Burt Wolf's Menu: Campania, Italy - #110

The Italian region of Campania has some of the most beautiful landscape in Europe.  Its resort village of Positano is world famous for its picturesque charm. And the entire district is the birthplace of what most North Americans consider their favorite Italian foods.  It’s also home to a group of extraordinary wines.  So join me in Campania, Italy for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The province of Campania is situated on the southwest coast of the Italian peninsula.  During the 800s B.C., the ancient Greeks settled in here, and by the first century A.D. everybody who was anybody in the Roman Empire wanted to have a vacation home around here.  The style of the place was a mixture -- a little bit of the Hamptons on Long Island, some Malibu beach from just outside Los Angeles, and a light dusting of Aspen, Colorado. Virgil had a place here, Horace, Ovid, even Cicero -- and the traffic from Rome on the weekends was murder. 

But the area was not just a spot for holidays.  The main city of the province was Naples and from the very beginning of its history it was a major port.  If you were going to do business, or make war in the ancient world, controlling Naples was a primary objective.  The Romans hung on for a few centuries, but when Rome fell, so did the fortunes of the region of Campania. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The German tribes came through and sacked everything.  Then the Moslem Saracens came up from the eastern Mediterranean.  Next were the Norman Knights.  They were passing through the neighborhood on the way home from their Crusades in the Holy Land.  When they got a good look at the land around the Bay of Naples, well, there was no going home for those boys. 

After a while the Normans lost control and the Germans of the Holy Roman Empire took over.  The French had a crack at running the place.  Spain controlled the area for a time, through the great power of the Bourbons. And the Austrians ruled for a while through the Hapsburgs. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For over 3,000 years, Campania was just a pawn to foreign powers, but all that changed in the mid-1800’s when Garibaldi united the districts of this peninsula into modern Italy. Of course, more foreigners come here than ever before, but they are no longer tyrants, just tourists.

Both the ancient Greeks and the Romans were impressed with the quality of Campania’s soil.  It was an ideal place for growing fruits and vegetables, and olive trees produced excellent olive oil.  The hills were planted with vineyards that yielded highly respected wines.  The climate was mild enough for the planting of citrus crops and the growing season lasted all year long.  At about 600 A.D., water buffaloes were brought here from India and today great herds of their descendants are used to produce the finest mozzarella cheese.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For just about a thousand years, foreign rulers made Campania a difficult environment for the average person.  So when the chance arose for them to immigrate to North America, many of them did so.  During the period from 1880 to 1920 over four million Campaniase moved to the United States and Canada. But unlike the groups that moved before them, they flatly refused to change the way they ate in the old country.  As a result, today, when we think about Italian food, most of the time we are thinking about food that comes from the area areound Naples.

Let’s start with pasta.  When you talk about pasta there are two basic types.  There is fresh pasta, traditionally made every day at home, usually flat, a specialty of the northern part of the country, and until very recently, not very common in North America.  Then there is dry pasta, produced in factories, and hard and round instead of flat and soft. This is the specialty of the southern part of Italy. Its most common form is spaghetti and it has become as basic to the diet of North Americans as hamburgers and hot dogs.  The factories of Campania have been producing dried pasta in the form of spaghetti, or in one of its variations, since the 1400’s. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now if you think spaghetti is a major contribution to North American eating habits, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Naples has an extraordinary reputation for great ice cream, and it was an immigrant to the United States from Naples, one Philip Lenzi who ran the first advertisement for ice cream made in a factory.  It was in a New York newspaper, and the year was 1777.  So:  before Breyers, before Sealtest, before Haagen Daaz, before Ben or Jerry, there was Lenzi. But as they say in television -- don’t go away, there’s more!  It was from Naples that North America received its first pizza delivery.

The word pizza means “pie,” and in one form or another it has been part of the diet of people in the near east and around the Mediterranean for thousands of years.  The pizza of Campania is descended from an ancient Roman breakfast which was made up of a flat piece of baked dough, with an assortment of toppings.  It had a raised edge so you could eat it easily by hand and not lose any of the topping.  When we use the word pizza in North America we are usually talking about the pizza of the Campanian city of Naples. It can be presented in a size that is big enough to give a course to a number of eaters at a dinner, or as a meal in itself for a single person.  In Naples there are two pizzas that are considered authentic, and truly appreciated by everyone. Pizza Napoletana, made with tomatoes and garlic and oregano... and what appears to be the hometown favorite, Pizza Margherita, containing tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil. Though sometimes there is an addition of oregano, or parsley.  The essential aspect of the Margherita is that the three major ingredients represent the colors of the Italian flag:  green, white, and red.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now, this pizza comes along with a story.  It’s the story of a local pizza baker named Raffaelo Esposito. One day Raffaelo gets a call that the visiting King Umberto I wants him to come over and bake a pizza so he can have a taste of this local specialty. Raffaelo grabs all of his gear and his ingredients and heads over to the king’s apartment.  He bakes him a pizza, but he only uses ingredients that are the colors of the Italian flag.  And then, for extra points, he names it after the King’s wife, Queen Margherita of Savoy. Great shot.

