Christmas is the feast par excellence in Naples. Neapolitans do not have the privilege of enjoying a white Christmas. Often Christmas is not even very cold but the morning stroll calls for coats and scarves: everybody must appear "wintry" during the visits paid to relatives and friends to bring good wishes. Everyone is elegantly dressed, including children who, truth be told, would prefer to play with their new toys received from Santa Claus but who are lured out with promises of "centostelle" (fireworks) and their curiosity to meet friends and to find out what gifts they received.
An aperitif at an upmarket bar is an absolute must. Appointments are made for the forthcoming feast days to organise the jovial "tombola" get together – Neapolitan bingo, where during the year cabala, tradition and wisdom link events and objects to the lotto. Over Christmas this takes place at home for fun and with very low winnings.
There is no escape, at Christmas home is the place to stay. In the company of your family to eat, drink and play. Everything must be perfect, table setting takes on a livelier tone then that for Christmas eve; mistletoe, angels, coloured napkins and many many dishes. A proper tour de force filled with joy.
The first serving is vegeterian, the superb " minestra maritata" (married vegetable soup). This is a spectacular dish, full of flavour and tradition.
Neapolitans went from being "leaf eaters" to "macaroni eaters" and at Christmas this passage is celebrated by preparing dishes which combine the two. Neapolitan vegetable gardens are legendry, the volcanic element of Vesuvian land makes it very fertile. So much so that Romans called it the Campania Felix, and leafy vegetables are still a favourite amongst Neapolitans. Broccoli, endive, "torzelle" together with cereals are present on Neapolitan tables every week of the year.
The "minestra maritata" (married soup)
I have childhood memories of the bathtub being filled with food twice a year. The first time every July, when tomato sauces were prepared and the bath was filled with tomatoes which were then boiled, pureed and boiled again in glass bottles to then form the base of the Sunday meat sauce present in any Neapolitan home worthy of its name. And again at Christmas, when stacks of vegetables from the country are immerged in water for rinsing.
I recall terracotta glazed green speckled pots where at least 15 types of leafy vegetables were tied. My grandmother, a matriarch when it came to Christmas and to and cooking, explained to me the difference between black broccoli, Christmas white broccoli, green broccoli and olive leaf broccoli, bitter broccoli, chicory, "cicorione", "torzelle" curly and plain endive, borage, baby cardoon etc. while she rinsed them, peeled them and put them aside.
The vegetable soup is said to be "married" because the mixed vegetables are boiled and then "united" to their spouse, that is a selection of meats to enrich the broth. The list of ingredients is: a very rich stock made of carrot, onion, celery, whole grain pepper and a whole chicken, two pork trotters, pork ribs, a bone of ham, two pieces of pork skin, parmesan rinds, sausage, salami, spare ribs. Everything is placed in a pot and left to simmer all night and then finely skimmed from all fat. When done, the meat is taken out and the stock filtered. The vegetables are boiled in another pan until half cooked (3/4 minutes) and then strained and added to the meat stock until cooked through. The meat, which is now extremely tender after the slow cooking, is cut into small pieces and mixed with the vegetables in a deep dish; parmesan is grated on top to finish off this very rich Christmas dish.
Fusilli pasta with ricotta and meat sauce
– The pasta
Neapolitans' favourite pasta on Christmas day is very long fusilli. This is pasta which is hollow inside and twisted to resemble the curly hair of renaissance women. Of course, the best pasta is to be used, Gragnano pasta: bronze die, coarse, very coarse to passionately cling on to the sauce like a woman in love with her man, uniting the meat sauce to the ricotta while remaining firm and al dente without losing its flavour. The taste is complex, rich and a pleasure to the palate.
– The meat sauce
This is the typical Neapolitan tomato sauce made with a base of stir fried onion and a little celery, no carrot. Pork ribs, beef chop, red wine, to which once nicely browned tomato sauce is added (purists use tomato puree "a cunserva"). The sauce is left to simmer for hours, as they say in Naples "pippiare" that is cooking very slowly): for the holy Christmas lunch, the little bubbles must gently soothe the meat for at least six hours.
The result is a very dark translucent sauce which is served in a soup bowl and mixed hot but not boiling with the fresh ricotta bought on Christmas eve. The resulting brick red sauce results goes to colour the freshly cooked fusilli.
This is a very important dish because every year, under his plate, with great surprise, father finds a letter containing the Christmas poem which his child furtively places there during the switching of plates from the first to the second course. Surprised and happy, he listens to the child who in front of all the family recites the poem, often annoyed by some uncle who jokingly interrupts or exaggerates the rhymes or the accents to make the child's task harder. The child must concentrate on the father's gaze and carry on unperturbed without stopping. At the end, when upon the last line being read there is applause and a prize, a banknote from the father and sometimes, if the child is lucky, another from the grandparents.
Lunch goes on with countless types of baked meats. chicken, lamb, pork and, of course, a range of side dishes. Everybody ploughs on, through this food marathon to reach the last milestone, the dessert: Rococò, mustacciuoli, pollici di monaca, susamielli, raffioli, these are dry sweets that are purchased from the local confectionery, with chocolate and spicy aromas, splendid and rich in taste – a heavenly smell of Christmas. The hostess will surely have prepared the Struffoli covered with honey together with the diavolilli, a true Christmas glory: a large plate with a golden mountain of balls covered in multicoloured confetti and shiny honey. This is also why Naples is Christmas!
Restaurants which prepare good Christmas specialties:
La Cantinella via Cuma 42 Napoli
Palazzo Petrucci vico San Domenico maggiore 4 Napoli
La Favorita ('O Parrucchiano) corso Italia 71 Sorrento
Il Buco 2' rampa marina piccola 5 Sorrento
Antica Osteria Nonna Rosa via privata Bonea 4 Vico Equense
Taverna del Capitano piazza delle sirene 10 Marina del Cantone, Nerano