Interview With Arthur Schwartz
About His New Book, Naples At Table, HarperCollins, 1998
by Fern Berman
F.B. While reading through your book, I was struck by how familiar many of the dishes were to me. As an American, why is this food so familiar? Also, can you explain how this food is different here in the U.S. than it is when you eat it in Italy?
A.S. Neapolitan food is what the world thinks of as Italian food. It's the food of farmers and fisherman, with a streak of aristocratic refinement from the royal court of Naples. And it's not only the mother cuisine of the Italian south, but also the foundation of Italian-American cooking. Spaghetti with tomato sauce, pizza, mozzarella, sausage and peppers ... they all come from Naples and its region, Campania. Nobody -- at least nobody in America -- ever even heard of Northern Italian food until the 1970s. Risotto? Polenta? They're still a mystery, or at least a novelty to most Americans, whereas Neapolitan is our Italian soul food.
Of course the immigrant experience changed Neapolitan cooking on this side of the ocean. Neapolitan immigrants came to America from a land where they had very little to a land where they could afford so much more. In the old country there was a lot of poverty. In America there was abundance. The Neapolitans and Sicilians started changing the food they cooked and ate and it became heavier. The real thing is quite light and healthful.
Let's take meatballs as an example of what happens through the immigrant experience. In the old country, Neapolitans never had much meat, especially good meat. (Even today, although American-style steak is trendy with young people, most meat is braised or ground.) Real Neapolitan meatballs have a large bread content -- to stretch the meat. But as result of so much bread, which is soaked in water to make a sort of binder-paste, the meatballs are very light. In America, Neapolitans started using more meat -- they could afford it now -- and less bread. In most Italian-American recipes, instead of a good amount of soaked bread, there's only a small amount of dry breadcrumbs. The result is a meaty, but heavy meatball.
And instead of using a parsimonious hand with seasoning, as they did in Italy -- mainly because they often couldn't afford to spare a large amount of anything -- Italian-Americans started using seasoning more aggressively. Another example is eggplant parmigiana. It was never heavily breaded in Italy, but here it is. In Italy, it's made with a couple of slices of eggplant that have been fried and then layered with the tiniest bit of mozzarella, a sprinkle of Parmigiano and some light tomato sauce. In its way, it's quite elegant. And there are other vegetables made parmigiana style, but never breaded veal or chicken or shrimp.
F.B. What tomatoes do the Italians use in their cooking and what should Americans use when they are cooking this food -- sun-dried tomatoes versus fresh versus canned versus jarred?
A.S. In Italy, I was served a sun-dried tomato once -- it came on a plate, a precious little thing as part of an antipasto. They are not a popular product in Italy.
In the summer, Neapolitans use fresh tomatoes in their cooking -- mainly their world-famous, plum-shaped San Marzano tomatoes, but also fresh cherry tomatoes. In the winter, they use canned tomatoes or jarred tomatoes, or dehydrated but not really dried cherry tomatoes -- a particular kind -- or canned cherry tomatoes. Many people, even in downtown Naples, still put up tomatoes in jars. And you see jarred tomatoes in the groceries and supermarkets.
Americans should do the same as southern Italians. Use fresh plum tomatoes when they are in season, and canned in the winter. I'm starting to see jarred tomatoes, too, in specialty stores. I think jarred tomatoes taste slightly better than canned. But either can be wonderful. You can have a great canned tomato and a bad jarred. You have to shop around for a good brand, and remember that canned tomatoes should be used within six months. They start to turn bitter and flat after that. Even canned tomatoes have a limited shelf life.
F.B. What are some of the changes in food that are occurring in present day Naples?
A.S.We are talking about people who basically favor simple home food, and the dishes they have been eating for several centuries. They also love to go out for pizza. They are people who love to eat and carouse and love to cook, yet they are leading busy lives, just as we are here. More and more women are working and that presents the same time problems that we all have. As a result, convenience items like chicken cutlets are creeping in. I see pre- marinated chicken cutlets in butcher shops, and different styles of pre-made, already seasoned hamburgers.
And just like here, Neapolitans are becoming more health conscious. When they make ragu, their long-cooked meat sauce, they use cubes of lean beef and veal, instead of fatty pork cuts. They use extra-virgin olive oil more than the lard of the old days. But their traditional diet is basically rather healthful to begin with -- tons of vegetables and legumes, a lot of fruit, pasta, some cheese and fish, and very little meat. Although, I must say, they do love their sweets.
F.B. Serving and eating pasta is almost a way of life in Italy and it always tastes better there than it does here. Is it because most home cooks in America don't know how to cook pasta properly? Tell us how it should be cooked.
A.S. I know that pasta can taste as good in America as it does in Italy because mine does. Just stay away from fresh pasta unless it is very thin and finely made, which the American fresh, commercial product rarely is. Handmade, homemade is another story, but good pasta definitely cannot be made with an electric extrusion pasta machine. I depend on macaroni, dried factory-made pasta that you can buy in any supermarket. I actually think it is more noble than fresh egg pasta, and nearly always better made. Neapolitans perfected the art of making dried pasta in the 16th century to create a food that could be stored against the certain eventuality of famines. Nowadays it can be there for you always in the cupboard. What could be more noble than that? I like to joke that spaghetti lasts longer than most marriages, but it's no joke.