Just around the corner from Naples is the town of Positano.  Positano clings to a semi-circle of cliffs that rise up from a cove in the Mediterranean.  The name probably comes from Poseidon, who was the ancient Greek god of the sea. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Positano has a long and interesting history.  During the ninth century it was one of the cities of the Amalfi Republic, and very powerful. A group of them actually got together and wrote the first laws covering the sea.  During the tenth century, Positano became a major trading center, and eventually did so much business with the Middle East that many of the merchants here became extraordinarily wealthy. A lot of that trade was done in the spice business. But when steamships came along in the 1800’s, business, and life, pretty much passed Positano by.  There were eight thousand residents at the time, and six thousand of them decided to get up and look for work in New York City -- many of them settling into buildings on Manhattan’s Columbus Avenue.  Now, for many years I lived and worked on Columbus Avenue, so I feel very comfortable and at home in Positano.

Positano is a excellent example of the picture-perfect Italian fishing village that has decided to welcome a limited number of English speaking tourists.  As you come into Positano there is only one street and it only goes one way.  Which is to say that all roads in Positano lead out, and once you are out all roads lead in.  Sounds confusing, and it is.  The waterfront has the required display of beach chairs and cafes.  There’s a shop that for over 30 years has been making sandals while you wait... which seems a long time to wait...  There is a vendor who is famous for pottery with a particular style that is associated with the Amalfi coast, and dozens of small boutiques that appear to be selling the same clothing.  Actually they are not the same, they are just all representative of a local fashion.  There’s also a shop that can show you the latest Big Town vogue. Positano’s geographic position places it just across the bay from a location of considerable importance in classic literature. In the ancient Greek story of the Odyssey, the hero describes the challenges of his journey in the following words:  “The first adventures that we had to overcome awaited us on the Isle of Sirens.  These are nymphs who sing so infatuatingly that they bewitch everyone who listens to them.  They sit on the green shore and sing their magic music.  Whosoever lets himself be enticed across to them will meet his end.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And so Ulysses had himself tied to the mast, and his ears stuffed with wax so he could sail safely by the Sirens.  Legend has it that those islands out there are the very same islands that Ulysses was talking about.  They’re right opposite Positano.  For many years they belonged to the Sersale family, whose family has been in this neighborhood for over 900 years.  They’re still in view of the Sersales, who have taken up residence on the mainland. 

This is their home and it is called Le Sirenuse which means... The Sirens.  Actually their home is a series of apartments in the center of these buildings.  Very slowly and very carefully, since 1953, they have been adding additional rooms and turning the property into a beautiful resort. There are 60 rooms, all of which face out on the sea.  The entire property really has the feeling of a large family home in which you have been given your own living area.  The furnishings are mostly the property of the family and the public rooms are set up as small individual areas so that you always have a sense of privacy.  The pool... the outdoor bar... the terrace dining room... all look out on the sea.  These days it’s run by Antonio Sersale, whose love of good food has led him to open a cooking school in the hotel.  A school that is devoted to preserving and teaching the classical and traditional dishes of Neapolitan cookery. Today Antonio and Chef Alfonso Mazzacano are instructing their students in the proper preparation of Neapolitan meatloaf.  My kind of dish.

The chef is making two loaves, but I’m going to give you a recipe for one.  Start by placing five slices of white bread into a bowl and letting them soak in a quarter of a cup of milk.  The bread sits together with the milk for a few moments, at which point the milk is squeezed out and the bread is torn up and added to two pounds of ground beef.  Two tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese are added, some salt and pepper, a quarter cup of chopped parsley, a clove of chopped garlic, and three eggs.  All those ingredients get mixed together.

ANTONIO SERSALE:   Very important to mix it with your hands, making sure that all the ingredients are blended in together; really nothing better than your hands to mix the meat together.

The mixture sits aside for a moment while the chef makes a flat omelet with two eggs.  While the omelet is cooking, the chef makes two flat discs out of the beef mixture... they’re about an inch thick.  A few thin slices of ham go on.  A few slices of mozzarella cheese.  Then the omelet.  The meat is rolled up to make a tube with the ham, mozzarella and omelet in the center.  Sometimes the chef puts a towel around the cylinder to help shape it.  Then the loaf is given a light coating of flour and sauteed in some oil for a minute or two on each side to give it a golden brown outside color.  Then into a heat-proof pan and into a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for an hour.  When it comes out, it’s ready to serve.

