Like most Italians, Campanians celebrate Christmas Eve dinner with their families. Indeed, this cena della vigilia is usually considered the most important meal of the holiday season, both for its religious significance and as the starting point of the winter celebrations. In Italy, it’s always prepared without meat and is what is known as magro, or “lean.”
Antonio Pisaniello is a talented young chef from Irpinia, the mountainous region in Avellino province, and he runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in Nusco, a medieval hill town at 900 meters (almost 3,000 feet) above sea level. Pisaniello’s La Locanda di Bu is hidden away in the heart of the village and has become a beacon for those wanting to sample the authentic flavors of this chestnut-wooded area a little more than an hour east of Naples. I asked him what he was going to serve his family for the Dec. 24dinner, where seafood is usually the star of the bill.
Italian tradition, locally sourced
“We are in what was formerly one of the poorest areas of southern Italy, but that doesn’t mean our food is less interesting or flavorful than elsewhere,” he explains. “Quite the reverse. It just means that instead of imported smoked salmon or caviar for our meatless meal, we can be more imaginative and use ‘inland’ fish like salt cod and preserved anchovies. They’re the poor man’s fish, so we’ll also be able to spend less.”
The traditional opener to the Irpinian dinner is l‘insalata di rinforzo. This “bracing” salad, said to augur good luck, makes colorful use of autumn and winter vegetables. Cauliflower steamed or boiled until it is al dente is allowed to cool before being cut into tiny bite-sized florets. It’s then stirred in a large bowl with black and green olives (Pisaniello slices the flesh from the olives rather than use a pitter), capers, a small finely chopped clove of garlic and red peppers that have been preserved in vinegar (sott‘aceto as the Italians call them). Pisaniello adds the new season’s extra virgin olive oil and stirs well. The salad can be made the day before and is best served at room temperature or cool, with some warm country bread.
Walnut pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and anchovies
For the pasta course, Pisaniello favors a very quick, easy and delicious recipe that relies entirely on the quality of its ingredients. “For four people, all you need is a handful of very fresh walnuts, four sun-dried tomatoes under oil, a tablespoon of good capers (preferably preserved under salt), a couple of anchovy fillets in oil and a few parsley stems. Oh, and the best olive oil you can afford.”
I watch as he quickly prepares the pasta sauce while the salted pasta water comes to the boil. The nuts, tomatoes, anchovies and parsley are coarsely chopped. The capers are rinsed in warm water to rid them of their excess salt. He heats a few tablespoons of oil in a frying pan (big enough to later hold the cooked pasta), then adds the other ingredients, stirring them over medium heat for 5 or 6 minutes.
Pasta followed by salt cod
When the spaghetti is a couple of minutes from being al dente, he stirs a ladle of the hot pasta’s cooking water into the sauce and brings it quickly to a boil. He scoops out another cupful of the water and sets it aside before draining the pasta and tipping it into the hot sauce. Then he stirs the pasta with the sauce for a minute or two over medium-high heat until it is well coated with the sauce. “If the pasta seems too dry or starts to stick, add a little of that reserved pasta water,” he says. “And that’s it!” The pasta is delicious, rich in flavors and textures with the sweetness of the tomatoes balanced by the crisp nuts and intense capers.
And to follow? “We love baccalà here, or salt cod, so we’ll have fried baccalà fritters after the pasta, but you could substitute any simply cooked local seafood. We’ll finish with a pretty dish of fresh fruit before going off to Mass.” Crisp persimmons, known as cachi in this part of the world, are in season now, hanging from their leafless trees like natural Christmas decorations, and their shiny apricot skins and aromatic flavors will be a fitting and healthy end to this special annual feast.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Top photo: Antonio Pisaniello and his spaghetti with walnut sauce.
Slide show and photo credits: Copyright Carla Capalbo