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FALLING IN LOVE WITH NAPLES. STEP #2 – ANTIQUITIES. The past and present collide.


Really? Is it necessary to explore the ancient cities and visit a museum to understand the modern city of Naples?

I think it is. Firstly, Naples is not a modern city though it lives in the modern world. Unlike Rome, where history sits strata upon strata like a many layered sfogliatella, in Naples, history is amalgamated, more like a minestra maritata (see below for recipes) – a fine ‘marriage’ of elements, each ingredient separate, identifiable, but adding to the whole.

A side street, just off Spaccanapoli, where the rhythm of the life remains unchanged. Only the vespas and mobile phones tell us we are in a modern city.

We see the obvious dichotomy of the sacred and profane in the ancient cities; the prudish and the promiscuous; the abundance and scarcity. This is retold every day in the streets and houses of Naples, just as it was in ancient times. In Pompeii, the penis shaped graffiti chiselled into the paving stones and on the corners of buildings, remind me of the crude and bawdy Neapolitan attitude to sex – sex is a natural bodily function to be celebrated but also to be laughed at. We see it in street theatre, Commedia Dell’ Arte characters, the vulgar popular songs – C’e’ la luna mezza mare, Come facette mammetta - and yet, on the flip side of that same coin are the righteous nonne. Those grandmothers are adored and feared, with their black scarves, still in mourning, lutto, years after their husbands have passed away. They tell another story. The holy and the crude is everywhere in Naples. In spaccanapoli, (the straight, narrow main street that literally ‘cracks’ the historic centre of the city in half), there are shrines to the Virgin Mary, to Diego Maradona, the soccer player, and to Pulcinella the secular 'icon' of the city. The sublime and the ridiculous, as always in Naples. And it is the same with those grey haired nonne. With gold crucifix around their neck, they are the only ones who know how to ward off the spell of a ‘malocchio’ (see next post) or cure a headache set by an envious curse. The priests preach that this dabbling in the dark arts is a sin, the nonne know otherwise.

Rubbing Pulcinella's nose for good luck, scaramanzia, superstition, lives alongside fervent religious beliefs in Naples.

Small group tour, October 2017.

A makeshift sign imploring Naples' patron saint, San Gennaro, to "make his miracle" and ensure a successful year.

Surely, the obsession with making la bella figura (see previous post), so ingrained in the Neapolitan psyche, began in the ancient cities, part Greek, part Roman. In Pompeii, we visit the House of Menander where a wealthy merchant gives notice of his status from the entrance of his villa, flanked with Corinthian capitals, to the astonishingly vivid painted scenes from Homer’s Iliad. We giggle at the grotesque, oversized penises (along with money comes another kind of potency), until we are stopped dead in our tracks by the magnificent Villa dei Misteri with its life sized frieze in the large triclinium (dining room). This was unbridled wealth, on show, meant to impress. Then we go to Castellammare di Stabia and see the safes in the two resort houses – on plinths in the atrium – these house owners have such valuable things they need a safe! Bella figura, indeed.

A mosaic in the House of the Neptune, Herculaneum. I have no words.

Astonishing frieze 'rescued' from Herculaneum, now held at Naples' Archaeological Museum.

This is how I would approach Naples: first the Vesuvius crater walk to understand the phyche of the people, then Pompeii and Herculaneum to see the Romans in their everyday lives and finally to Castellammare di Stabia when Romans were in holiday mode in a coastal resort. The ancient cities put Naples into perspective. The wealthy lived in grace and elegance. Modern Neapolitans do too. The poor, as always, live on the streets and by their wits. But Naples has heart. Everywhere, the graffiti and street art reminds us that all is not well, that people are suffering. Cafes and restaurants offer 'caffe' sospeso'. When I buy a coffee, I leave enough money for someone to have a free one, 'on the house'.

Our lovely Neapolitan host, Alex. In the poster, is the urbane comic,

Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno Porfirogenito Gagliardi De Curtis di Bisanzio (15 February 1898 – 15 April 1967), best known by his stage name Totò. Born in a poor part of Naples as Antonio De Curtis, and nicknamed il Principe della Risata ("the Prince of laughter"), Toto' is commonly referred to as the most popular Italian comedian of all time. Writer and philosopher Umberto Eco has commented on the importance of Totò in Italian culture:

"[...] in this globalised world where it seems that everyone sees the same movies and eats the same food, there are still unbridgeable divisions between cultures. How can two people ever come to understand each other when one of them is ignorant of Totò?"

I find this so true: his legacy of comedy, drama, poetry and song, is 'lost in translation' for someone without Neapolitan roots.

To round off the antiquities, I would spend at least a couple of hours in the Archaeological Museum to see the extraordinary treasures - the delicate friezes, the exquisite bronzes, the amazing jewellery and glassware.

In the atrium, or covered courtyard, of a wealthy Roman's house was an impluvium, a basin in the centre of the atrium to collect rainwater coming from the compulvium, or the opening in the roof. These bronze figures surrounded the opening and directed the water into the basin below. What a sight!


No visit to Naples is complete without sampling the pastries. There are many to choose. Some belie their origins in the Greek, Spanish-Arabic and French rulers who all left their mark on the people, culture and cuisine.