ANTONIO SERSALE:   There is a variation on this preparation, insofar as that if you do not want the meatloaf to fry in oil, you can place it in silver foil that has been slightly oiled and then place it in the oven.

Either way, it’s sliced and served with potatoes, string beans and tomatoes. 

The second recipe from Le Sirenuse is not being prepared for the cooking school.  It’s just lunch for me, Antonio and the chef, and it is pasta with olives and capers. The chef starts by heating a sauté pan and then adding in a little olive oil.  As soon as the oil is hot, in go three anchovy fillets.  Standard stuff.  The same type of anchovy fillet that you would find in any North American market.  The anchovies are stirred around and broken up in order to flavor the oil.  Then two cloves of minced garlic are added, plus a pinch of crushed dried red pepper.  Those ingredients cook for a moment at which point they are joined by a half cup of black olives, and a half cup of green olives, both pitted and sliced.  Next in... two teaspoons of capers, a tablespoon of oregano, a tablespoon of minced fresh parsley and a quarter cup of chopped fresh basil.  A minute of cooking and stirring and a cup of canned Italian plum tomatoes are added with their juices.  That is the basic sauce and it simmers for about five minutes.  Meanwhile, four quarts of water are brought to the boil. Then in goes a pound of linguini pasta.  The pasta cooks for between six and ten minutes, until it is just done, but you can still feel a distinct firmness.  The only way to know when it’s ready is to keep tasting it.

ANTONIO SERSALE:   In the south of Italy, people like their pasta al dente; they want to be able to feel its crunchiness, and, in fact, when they sit to the table, the first fifteen minutes of conversation are dedicated to how well the pasta is cooked.

When the pasta is ready, it is drained from the water and goes into the sauce to be coated.  A few flips.  A little stirring.  A final addition of about a quarter of a cup of chopped basil and it’s ready to go onto the plate.

Positano is right next to Pompeii and Herculaneum and a number of other leading archeological sites of Italy.  Two thousand years ago this was a very important spot in the ancient Roman Empire.  It was part of the largest metropolis on the west coast of Italy, busy and growing.  The volcanic Mount Vesuvius had always stood nearby but the people who had the job of predicting the future by looking at the entrails of animals told everybody that Vesuvius was asleep, and not to worry.  Well, those guys should have used those chicken livers to make pate.  On the 24th of August, 79 A.D., Vesuvius blew its stack. Pliny the Younger, a writer of the time, described the event as a blast that sent flaming lava and hot earth into a cone that rose up into the sky for some 50,000 feet.  The hot gases and ash that came down into the towns suffocated the inhabitants and buried the area under more than 20 feet of debris. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The buildings lay hidden until the 1700’s when they were rediscovered, and archeological research like the one here is still going on.  We’re learning more and more about the way the ancient Romans lived, especially about the way they ate.  One of the most amazing buildings belonged to a guy who was a saucemaker.  He produced something like ketchup, and it was used pretty much the way we use ketchup in the United States and Canada today.  Or in the way the Japanese use soy sauce. It was called “Garum,” and the recipe appears to be to take a lot of fish and a lot of salt salt and some spices and throw it into a barrel, and leave the barrel in the sun for a couple of months.  When historians have tried to reproduce this dish, they found something that was very salty and kind of unattractive. But they have an explanation of why the Romans might have loved it.  The Romans cooked in pots that contained lots of lead, so a lot of them had lead poisoning. One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is an inability to taste salt. So they added more and more salt to their diet. Some of the historians also believe that lead poisoning was also a reason for some of the bizarre behavior in the Roman empire.  A good reason to watch out for lead in our own diets.

The Greeks and Romans and just about everyone else who has lived in or visited this part of the world has been impressed with the local wine.  Campania is one of the world’s oldest regions for the production of wine.  Historians tell us that the ancient Greeks planted vineyards here, and there is clear evidence that the ancient Romans produced some of their best wines in the soil of Campania.  Part of the reason that the soil is so productive is that it is filled with nutrient-rich volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius. I guess every volcanic cloud has a silver lining.

The ancient Romans had some favorite grape varieties from the area, too.  One was called Aglianico. The Romans had called this grape Vitis Hellenica meaning “Greek Vine.” Another variety was called Fiano.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For years the it was thought that the Fiano grape was extinct.  Then in 1952 a local wine expert by the name of Antonio Mastroberardino discovered a small group of them growing wild.  He decided that what he was gonna do was bring them back to the quality that had made them famous during the time of the ancient Romans. 

The Mastroberardino family started making wine in the 1500’s.  By the 1700’s they were cellaring wines and today they are the most important winemaking family in southern Italy.  Antonio and his sons, Piero and Carlo, are the present generation.  In spite of the 400 years of winemaking tradition in the household, everyone is extremely interested in developing the most advanced technology for their production. And because their winery is really relatively small, the family has been able to do some interesting things.  It’s an ideal place to follow the more advanced methods for making wine.  Carlo conducts the tour.

