The Recipe of the Neapolitan Ragu` . . . Dedicated to my Father.

“Babbo” and I at the beach, Paestum 1964

Today is Father’s Day in USA and although in Italy we celebrate this holiday on March 19th, it feels appropriate to dedicate this post to my father.

It was June 5, 1998, it was a sunny afternoon and I was sitting on the sideline of the soccer field where my children were training. Unexpectedly, I saw my husband walking toward me, his expression was gloomy and when he asked me to step aside, my heart skipped and I just knew that something terrible had happened. My father, 4600 miles away, had died, suddenly, of a stroke. I don’t need to explain what or how I felt then, but today what still hurts the most, is that I could not say goodbye.

No time for tears, just let me tell you about the Ragú Napoletano,  that wonderful, comforting slow cooked meat-based sauce, synonym of pranzo della domenica (Sunday family supper). My mother was an excellent cook and she would make handmade pasta, tagliatelle, gnocchi, fusilli, strascinati, orecchiette . . . like no other, yet my father was the king of the ragú.

My father would wake up at 5:30 AM every Sunday and after his caffè and his first cigarette he would start the ragú. First he would prepare the braciole (slice of meat rolled -up), one made with beef and one with cotica (pork rind). He would season them with with garlic, salt, pepper, parsley, pine nuts, raisins and grated cheese. The braciole, along with the rest of the meat, were going in the pot with the onions, then the wine, last the passata di pomodori (tomato pureed) – which we usually bottled at the end of summer. For the next 4-5 hours, my father would tend to the ragú  like it was a work of art . . .  Letting the sauce pippiare – an onomatopoeic word that describes the sound of the sauce that barely simmer producing tiny bubbles – stirring once in awhile, tasting for salt and pepper.

My brothers and I would wake up to the aroma of the ragú and my best treat of the morning was a small slice of bread smothered with sauce.

The  sauce usually serves as condiment to the ziti spezzati – my mom used to buy the long ziti and it was my job to cut them into short pieces – or to the paccheri, or to the handmade pasta that my mom had prepared. The meat, covered with sauce,  was the second course along with the obligatory patatine fritte (fried potatoes) and  insalata verde  – just plain green lettuce – simply seasoned with olive oil and squeezed lemon.

Now, to find an original, traditional recipe of  ragú it is not easy task, so I have always relied on my memories and some research. The ragú, is prepared with large pieces of meat that are browned together with a lot of onions. The choice of  meat cuts seems to be the main issue, and not just for me . . . If you have 3 minute to spare,  you might enjoy this clip from  Sabato Domenica Lunedì, an Italian movie, starring Sofia Loren. Rosa Priore (Sofia Loren) is shopping for the perfect ingredients for ragú; in the macelleria (butcher shop), she gets into an argument  with another client about which meat cuts to use.  I am sorry the clip is in Italian – actually Neapolitan – however, tone of voices and expressions tell it all . . . and who doesn’t want to see the beautiful Sofia Loren!

Italian meat cuts have such distinctive names, cappello del prete, piccione, locena and so on, that I often find very difficult to translate them into an English equivalent. So many times, I show up at the butcher counter with a meat chart  and I point out the cuts I need. So here is a picture for you.

One of the more traditional recipe advise to use the following cuts of meat (The numbers correspond to the cuts in the picture, I also added the English equivalent):

Scamone (#14 – beef rump), annecchia (veal stew), one slice of locena (#2 – beef brisket), noce di vitello (#16 – veal sirloin), pork ribs, and one piece of cotica (pork rind).

In my recipe, I follow the traditional cooking method, however, I do not use the lard – originally used instead of olive oil – and the pork rind. For the meat cuts, on this particular day, I used what I found available – pork and beef.  Keep in mind that I often cook for only 3-4 people therefore I need to adjust my recipes accordingly.

Ricetta

RAGÚ NAPOLETANO

Ingredients for 8 persons:

1 pound rump (#14)

1 large slice of brisket (#2) not too thick.

1 pound veal sirloin (16)

1 pound veal stew

1 pound pork ribs

2 large Vidalia onions – sliced

6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoon butter (I use butter-oil combination as substitute for lard)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup of red wine

1-1/2 pound tomato pureed

salt and pepper to taste

fresh basil leaves

fresh parsley

1 tablespoon pine nuts

1 tablespoon raisins – previously soaked in water

½ cup freshly grated Parmiggiano Reggiano

1 clove of garlic finely chopped

Directions:

First prepare the braciola: lay the slice of meat on a chopping board, season with salt and pepper. Add parsley (hand-chopped), pine nuts, raisins, and grated cheese. Roll-up the meat and tie with cooking twine.

Season the rest of the meat with salt and pepper. Tie the large pieces with cooking twine to keep the shape.

In a large pot heat the oil and melt the butter. Add the sliced onions and the meat at the same time.