As for cooking dry pasta -- macaroni, spaghetti -- I have a rule of thumb -- a quart of water for every 3 ounces of pasta, which translates to 5 quarts of water for 1 pound. It's all-important to have plenty of well salted water -- at least a teaspoon of salt per quart of water, although I use more. Salt the water after it comes to a boil. Add the pasta all at once, stir it to separate the pieces, cover the pot to bring the water back to a boil quickly, then uncover the pot, let the water boil rapidly and stir the pasta every so often so it doesn't stick.
Neapolitans don't put a lot of sauce on their pasta, but they do either cook pasta in a sauce -- or pan drippings -- for the last few seconds -- when it is a little undercooked and after it is drained well ... but maybe with a little pasta cooking water ... so the pasta absorbs some of the flavor -- or they toss it with some sauce before plating it and adding a dab more sauce on top.
Also, pasta cools quickly, so if you want to eat it hot, as it should be, serve it in warmed bowls. And like a souffle, your eaters should be waiting for the pasta, not vice versa.
Naples is famous for dried pasta -- spaghetti and macaroni. One of the reasons is that the climate is so perfect for its production. The Sorrento Peninsula has the sun and breezes that are perfect for drying pasta -- although now it is done in drying ovens. Fresh pasta is eaten, too, both egg pasta and, in the mountainous provinces around the city, where the food is generally more robust than in town, they make fresh flour and water pastas -- such as fusilli, cavatelli, and flat noodles called lagane that are served with chick peas or beans.
As far as the quality of the pasta that you use is concerned, there is a lot of Neapolitan pasta coming on the market --it's often labeled "pasta di Gragnano," Gragnano being the most famous macaroni manufacturing town. The pasta is very firm and wheaty tasting. It's inexpensive -- 89 or 99 cents a pound. Almost all of the Italian imports are better than most American macaroni, but I use American products, too. I particularly like Ronzoni, which makes a few shapes necessary to my life. For instance, their cannelloni shells are exactly the same as the paccheri of Naples, a very popular shape there and one of my favorites because its floppy and fun to eat.
F.B. Speaking more about pasta, there are so many cuts or shapes, how does one decide what kind of sauce goes with each cut of pasta? Tell us about fresh versus dry.
A.S. The Italian philosophy is that every forkful of your pasta should be integrated with the sauce. Think about each bite as being a little bit of everything.
If you have a pureed type sauce, it usually goes on a long pasta so that it coats every strand. The Neapolitans make pasta and beans using tube pasta, so the beans can get caught in tubes. They serve a ragu, their meat sauce made with tomatoes, which has a more robust flavor and thicker texture than tomato sauce, on ziti. Linguine or thin spaghetti, not capelli d'angelo, is the pasta considered best for seafood. Here's a rule of thumb, heavy things go with heavy pastas.
F.B. What is your first food memory?
A.S. Until I was six years old, we lived in a two family house in Brooklyn. A Neapolitan family lived below us, the three kids, the mother, the father and the grandmother. They were newly arrived immigrants. We were always kept up until my father came home from work, which was after 7. So we could eat together. So my mother would send me downstairs to the other family, which ate earlier, to have some macaroni and sauce to tide me over. You might say I was weaned on macaroni with ragu. It's my soul food. Whenever I eat it, it brings back warm memories. Growing up in a neighborhood with Southern Italians, I grew up eating escarole and beans and lasagna. This was normal, everyday food. We were eating the real thing!
F.B. Why did you choose to write a book about the cooking of Campania?
A.S. I wanted to write a book that was a challenge and that was from my heart, a book about something I really wanted to know more about. Seeing the changes in Naples and seeing how the city has become tourist friendly interested me. No one had written a book about this complex cuisine in English -- no one had covered it even in books ostensibly about southern Italian food -- and it's the foundation of our Italian-American cooking. and the mother cuisine of the South of Italy. You have to remember that until the middle of the 19th century, all of the south of Italy was the Kingdom of Naples -- from south of Rome through Sicily, it was ruled by the Borboni out of their Neapolitan court.
F. B. Do you have some tips for the home cook making food the Neapolitan way?
A.S. About pizza. To make a good tomato sauce for a pizza topping, use the tomatoes straight out of the can. Whenever you use canned tomatoes, make sure that they are completely drained.
Tomato sauce should not be cooked for very long, 15 to 20 minutes is sufficient. Or make a "quick cook" 5 minute tomato sauce. The long-cooked sauce of Campania is not tomato sauce, but meat sauce, called ragu.
About garlic. Neapolitans like to use garlic delicately. More often than not they saute slightly crushed garlic in oil to impart flavor to the oil, then take the garlic out of the oil, discarding it. And here's something interesting: They never -- well hardly ever --combine onions and garlic in the same dish. I actually believe that agita, the heartburn that people often complain about after an Italian-American meal, comes from combining garlic and onions.
Find out more about Arthur Schwartz at his Food Maven Website
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