CARLO MASTROBERARDINO:  Basically when the, when the grapes arrive, they are thrown into this vat, and from here they arrive to the crushing machine. 

BURT WOLF:   So the grapes come from the field here --

CARLO MASTROBERARDINO:  (over)  That’s right --

BURT WOLF:   -- and they’re dumped right in, and then they are pushed along and crushed.  The stems are separated out, and they go away --

CARLO MASTROBERARDINO:  What happens with the stems is that we collect them and we bring them back to the vineyards, because they’re an excellent natural fertilizer. ... The next step of the process is pressing.  What we have here is four soft horizontal presses.  As you can see, there are quite too many for a small winery like ours.  However, the reason for having them is the fact that we don’t like to press different juices one on top of the other at any part of this process; we like to keep separating all of the aromas and the flavors of the different juices.  Therefore, one press is, for the whole time of the harvest time, is going to be working on the juice that we use to make the wine Fiano.  The second one is only working for the juice that we need to make the wine Greco; the third one, for Lacryma Christi, and then, the fourth press is used only for the Aglianico juice, which is the juice that we use for our red wine, Taurasi. ... After pre-filtering, the juice, which at this point is left without the skins, goes to the second filtering machine, which is a more selective one.  As you can see, this is the output of a lot of solid particles that were left in the juice from the vineyard and that now are being taken away.  And you can see the difference, which is amazing enough, in these two glasses.  This juice is prior filtering, this is after filtering.

BURT WOLF:   Amazing.  ... The wood is a natural way of drawing things out of the wine that you don’t want in it --


BURT WOLF:   -- and putting flavors in.

CARLO MASTROBERARDINO:  That’s right, that’s right.  Now the wines are made, fermentations are completed, and the red wines arrive to the wooden casks, made of Slavonian oak, where they do their time of maturation in wood.  We use Slavonian oak casks for our big reds, Taurasi and Lacryma Christi red, as you can see on this side.  Instead, on this side, you see some concrete vats, which are not really used anymore, but they’re kept because they represent a moment of our history.  In fact, they were built right after World War II.  And they were built because the original casks were destroyed by the German army as they were leaving this area.  They didn’t want to leave any type of food or beverage to the enemy, the American army, and therefore they came here and they shot into the barrels.  After the war, we had to start working again right away.  There were no barrel makers, there was no money in the company, and therefore the concrete vats were the only escapeway to start working again.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   These days Mastroberardino is using these ancient grape varieties to produce some of the finest wine in Italy.  You know, in a time when we are losing many of our agricultural species, and farmers are being forced to choose from a smaller and smaller gene pool, it’s really nice to see someone preserving our ancient agricultural heritage.

In the center of the Italian town of Avellino is the Church of the Oblate, and opposite, a narrow side street without a sign.  But the serious eaters of the neighborhood know precisely where it is because the street is home to a locally famous restaurant, Antica Trattoria Martella.  The restaurant has made its reputation by presenting the traditional home recipes of the region.  And I think the reason there’s no street sign is that the locals want to keep the place a secret.  Today the chef, Joey della Bruna, is preparing Steak Pizzaiola.  The recipe begins by slicing off a steak that is about one inch thick and then trimming away the fat.  A little oil goes into a non-stick pan and as soon as it’s hot in goes the steak.  Two minutes of pan frying on one side, then over it goes for two minutes of pan frying on the other.  A pinch of salt and then off to a warm plate to wait, while the sauce is made.  I like Joey’s system for keeping the steak warm.  He puts a heat-proof plate over a pot of simmering water.  That’s it.  The dish stays warm but not so hot as to continue cooking the steak.

The sauce is made by pouring out the oil that was used to pan-fry the steak and pouring in a little new oil.  Some chopped garlic is added, and a cup of cherry tomatoes that have been cut in half.  If cherry tomatoes aren’t in your market you can use any good quality fresh tomatoes or some good quality canned tomatoes.  The tomatoes are pressed with a spoon to release their juices, at which point a little oregano goes in... some fresh basil... a little more stirring and five minutes of cooking with the cover on.  Then the steak goes into the sauce, the cover goes back on and there’s a final three minutes of cooking. That’s it.  The steak goes onto the serving plate and the sauce on top.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s my report from the Italian region of Campania.  Whenever I think about it, I’m going to remember that it is from this area that North America got ice cream, pizza and spaghetti.  But I’m also going to remember that it is the home of Mount Vesuvius, that extraordinary volcano.  And as they say in the neighborhood... lava or leave it.   I can’t believe I said that.  Please join me next time; I’m Burt Wolf.