NEW YORK – By far the largest city in Italy in the 18th century, Naples was the capital of a kingdom in its own right. At first, not all Grand Tourists ventured that far south, but the rediscovery of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748), and the fascination with Vesuvius, the still-active volcano whose eruption destroyed the ancient towns, proved an irresistible draw as the century wore on.
Like Florence, Naples had a local British celebrity in the person of Sir William Hamilton (a fame later augmented by his second wife, Emma). Hamilton was British envoy to the court of Naples from 1764 until his departure in 1800. Over those 36 years, he was host to countless visiting Grand Tourists, holding dinners of up to 50 people in his town residence, the Palazzo Sessa. Menus from these dinners were commented on; we know, for example, that in 1799 when Lord and Lady Elgin were on their way to Constantinople (a trip which would later bring the Parthenon marbles to England) they were hosted by the Hamiltons in Palermo for a dinner of lamb in tomato sauce, fresh vegetables, meat fritters, a cheese pie and numerous wines and liqueurs.
SIR WILLIAM AND THE FIRST LADY HAMILTON IN THEIR VILLA IN NAPLES, 1770 (OIL ON COPPER), ALLAN, DAVID (1744-96). THIS CHARMING PORTRAIT DEPICTS SIR WILLIAM AND HIS FIRST WIFE, CATHERINE, IN THEIR VILLA AT POSILLIPO. COMPTON VERNEY, WARWICKSHIRE, UK / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.
A compulsive collector, Sir William was able to show his guests world-class antiquities and paintings (including at one point both the Portland Vase and Velasquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja). He was a major patron of the artist Pietro Fabris (himself probably of English origin), who illustrated Hamilton’s own works on volcanology and who painted views of Neapolitan daily life for Hamilton and other visiting British travellers.
While the Neapolitan peasants that Fabris depicted were often shown tucking into large plates of spaghetti with their hands, and swilling wine from skins, the Grand Tourist enjoyed different and more elegant fare. The cuisine of Naples was unlike that of other parts of Italy, benefiting from centuries of Greek, Arab, French and Spanish influences and from the ample produce of the surrounding province of Campania and the abundance of seafood from its picturesque bay.
In addition, there was an active culinary rivalry among the local aristocracy, who vied for the most splendid table. Most noble houses employed a trained chef, or monzù, a nod to the supposed French primacy in the kitchen. This tradition continued into the 20th century, when many of the most important families still enjoyed the reputations of famous monzù. As a result, formal Neapolitan food is quite different from the mozzarella, linguine alle vongole and the pizze that most modern tourists today so rightly enjoy. It features elegant dishes, timbales and pasticci, such as the famous Sartù di Riso, a molded rice dish filled with small delicate meatballs and cheese.
FRONTISPIECE OF THE CUOCO GALANTE WITH A PORTRAIT OF VINCENZO CORRADO. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
The writings of Vicenzo Corrado (1736–1836), one of these professional chefs, give us a full understanding of the type of cooking practiced in the 18th-century Naples. His cookbook Cuoco Galante, first published in 1778 and repeatedly reissued into the 19th century, describes the dishes created for these luxurious banquets and the opulent manner in which they were served. He indicates the number of stewards and cooks required, including chefs who specialized in fried dishes, pastry, carving meats and even one dedicated to the making of salads. For Corrado, cookery and banqueting was both an art and science, and a very serious matter.
Corrado’s innovations continued in subsequent books; he wrote a treatise on the potato (then a new and “dubious” foodstuff) as well as a proto-vegetarian cookbook, the first in the Italian language. The Del Cibo Pitagorico, published in 1781, gives numerous recipes for the cooking of all kinds of vegetables (although in some dishes meats and meat broths are used, thus disqualifying it as a purely vegetarian invention). Most interesting, however, is to whom Corrado dedicated the Cibo Pitagorico. John Child, 2nd Earl Tylney had moved to Italy in 1752 and remained there until his death in 1784. Based in Florence, he spent most winters in the milder climate of Naples, where he entertained on a lavish scale. It was probably in this capacity that the two met, and how Corrado came to admire Lord Tylney whom he believed – at least according to his fulsome dedication – “ that people of quality, both our own and foreign, are persuaded that today [he is] rendered the arbiter of good taste at table.”
BRITISH GENTLEMEN AT SIR HORACE MANN'S HOME IN FLORENCE, C.1763-65 (OIL ON CANVAS), PATCH, THOMAS (1720-82). LORD TYLNEY IS SEATED, WEARING PINK. HIS ROBUST FIGURE SUGGESTS THAT HE DID NOT ENJOY A PURELY VEGETARIAN DIET, DESPITE CORRADO’S DEDICATION OF THE CIBO PITAGORICO TO HIM. YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART, PAUL MELLON COLLECTION, USA / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.
So after all of that, I suppose you are wondering if I won’t give an impossibly difficult 18th-century recipe to follow, with numerous steps and sauces to make. And I was tempted to describe in depth one of the timballi, such as the Sartù di Riso (if you desperately need to have the recipe, you can email me).
Instead, I thought a simpler, lighter dish might be more useful to the modern cook. In his fascinating book on the cooking of the Neapolitan grand families, La Cucina Aristocratica Napoletana, Franco Santasilia di Torpino gives a summer evening recipe from the Barracco family, created by their monzù, Concetta Talarico, one of the few women to hold the title. It is an Insalata di maccheroni “Villa Emma,” named after the family’s house in Posillipo, just west of Naples. The family acquired the house in the 1930s, but in the late 18th century the German painter Philip Hackert had rented it. And, while it is not the same house that Sir William had had in Posillipo, it bears the same name, the “Villa Emma.” So it is the perfect final Grand Tour dish.
Pasta Salad “Villa Emma” (for 6 people)
1.25 pounds good quality spaghetti (use a Neapolitan brand, like Setaro, to be more authentic)
5 ounces of fontina cheese
3 ripe, fresh tomatoes, halved and deseeded
1 sweet yellow pepper, deseeded
1 sweet green pepper, deseeded
20 green olives, pitted (I use Cerignola, but any meaty olive will work)
1 tablespoon capers (I use salted ones, which are preferable by far, but it is vital to properly desalt them before use)
1 stalk of celery, from the heart
2 good-sized sprigs of parsley
3 good-sized sprigs of basil
1 spicy red pepper (ideally a peperoncino), seeded and finely chopped
1 teaspoon mustard (if you like spicy, English mustard is good; if a little less fire is your preference, a heaping measure of Dijon can be substituted)
Cook the spaghetti in salted water and drain; splash with a bit of cool water to stop the cooking. Drain well, and tip the pasta out onto a cool, clean counter or cutting board. Dress it with 2–3 tablespoons of oil, and toss, and let it rest until it is completely cool.
Place the pasta in a mixing bowl and add freshly ground pepper to taste, the minced red pepper and the mustard, and combine. Sprinkle the halved tomatoes with salt and let them drain. Chop the fontina and coarsely chop the deseeded peppers, olives, celery, basil, parsley and capers. Add to the pasta bowl and mix well.
Taste for salt and pepper. Move the ingredients into a serving bowl, brighten with the juice from the lemon just before serving.
A purist will disapprove of cold pasta salad, but this is the perfect meal for a hot Neapolitan summer evening. I would pair it with a crisp white, and as we are in Campania, the local Greco di Tufo or a Falanghina would be good matches.
Adapted from Franco Santasilia di Torpino, La Cucina Aristocratica Napoletana, (Sergio Civita Editore, Naples, 1987).