‘L’appetito viene mangiando’ literally means ‘your appetite comes when you eat’. Used half-jokingly to justify squeezing in yet another plate of pasta, my Zio Mario’s maxim says a lot about Southern Italian food. Why waste time tweezering gold leaf onto your desert, sprinkling your soup with tiny jellied pansies or arranging a helping of potato wedges into an ornate Jenga stack when you could just eat it? He would tell you to just put the food in your mouth – that’s when the best bit comes.
My family, based in Campania, a bit further down from the Amalfi Coast and inland of the island of Capri, are gobby creatures in all senses of the word – they love using the holes in their faces to talk (or rather, shout) as much as they love filling them with food. This seems to make sense to me, since when we talk we share ourselves with one another, just as we do when we eat. Despite Italians loving chit chat – I can’t go 10 steps in Italy without Nonna stopping for a three hour chat with a nearby man/woman/stray cat whom she claims we are ‘related’ to – there’s something that their cooking which words cannot express. This explains the series of hand gestures or sayings they’ve developed; my Zio Anthony, upon finishing a particularly tasty dish of insalata di polpo (fresh octopus salad) last summer, drops his fork, closes his eyes and whispers ‘fine del mundo’ – his seafood is so good it has literally caused ‘the end of the world.’ A bit much if you ask me, but it attempts to evoke the feeling only a carbonara, lasagne or cannolo can.
It’s incredibly pretentious to describe Southern Italian food as a ‘multi-sensory experience’. But the heat appears to actually make the food better: whether it’s from helping the growth and flavour of ingredients or speeding up cooking time, the Mediterranean sun does have a certain magic in making dishes fall perfectly together. The views help it taste better too – the town of Agropoli is home to Ristorante Barbanera, overlooking the Cilento coast and harbour (pictured). The ocean-eyed Aldo graces our table with plates of frittura di pesce (fried calamari, prawns and sardines), spaghetti alle vongole and antipasti con ricotta e bocconcini (lil mozzarella balls – incred), which are as tasty as the Instagram content my brother harvests from the seascape. The Campanian hills, about an hour or so from Vesuvius, are just as majestic as the iconic buffalo they home and the mozzarella and ricotta produced in the region. Both are a staple for both tourists and locals; a local (Dad likes to say ‘cousin’) of Capaccio used to supply cheese to Jamie Oliver.
My Zio Ninuccio remembers aged 14 receiving pieces of chocolate from American soldiers upon the liberation of Capaccio from the Nazis in 1943. The hilltop town houses Bar Centrale and Ristorante Pizzeria U’Scugnizzo (the ‘Street Urchin’), again places at which I’ve enjoyed eating since a young child. My mum and I stroll around the Giardini, pistacchio and nocciola gelato in hand, just as we did ten years ago. Maybe it’s the slower pace of life– good luck finding a shop open between midday and 7pm during July or August– but things do seem a lot simpler down there, from the snail-paced daily routine to the small pool of ingredients people choose to eat from. New Year has seen my annual pledge to vegetarianism and my subsequent tirade of excuses: ‘No, I am an eco-warrior but, I just, it’s so hard to find meat-free alternatives know what I mean’ (absolute rubbish, I am well aware). When pigs fly and JP Morgan finally comes knocking on the door having seen my LinkedIn profile, and I can therefore afford my second home on the Amalfi Coast, it will be incredibly easy to go veggie: the Southern Italian diet excludes a lot of meat, the heat not conducive for lush, grazeable pastures.
Product of an English mum (says sorry a lot, can’t get a tan) and Italian dad (aggressively gesticulates when drunk), the Mediterranean lifestyle has always been a source of intrigue for me. In particular, there’s always seemed a hushed secret to the inexplicable wonder of the cooking; not only are seats at all the best eateries dished out only by word of mouth, but in Hastings, East Sussex, my Nonna or Grandma Carmela makes it very clear that the kitchen is strictly her terrain, before emerging hours later with a plate of unfathomable deliciousness. Upon offering my services for the umpteenth time, and for the umpteenth time being told to jog on, I wonder what it is that attracts Nonna to such laborious dishes. She spends over five hours every Easter whipping up a Neopolitan Easter cake, a Pastiera. Don’t get me wrong, I will stuff my face when it’s completed, but doesn’t it make for a lot of work? Under the joys of lockdown, this Easter I tried to replicate my own version, pulling out what appeared to be a simple set of instructions from my Dad’s box of recipes. 45 minutes later I am scrunched on the floor in tears, egg in hair, apron tossed across the kitchen: ‘Scrap that.’ I’m one for traditions, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Perhaps my incompatibility with the kitchen flags yet another problem with the snowflake generation. My Dad rams the phrase ‘labour of love’ down my throat multiple times when justifying the unnecessarily long amount of time taken for a good risotto. I’m learning that it is just as much a ‘love of the labour’, an enjoyment of meals from their conception to consumption. Whereas I might drag myself on a ‘welfare walk’ around Uni Parks or give my dogs a cuddle if I’m feeling a bit down (they’re desperate for lockdown to end), Carmela will rustle up a warming minestrone soup. For my Mediterranean relatives, food is intrinsic to an idea of ‘home’: its appearance is as rustic as the slightly dishevelled towns in which it is created, but its flavour is also just as rich with cultural history. With one of the oldest populations in Europe, it is no surprise that mealtimes in Southern Italy to this day remain a family affair.
The best food I’ve had in Italy is always at the table of my Zia Rina, who, at the end of the sweaty slog from Naples airport, rewards us with a plate of pasta al forno (sort of like a meat pasta bake with boiled egg – just go with it). I never used to get why my Dad would tear up upon tasting his own parmigiana (bit arrogant if you ask me), or why he would find it impossible to watch that scene in Ratatouille without openly weeping. For him, and increasingly for me, making gnocchi and listening to the national anthem before Italy play in a football match (we still don’t talk about the 2018 World Cup) serve a similar purpose: both turn the drizzle of our sleepy Somerset village into the bright June sun of Capaccio in 1982, a year in which, Italo stresses, Italy not only qualified for but won the World Cup. Lockdown is proving tricky for many reasons, but the lack of human contact is especially difficult for one of the cuddliest populations in the world; it might be some time before I get to experience the cheek-pinching ciaos and double-kissed arrividercis of my family, but in the meantime getting a tomato-y hug from my Dad’s pasta will have to do. Even writing about it has cured my hunger to be in Italy, just a little bit.