1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy: Campania

Originally Published June 1954

The opalescent splendor of the Bay of Naples is a subject which has tempted painters, poets, and mere pamphleteers for centuries. Guarded by two steep, romantic islands, Capri and Ischia, and dominated by the brown and lavender majesty of Vesuvius, this vivid crescent of water gives an impression of utter enchantment from the decks of an incoming steamer. Naples glistens in polychrome brightness beneath the frowning fortress of St. Elmo, its new apartments climbing audaciously up the cliffs. The impatient traveler can hardly wait to disembark. When he does set foot in this throbbing metropolis, the scene becomes less idyllic. He immediately becomes a choice plum for a cluster of vultures and multilingual smoothies whose only thoughts are concentrated on his pocketbook. The noise, the congestion, the confusion arc all intense. The close-range charm of Naples is far more reticent. Its treasures soon come to light, of course. Next morning the traveler visits the National Museum and sees priceless relics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and that evening he goes to the San Carlo Opera House, scene of Caruso's early triumphs. He may be tempted by the aquarium, whose pink prima donna is a diaphanous fish with its own parasol, or by the San Martino cloisters, occupying a breath-taking eminence which almost floats over the close-packed housetops of the city.

But a fundamental fact soon becomes clear-the secret of Naples long popularity with travelers lies farther afield. The jewels of the Bay of Naples are embedded in the hills and along the rocky shore, and they are unique in the world today. There is nothing to approach Pompeii and Herculaneum. Few islands have the fascination of Capri. The Amalfi Drive remains an experience of total beauty, uncluttered by billboards. And Paestum, the setting for some of the most perfect Greek temples, can only be excelled by Athens itself. Taken not by its teeming self, but with its surrounding splendors, Naples becomes irresistible.

Of course there are inland points in the Campania region which merit exploration, particularly Casena and its royal palace. Built by the King of Naples in 1754, it is so vast that it served as a Pentagon for the combined Allied top brass in World War II. Then there is Benevento, setting of one of the most perfect of Roman arches and, more important to the gourmet, the home of Strega, the classic Italian liqueur. But most travelers to Campania stay close to the Bays of Naples and Salerno, and so shall we.

The epicurean aspect of Campania is encouraging today.

A decade or so hack, when we spent more than a year in this area, subsisting on army rations highlighted by peanut butter, powdered eggs and chipped beef, the gentle art of gastronomy was in total eclipse, especially among the luckless ranks of the civilians. With memories of a pathetic population living on a diet of greens and a little fruit, of flour and olive oil which could only be bought at outrageous prices on the black market, we found it heartening to observe this fertile countryside today, producing the good things of life in abundance-melons, figs, oranges, lemons, wine, cheese, sausage and, above all, a riotous plenty of vegetables. Hard work and abundant sunshine have replenished the larder and filled out the Neapolitan waistline. The shops are crammed with food now, their ceilings dangling with tight-laced sausages and Provolone cheeses, their shelves laden with the things they love best-black olives, anchovies, tomato paste, artichokes, and the famous pasta which is the backbone of Neapolitan nourishment. The sea is generous too, and the wide marble slabs in fish stores are bedecked with a glittering miscellany of recumbent squids, octupuses, eels, mussels and lobsters: The zealous gastronome who ventures out to the phantasmagorian fish market under immense umbrellas at the Porta Capuana will be richly rewarded. Finally, there is a morose, long-horned bovine munching away in neighboring flats and marshes who contributes a vital element to Neapolitan well-being. She is the bufala, and her milk makes possible Mozzarella cheese, the vital ingredient in pizza and many another local specialty. A water buffalo sounds like a dubious source of epicurean felicity, but don't be deceived. The best ice cream in the world, in the opinion of many travelers, is found in Groppi's in Cairo, and it is all derived from the same solemn critter.

To the average American at home, “Italian” cooking means Neapolitan cooking, for this is what has been exported to every corner of the United Slates by Pietro, Luigi, Giuseppe and Enrico. The minestrone, the pizza and the spaghetti which we are accustomed to find at Tony's on North Main Street, have their original models in D'Angelo and Zi Teresa in Naples.

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