On medium heat let the meat brown and the onion soften until almost disappear. To achieve a perfect result you must tend to each step with care. During this first step you must be vigilant, don’t let the onion dry, stir with a cucchiaia (wooden spoon) and start adding wine if necessary to keep moist and facilitate the melting of the onions.

Once the onions have dissolved and the meat has browned, add the tomato paste and a little wine to dissolve it. Stir and combine the ingredients. Let cook slowly for 10 minutes.

Time to add the tomatoes pureed, season with salt and black pepper and stir.

Cover the pot but leave the lid ajar, you can place a wooden spoon under the lid. The sauce must cook very slowly for at least 3-4 hours.

Remember, as they say in Naples, the sauce must “pippiare”.

Pippiare . . . can you see the tiny bubbles?

After 2 hours add few leaves of basil and continue cooking.

IMPORTANT: Half way through, don’t forget to dip a piece of bread into the sauce and have your first taste of heaven!

During these 3-4 hours you must keep tending to the ragú, stirring once in awhile and making sure that it doesn’t stick to the bottom.

Carne al ragu`

The sauce, as I mentioned can be use as condiment for different kind of pastas. This sauce is also used in the preparation of the lasagna napoletana and the parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmigiana).

On this particular occasion, I used my ragú to make fusilli e strascicati al tegamino – my husband had just returned from Italy and brought me back these fresh homemade pasta. See in pictures the steps and final product.

Before I leave . . .HAPPY FATHER’S DAY TO ALL THE DADS!!!

Fusilli and Strascicati directly from Italy!

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A place of my childhood . . . Paestum

Paestum is an ancient Graeco-Roman city in the Italian Region of Campania. It is located in the Cilento and Valle di Diano National Park, near the Tyrrhenean sea.

Paestum was founded in 600 B.C. by Greek colonists and its original name was Poseidonia in honor of the Greek’s Sea God, Poseidon.

In 273 B.C. the Romans took possession of the city, and they renamed it to Paestum.

In the 9th century, the Saracens’ incursions, along with the mosquitoes infected by malaria, forced the inhabitants to abandon the  city that was later buried by swamps caused by the river Sele. Paestum remained hidden until 1748, when the excavation for the construction of a new road brought to light the well preserved Greek-Roman temples.

If you visit Paestum you will be astonished by the grandeur of the standing remains of three major temples. These temples are  the best preserved Doric temples in the world, outside of Greece. The temples have been traditionally identified as the Basilica and the temples of Neptune and Ceres. In reality, however, they were dedicated to Hera and Athena.

In Paestum you will also able to visit the National Archeological Museum of Paestum that documents the evolution and transformation of the city; here, you will be able to admire some architectural and sculptural decoration from the excavation, and the painted slabs of so-called Tomba del Tuffatore (Tomb of the Diver), the sole example of painting of the Greek age of Magna Grecia.

But Paestum is not only an archeological site, on your way to Paestum you will travel along the so called Strade della Mozzarella (Roads of the Mozzarella). It appears that at the beginning of the 9th century AD, the Muslim Arabs introduced the water buffalo in the area. More than 1000 years later, Paestum and the plain of river Sele are home to the tame herds of water buffalo whose milk is used to craft the delicious mozzarella di bufala. Both sides of Route 18 are pullulated with cheese factories where you will be able to savor the freshly made mozzarella and many more specialties, all derived from water buffalo’s milk.

Few years ago, on an afternoon trip to Paestum with my family we stopped at one these caseifici (cheese factories) and my youngest son, Mattia, could not stop eating the still warm bocconcini di mozzarella (mini bites). With his mouth full, he kept saying : “ Oh my God, this is the best thing I have ever eaten! “. You would never know until you taste the real thing!

For me Paestum is not just about the magnificent temples or the tasty mozzarella. Paestum has a special place in my heart. I have spent most summers of my childhood on the sandy beaches just north of the archeological site. When people ask me why I wanted to be an architect, my mind goes always back to Paestum, to the memory of the temples and to the end of summer when, back home, I used my wooden blocks to recreate the temples.

How many beautiful memories I have, the soft and warm sand, the cavalloni (giant swells), the sandcastles, the merry-go-round on the beach, the quiet afternoon on the shaded porch playing with the lizards, the smell of pines from the vast pineta (a large area of pine trees), the foraging for blackberries, the sweet figs, the artichokes’ fields, the bright red tomatoes, the herds of water buffalo in the field along the road and the freshly made mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella), the gelato at the bar of the lido (bathing establishment), the afternoons horsing around at the Greeks temples, the stairs to the top of the Saracen Tower, the strolls with my big brothers, the lingering fragrance of the gigli di mare (sea lily) growing out of the sand, the color of the oleanders, the waves of velvety ‘piante di sigari’ (cattail), the hours spent learning how to swim, the evening watching my parents dancing under the stars, the fuochi d’artificio (fireworks) to celebrate the Ferragosto, the dark nights brightened by the miryads of fireflies. . .

Lately, I also learned that my two wonderful older brothers used their cute little sister (me) to attract all the pretty girls on the beach. I have not memory of that and  it seems hard to believe considering how jealous of them I was. . . I remember that!

