Christmas in Naples: Food and the Art of the Presepio
Chef Travel Notes
The Italian religious custom of displaying the nativity scene of Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a manger is something to behold. You would be hard pressed to find a home without one at this time of year, especially in Naples. They can range in size from a small tabletop to replicas of entire cities taking up enormous tabletops and even whole rooms. The Presepe is not simply a tradition in Naples, it has developed into an art form.
While Americans celebrate the holidays by erecting Christmas trees, Italians focus on the essence of Christmas spirit by displaying the Presepio in their homes, churches and piazzas. It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t even find cut fir trees to decorate in Italy. For years, I searched nurseries and flower shops for a worthy specimen. One year I even bought two trees with the intention of wiring the branches of one onto the other (imagine Charlie Brown’s sad Christmas tree ☹)
It was Saint Francis of Assisi who popularized the Presepio in the 13th century using live animals and real people for his nativity scenes. Since then, the Neapolitans have adopted the custom of venerating Christ’s birthplace by creating elaborate tableaus of figures and scenes. As time progressed the sacred and the profane collided setting the Holy Family alongside ordinary people going about their normal lives. In addition to the classic figures of the Three Kings and various shepherds, you can easily find replicas of current political leaders and celebrities. No doubt this year you will find President Trump, and Prince Harry and Meghan wearing masks, shoulder to shoulder with the peasant drummer boy.
The heart of Presepio crafting in Naples can be found in the old center of Spaccanapoli, where the streets are spilling over with handmade mangers, villages and figurines of a variety of materials. Many characters or places have hidden meanings, rooted in the long tradition of the Presepio.
Food in Naples also is rooted in a long history of outside influences of foreign invaders and poverty. Historical Neapolitan cuisine had been divided into two different categories: one for the rich and nobles, and another for the poor people.
Our first dish, Pasta e Fasul, is considered a recipe for the people, dating back thousands of years. Like most Italian recipes, there is much debate as to ingredients and preparation. We use white cannellini beans with imported canned plum tomatoes, pancetta, and garlic. The thick creamy texture is achieved by cooking a blend of different pasta shapes (munuzzaglia) directly in the soup. Some versions can be thicker than others, even eaten with a fork.
Bistecca Pizzaiola is another popular and well-loved dish from Naples. It too, was born poor, using scraps of whatever meat was available. As it was assimilated into the mainstream, more expensive ingredients were used creating one of the premiere dishes from the region of Campania. We use NY Strip steaks, pan seared and braised in tomato and oregano with a finishing touch of Fior di Latte mozzarella, one of Naples most famous cheeses.
Insalata di Scarola uses escarole, one of Campania’s most popular salad greens with the addition of sauteed apples and parmesan shavings. Irpinia, just outside of Naples, is famous for its hazelnuts which we use to add the final crunch to our salad.
Torta Napoletana, or Napoleon, is a flaky pastry layered with custard. This dessert may have lost its link to Naples because its name so closely resembles the French Emperor’s, but the origins of this “millefoglie” or “thousand leaves” appears to come from Naples. Neapolitan cooks had a reputation for creating dishes with irresistible contrasts between sweet and savory, firm and soft, or in the case of the Napoleon, crisp and creamy.
The Aglianico grape, native to Campania, has been produced into wine since Roman times. In the 1940s the Mastroberardino family started a project to restore this historic varietal. Their efforts ignited a resurgence in quality wine production in all of southern Italy. This Mastro Aglianico Campania is a youthful red with notes of berries and violet flowers. It pairs well with this week’s tomato-based dishes.
Because, during COVID, my family and I have engaged in more remote and family-centric activities, we took a long mountain hike together, gathering armfuls of green moss. The children delighted in setting up our manger this year as they created a bucolic scene for the arrival of Baby Jesus.
What do they say about silver linings? We just found another one!