeming. We all must decide how much human rawness we can tolerate - and how numb we're willing to become to insulate ourselves.

Most of us, alas, have forgotten we have a choice. Amid our mannered First World sterility, we might remember that there are warmer, more soulful (and, yes, scarier) places out there. Since they reflect a more natural human condition, they feel like home - for better and for worse. Within this reframing, I see this guy as welcoming me home one way, and the reluctantly giggling counterwoman doing likewise in another way.

Next installment of my Italy trip: Jewish and Comedy Food in Italy

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