My boys

Few years ago, I went back to Paestum with my children because I wanted to share with them this place so special to me, and today I share with you few of the pictures I shot on that lovely afternoon.

I hope you will all have a chance to visit this beautiful place.

The Epiphany. . . La Befana

January 6 is a National holiday in Italy. It is the Epifania (Epiphany), a Christian holiday celebrated precisely on January 6, 12 days after Christmas.

The word Epifania derives from the Greek word epifanèia, which means “the manifestation or the appearance”.

The Epiphany celebrates the first manifestation of Jesus to the world through the visit of the Re Magi (three wise men) coming from the East, led by a comet to adore the Baby Jesus and to offer their gifts of gold (symbol of royalty), frankincense (symbol of divinity) and myrrh (symbol of the future redemptive suffering).

The celebration of the Epiphany is also accompanied by traditions of very ancient lineage (solar cults) and in particular the visit of la Befana on the eve of January 6. The tradition of La Befana may actually predates Christianity, as it is believed to have derived from a pagan goddess or oracle that Romans sought for guidance and gifts at the start of each new year.

“la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte il cappello alla romana, viva viva la Befana!!!”

(The Befana comes at night with broken shoes and a roman hat, hurrah hurrah for the Befana!!!)

With this rhyme the Italian children every year celebrate the arrival of the old, good witch.

La Befana is a typical Italian tradition.

According to the modern legend, the Re Magi (The three Wise men), on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Baby Jesus, stopped for directions at an old woman’s house.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

Despite their insistence in following them, the old woman did not go, as she was busy sweeping the floors.

Later, the old woman repented, prepared a basket of sweets and left the house hoping to find the three Wise Men. She stopped at every house and gave candies to the children, in the hope that one of them was Baby Jesus. Poor Befana never found her way to Bethlehem. But, every year at Christmastime, she takes her broom and flies all over the Italian sky, leaving gifts and candies to every children.

La Befana is typically depicted as an old beneficent woman, with the hump nose and pointed chin, dressed in rags and covered with soot, because she enters into the houses through the chimney, which represents the connection between sky and earth. She carries on her shoulder a bag full of gifts, and is said to sweep the kitchen with her broom when she leaves her gifts in the children‘s socks.

The festivity of the Befana is particularly felt in Rome, where many families each year gather in Piazza Navona to meet the Befana and enjoy her confectionary.

The Befana traditionally rewards the well-behaved children with gifts and candies, while she punishes the ones who have misbehaved, with pieces of coal as a reminder of their misdeeds.

But. . . nobody is perfect, so you will find in the “calza” (sock – stocking) a nice chunk of coal and then, digging deeper, among some walnut and mandarins you will always find candies and chocolates.

The eve of the Befana is a night of expectation for all the children who, before going to sleep, write the letterina (short letter). The letterina to the Befana is a must. You write how good you have been or how sorry you are for your misbehaving and then you ask for gifts for yourself and for your loved ones.

One more thing before going to sleep must be done, setting up a tray with the Befana’s meal. I know. . . you are thinking cookies and milk just like Santa Claus! Well, you could not be more wrong. . . cheese, tangerines and a glass of red wine! In true Italian style!

I have many memories of the night of the Befana but, two in particular that I would like to share. When I was a child, my family didn’t have a fireplace to hang the stockings so my mom would set up a drying rack. One year I remember hanging long wool tights on each string of the rack. That was a lot of stuffing to do for poor Befana! I remember waking up the following morning and finding the drying rack set on top of the dining room table, all the tights were filled and a beautiful electric train was assembled at the foot of the drying rack all along the edge of the table. Oh, I was so happy!

My second memory brings a little sadness. I was six years old when my grandmother passed away just two days before the Epiphany. I was sent to stay with some close friends. That year, in a home that was not mine, I had not written my letterina (short letter), or left a meal for the Befana and not even hung my calza (stocking). Despite all, I woke up to find my calza (stocking) filled as usual, and the gift I had wished for. My Befana knew, and even in a time of grief she remembered that I was only a little kid.

My mother has filled my brothers’ stockings and mine until we moved out. Often with the candies, walnuts and tangerines, we would also find a scarf or hat that she had hand knitted.

Today, I still fill my two, now adult, son’s stockings and I will keep doing it until they go on their own. I fill their calze (stockings) with Italian candies and chocolates, tangerines, walnuts and a stuffed animal, a tradition I started on their first Befana.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

With la Befana the Italian Christmas Season is officially over, as the saying goes “L’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via!” – “The Epiphany all holidays takes away”.

It is time to take the Christmas tree down, to store the presepe (Nativity scene) in its box, the wreaths and garlands in the storage room and to turn all the shining lights off.

Anyway, if there was not the Epiphany to take all the holidays away, we would still have the Home Owner Association to remind us that we only have this weekend to make sure that no signs of Christmas would be in sight!

How many of you celebrate the Epiphany?