By Yasmine El Tabib
I bet you are aware that Germany’s beer has standards regulated by the law. Did you know that the Neapolitan pizza does also? In 2004, the Ministry of Agriculture defined the ingredients and production of the “Pizza Napoletana STG.” It must include wheat flour type “00” with the addition of flour type “0” yeast, natural mineral water, peeled tomatoes or fresh cherry tomatoes, marine salt, and extra virgin olive oil. All these regulations are in place in order to protect the integrity of this Italian tradition.
In Naples, locals are proud of all their acclaimed dishes (not unlike other regions of Italy), from simple to rich. The magic of Neapolitan cuisine is that many of the dishes are not so bourgeoisie. They don’t require expensive, or numerous ingredients. Some of the most iconic dishes of Naples use ingredients like pasta, beans, eggplant, pepperoncini (spicy peppers), tomatoes, and basil. None are too fussy, they don’t require extraordinary cooking spells, and they are all extremely flavorful. The French and Spanish rule may have caused stratification of the social classes, which is still in place today, but no matter the social class, “si mangia bene” (one eats well).
Even from the most commercialized dishes, such as the pizza or spaghetti with red sauce, Neapolitans will argue that none tastes quite like the dishes made at home, with ingredients from their garden and their sea. TLC can go a long way. They will even go so far as to say that their very own mamma or nonna (that continue to cook decades-old recipes), do it better than even their own neighbors.
I dare you to try and compare the parmigiana melanzane (eggplant parmesan) you know vs. one made in a home in Naples. I bet the eggplant, tomato, garlic, basil and onion probably weren’t grown in your garden, or close to you. Chances are, even if you opted for the more expensive, imported parmesan, you didn’t get it from the family that owns the neighborhood cheese shop. However, it’s these distinctions that make all the difference. It is these distinctions that have people raving about the food they ate in Italy, even if they know about every Italian restaurant in town.
Not to say that all dishes are simply made. Many of them, especially the sweets, require some skill in the kitchen. Sfogliatelle and torta ricotta e pera are specialties with layers of preparation. The clam-shaped sfogliatelle’s light, flaky outside is tough to master with the weightiness of the ricotta stuffed inside. Torta ricotta e pera requires many layers-the outer biscotti, the ricotta cream, and the poached pears must come together seamlessly.
So, if you’re thinking you can imitate the regional specialties of Naples, think again. The dishes are homegrown and will forever stay that way. When you visit Naples and see for yourself, remember that you are participating in traditions that have lasted for centuries. Don’t be scarce with your compliments, like “squisito,” “straordinario,” or “ottimo”; you might get to taste some of the homemade limoncello or wine that’s reserved for special friends. It will really warm you up to the vibrant people, and potential friends that you will encounter along the way.