Naples at Table is more than just recipes—it's a rich, detailed narrative spoken by a man happily in love. Arthur Schwartz isn't a novelist who sets up a love story within Naples. He is, however, a writer, and his paramour is all of Naples: the city and surrounding region of Campania, the culture, people, history, and of course, the food.
But this is not puppy love, it's not sappy, or goo-goo-eyed, or a love of perfect idealism. Arthur Schwartz has for Naples the same mature love that comes about only in certain close, long-term relationships. He reflects on Naples almost as if he and it were a cozy couple who have lived together for decades... they sit side by side and read for hours, rarely speaking, then eagerly share their day's musings over a sunset glass of wine—learning something new in every conversation, even after so many years. He loves Naples for what it is, with all its beauty and blemishes. And he brings this love to the reader, describing how and why he's so attracted to this lifetime soul mate, at one moment stroking the gentle curve of her neck, at other times enlightened and amused by her unsophisticated or naïve perceptions. Clearly, Naples has seduced the author by her alluring complexity.
Not surprisingly, Arthur embarks on his topics and even his recipes with lead sentences that are themselves conversation starters. An award-winning radio host and cookbook author, Arthur knows well the art of engaging people in lively dialogue. I find it hard to leave his company when opens up his pages with words like these:
"Campanians start their day with sweets, end their day with sweets, and punctuate their day with sweets. It's no wonder the English love Campania."
"The famous rabbit dish of Ischia is really rabbit cacciatora. Island experts would disagree with this." (Rabbit in the Style of Ischia)
"By the time this dish is finished, the chunks of lemon pulp will have turned into a sauce lightly thickened by the flour that otherwise will have formed a nice crust on the shrimp." (Jumbo Shrimp with Lemon)
"In Agropoli, a thriving resort town at the southern end of the coast south of Salerno, near the beaches on which the Allies landed to liberate Naples in 1943, you can still buy home-canned tuna." (Spaghetti with Canned Tuna)
"So much depends on the fine points for this dish to be right." (Spaghetti with Anchovies)
Arthur's romance with Naples and Campania began thirty years ago, at a time when the area was still reeling from the long-term effects of World War II. "At the Naples train station, I was accosted by cab drivers, baggage carriers, and boys and women selling cigarettes, 'Omega' watches, and various personal services," he writes. "Somehow I managed, without being conned into buying something I'd regret, to get safely to the Santa Lucia hotel... I merely had to pay the cab driver double the meter to get my luggage... As a New Yorker accustomed to fending off a street hustle, and growing up surrounded by southern Italians, I acclimated quickly."
Passionate as they are in day-to-day events, Italians in general have a calm, unwounded attitude when it comes to disasters. After all, the whole country is fixed with reminders of civilizations and conquerors that have come and gone for thousands of years, but the people themselves survive, eat well, and families take care of each other. In Campania, war is but a man-made disaster. The volcano—Mount Vesuvius—is far more unpredictable. Ironically, its many waves of destruction have also produced the same fertile soil on which the people thrive. Today, as Arthur points out, this region has grown economically and culturally, done away with the once ubiquitous poverty, still disregards its politicians with a yawn, and while it has reduced street crime, the undercurrent of organized crime is as present as the quiet but still-active Mount Vesuvius. And all of these aspects play a part in the way food is produced, cooked, eaten and appreciated.
I have read Naples to Table cover to cover—every recipe, story, sidebar, and anecdote—and I ever enjoy reading these parts again and again. I have not, as yet, attempted all of the 250-plus recipes, but the dozens I have recreated attest to the integrity of the book in both spirit and cooking. Poverty and hardships have never crushed the spirit of Neapolitan cooks. Nor have the injections of French and aristocratic influences overwhelmed the core of simplicity at the heart of Neapolitan cooking. These are authentic, genuine recipes that require no special expertise to make them, yet their straighforwardness is precisely what makes them so appealing. As I taste them, I conjure up images of red-checked tablecloths, Chianti bottles with candlewax dripping down the sides, red-sauced spaghetti, and humble ingredients first introduced to Americans by communities of Italian emigrants and in particular by their most avid promoter, the virtuoso Enrico Caruso.
This summer and beyond, I plan to re-visit this author's love affair with Naples, digesting more good food and good reading. For in this book, Arthur emulates precisely the typical Neapolitan waiter he describes: "a man who knows from his history that a few cents' worth of food tastes so much better when it comes with a flourish, a story, a song, even an argument." 'Ec come!'—and how!
Naples at Table
Cooking in Campania
Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created July 1999
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