Sfogliatelle Ricci, however, is the queen of all the Neapolitan pastries. Baroque in its richness, I think it is a flawless masterpiece of flavour and texture. The best sfogliatelle, in my humble opinion, are found at Sfogliatelle Mary in Galleria Umberto and Scaturchio in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 19. Thanks to my sweet friend Tommi Greda I have a recipe to share with you. It requires patience and a little practice to shape the pastry...and you must find strutto, pure pig fat, to anoint the layers. This is essential, as strutto melts completely at human body temperature, so the palate doesn’t have a sticky layer of fat that competes with the textures and aromatic flavours of your gorgeous sfogliatella. If you can’t eat them all (you’re just not trying), they freeze well. Sfogliatelle should be eaten only in the morning – with an espresso or even a cappucino or caffe’ latte.

Perhaps you will never make them, but the recipe gives you an insight into the labour, love (and lard!).


4 egg yolks

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon Strega liqueur

1lt milk

2 tablespoons plain flour

1.25 cups fine semolina

candied citron peel, cut into small pieces

zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

zest and juice of 1/2 orange

Beat egg yolks with a little sugar and flour. Add liqueur. Place milk in a heavy based saucepan on low heat and stir. When just warm add the egg mixture and the rest of the sugar, stirring all the time. When it is all mixed, add semolina in a thin, steady stream and stir until thick. Take off heat. Cover with paper so that it does not form a crust. When cold, mix in the peel, zests and juices.


3 eggs and 1 egg white

3/4 glass white wine (125ml)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 heaped tablespoons cornflour

4 cups plain flour

melted strutto for brushing

Mix all of these ingredients together to produce a firm dough (like pasta dough). Work dough until smooth and firm. Divide dough into 3 pieces and divide again in 3, giving 9 pieces. Rest a little. (The pastry, not you.)

Put each piece through a pasta machine about 6 times until it is silky smooth. Then put the pastry strip through the pasta machine going thinner and thinner each time until you have put pastry through the thinnest size. The pastry should be as wide as the pasta machine rollers.

Place one sheet of dough onto a bench and straighten up on one side. Brush lightly with strutto. Add a second sheet of rolled out dough onto the first sheet. Brush with strutto. Do this 3 times = 3 layers of dough and strutto. Roll the 3 sheets very tightly into a swiss roll – it must be very tightly rolled. Refrigerate to firm up and to relax the gluten.

Cut the rolls into 1 cm thick pieces. Roll into a oval with rolling pin. Add a tablespoon of the pastry cream to the centre, pushing the pastry out with your fingers to make an oval shape. Brush 1/2 of each oval with water and fold into a 1/2 moon. Brush with strutto. Bake in a preheated oven at 180C until golden brown. Dust with icing sugar.

Morning tea at my house with Tommi Greda's sfogliatelle.


This is a simple soup which belies its long and noble history. It is recorded in Marco Gavio Apicio’s cookbook of the Roman Empire. I say it is a simple soup, and yet it is kept for feast days, at Christmas, and for us in Australia, also for the colder days of Easter. It is hearty and sustaining but it uses all manner of meats and its cooked over several hours – so certainly not an everyday soup. I will give you our family’s recipe but in her later years, my mother sometimes replaced the three kinds of meats with tiny meatballs made with pork, veal and chicken mince with loads of parsley and parmesan.

This soup is common to all of Campania but particularly to the Irpini region – those hills outside Naples where my parents were born.

I often see this soup listed as ‘wedding soup’. No, no! This rich, rustic soup would never be served at a wedding. It is a ‘marriage’ of flavour, texture and ingredients.

This recipe makes a lot – it keeps well. We often serve the ‘leftovers’ poured over a piece of toasted sour dough cafone, rubbed with garlic.

Fiano d’Avellino from the same area is the perfect wine to accompany this soup.


2 maryland pieces chicken

400 g gravy beef, oyster blade or even osso bucco

400 g spicy Italian pork sausage

200 g pork ribs

1 ham bone

1 onion, finely chopped

1 stick celery, chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

300 g broccoli di rape, trimmed and washed

300 g savoy cabbage, shredded

300 g curly endive, washed and separated into leaves

500 g spinach or silverbeet, washed and cut into ribbons

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

100 g fatty pancetta, very finely minced

1 clove garlic, mashed

4 tbsp Parmigiano Reggiano

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, extra

salt, pepper, chilli flakes

Cover the chicken, beef, sausages, ribs and ham bone with water. Slowly bring to the boil in a large saucepan. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Now add the onion, celery and carrot and allow to simmer for 2 hours or so, until the meats are very tender. Remove the meats and when cool enough to handle, pull off all the meat from the bones and leave in chunks. Set aside, covered with a little of the cooking liquid to keep moist. Strain the cooking broth and remove as much fat as you can.

In the meantime, in another saucepan, blanch the broccoli di rape, cabbage, endive and spinach in salted water separately, remove and squeeze dry. Combine in a bowl.

In a small frying pan, heat the oil and saute the pancetta. When the pork has rendered its fat, add the garlic taking care not to burn it. Pour this oil mixture into the green vegetables.

Add the pulled meat and green vegetables back into the strained broth. Build up the quantity with chicken broth or even water and simmer very slowly for another hour or so. Serve hot, drizzled with the extra olive oil and accompanied by a bowl of grated Parmesan.

Photo credit: taken at Taverna Paradiso, Benevento, October 2017,

Via Mario la Vipera, just behind the wonderful church of Santa Sofia. Recently, the church won UNESCO World Heritage status for its Lombard architecture.

My small tour group refused to walk another step without some sustenance. We stumbled into his rustic restaurant well after lunch service and Rosario feed us until we were replete. We discovered he had a bitter sweet association with our home town of Adelaide, Australia and we took it upon ourselves to reset his memories and make them sweeter. I hope we succeeded.

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