Traditions evolve over time negotiating changes with the contemporary world. This is especially true for gastronomy, as chefs are open to experimentation and fusions with other cuisines. However here in Italy, where there is such a variety of regional cuisines and biodiversity, this often happens in-house, so to speak.
Festivities are always a good excuse to get together and enjoy large family feasts, and diets invariably start after Christmas. The most important meal being the Christmas Eve Dinner, with the children opening their presents immediately after, and some adults going to church for Midnight Mass.
How do you prepare for Christmas Eve Dinner and what are the traditional dishes served?
Needless to say, fish is especially popular, and Baccalà, salted Codfish, is considered a must. It can be served fried in batter, in umido – boiled or fried – dressed with tomato sauce, olives and capers, or inside insalata di rinforzo, a salad with cabbage, mayonnaise and Baccalà. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is an example of a traditional family menu in a Neapolitan household.
The Neapolitan Family Menu
Olives, groceries, octopus salad, anchovies
Spaghetti with Clams
Mullet, Baccalà, Capitone eel
Insalata di rinforzo, salad
A very tense house-wife would be cooking all this with little help from the husband, and dreading judgement from the mother in law. However, the couple would have a special moment together and actually enjoy doing all the shopping for it.
This would happen – and does indeed still happen – on the night of 23rd of December. Fishmongers open early in the morning and close as late as 2 a.m.! Yes you got it right! It’s crazy but it’s fun. People go shopping for fish late at night.
A late night out shopping for fish
When they get to the fishmonger’s they choose the fish expertly, have a chat and improvise an aperitif with raw shellfish varying from mussels to clams, taratufi – warty venus clams, small shrimps, oysters and white wine, which has now evolved into Prosecco. This is possible because most customers will have ordered their fish in advance, and not everyone turns up at late hours. The fish shop will have lemons ready for the shellfish, eager to offer customers a treat that has been around far longer than the recently introduced sushi-style crudités. The shops will be lit up with the big light bulbs from Lampare, the old fishing boats, decorated with fishing nets, and display some live fish in shallow bowls, or some very large ones like whole sword-fish. The most popular places in Naples are Mergellina, by the sea front towards Posillipo, the market Aret é mura, near the ancient city gates of Porta Nolana and Porta Capuana, and Pignasecca market in Montesanto.
How have traditions changed from the past?
Luciano, a fish monger from Fuorigrotta recalls “My mum used to make spaghetti with Lupini – a cheaper variety of clams – with tomato sauce, to consume less olive oil, because we didn’t have much money. Everybody used to eat Cefalo – mullet, which is a little frowned upon now – Baccalà and Capitone, whereas now we only sell 30kg of it over the Christmas period”. Leonardo, another fish monger from Rione Sanità explains “Nowadays the older family members have to have their piece of fried Baccalà and Capitone, the middle aged like Pezzogna di mare – sea bream – and the children get plaice and calamari”. So there is a slightly different menu for every age group, introduced by sfizi – fun starters like prawn cocktails and oysters, and an overall tendency to prefer fish with no bones, including lobster and squid, which are relatively easier to cook.
Taste it yourself
If you are not fortunate enough to be invited home by a traditional family, you can still taste Baccalà and other delicacies in a restaurant. Moreover, you won’t have to wait till Christmas, or engage in heavy duty cooking. These are the restaurants that have included salted and dried cod, Baccalà and Stocco, into the best recipes of Italian Cuisine, making it their choicest ingredient.
La Locanda del Baccalà
This restaurant boasts three branches, with premises in Marcianise, Salerno, and Cava Dei Tirreni. As the name suggests it specialises in dishes featuring Baccalà as the main ingredient.
Traditional Italian recipes have been reinvented, to host this tasty guest. An example? Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Baccalà instead of Pancetta or Guanciale – bacon and cheecklard respectively – as a more healthy alternative, rich in flavour. This has led to the creation of a recipe book, recently published, called ‘50 Sfumature di Baccalà’ or ’50 Shades of Baccalà’.
Each branch has its style, with a Baccalà Boutique in Marcianise, the Locanda or Tavern in Salerno, and the Street Food shop in Cava dei Tirreni.
The Ristorante Bianco, or White Restaurant, specialises in Baccalà dishes, but also offers excellent fish food from the whole range of fresh catches from the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Rather than working on traditional dishes featuring Baccalà, they have worked on innovative pairings, such as Baccalà Tartare with Basil Pesto alla Genovese, or even Risotto with Baccalà and Pumpkin. The Restaurant can be found just outside Arzano, a town in the province of Naples.
Le Due Palme
Obviously named after palm trees the Restaurant also mirrors the surname of the owners, Palma. It specialises in sea-food in general. It is located in Agnano, not far from Pozzuoli, where there is an excellent fish market, regularly supplied by local fishing boats with some spectacular live catches. A signature dish is fried Baccalà in almond crust resting on a chickpea puree with a side dish of Peperone Crusco and Frarielli – local varieties of peppers and broccoli, respectively.
The Restaurant is also an authentic Neapolitan Pizzeria, which means it is ideal for kids who may not always appreciate fish. It is on the Astroni hill, near the WWF Astroni Nature Reserve, so if you get the timing right you could visit the reserve and have lunch at the restaurant.
All the restaurants mentioned can be considered mid-range in price, with variations according to your appetite and how lavish you get with the wine.
Fishmongers used to hail their customers with local dialect expressions that are now almost lost. ‘E palill aret é carrett’ – ‘the wooden pegs securing the load on carts’ was a reference to how large and tasty the anchovies were.
Not wholeheartedly honest, fishmongers used to serve fish wrapped in thick paper. However the paper would have been artfully wet, thus weighing almost as much as the fish it contained. The boy cleaning the fish would have an empty crate under the counter, called croce, the cross, and slip in a piece of fish from every customer, so he could have fish for his family Christmas dinner, a form of ‘charity’ that the clients were not aware of.
Nowadays customers will show up when the shop is crowded and ask for their fish to be not only gutted, but also filleted and portioned. This will be included in the price, with no additional fee, but the staff will appreciate a generous Christmas tip.
Side story courtesy of Leonardo, a Neapolitan Fishmonger
Sean Grant Altamura