How Neapolitan Cuisine Took Over the World

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Off Menu

Edward White’s monthly column, “Off Menu,” serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.

When a devastating cholera pandemic reached Italy in 1884, the disease took its heaviest toll on the sharp-edged, unpolished jewel of Naples. The authorities’ response was disastrous, and as panic and anger rose, a conspiracy theory circulated that the suffering was an orchestrated attack on the city’s poor. Physicians and public health officials were attacked in the street; a popular rumor had it that doctors received twenty lire for each person they bumped off, and that some were greedily chucking patients who were still alive onto funeral wagons. One man was arrested for inciting rebellion when he spread the notion that tomatoes, a symbol of Neapolitan peasant identity and a staple nourishment, were being laced with poison.

The discord caused alarm in the government. The Risorgimento—the movement behind the creation of a single, unified Italian nation in 1861—had promised a new era of prosperity and progress for all. Events in Naples made a mockery of that. Italy’s King Umberto I became a passionate advocate of a radical transformation of Naples that would improve the health of the city, and tie Naples closer than ever to the Italian nation. Corruption and chaotic administration kiboshed the plans, but the royal desire to celebrate the Italian-ness of Naples remained. When Umberto and his wife, Queen Margherita, visited the city in 1899, the queen, bored of overly complex French food, supposedly asked for some real food, a true taste of Naples. A local chef served her a pizza in the colors of the Italian flag—the red of tomato sauce, the white of mozzarella cheese, the green of fresh basil—which Margherita loved so much that it’s been named after her ever since. Whatever the precise truth behind the yarn, its intended message is unmistakable: the experience of being Italian is baked into the food of the ordinary Neapolitan.

It’s a story that would have intrigued Vincenzo Corrado, a man born and bred in the south a century and a half before Queen Margherita’s supposed conversion to the delights of Neapolitan cuisine. Corrado explored that cuisine in the pages of his series of cookbooks, which are a vivid testimony to the cultural life of eighteenth-century Naples, a city of dizzying social disparities and abundant artistic expression. Unwittingly, Corrado did more than almost anybody to define what we think of as Italian food, in which—especially as the food exists in its international incarnations—the flavors of Naples are so prevalent. Yet, one wonders what Corrado would have made of the ways in which food has been used as an important binding agent in the creation of an Italian national identity. Sincere as he was in his passion for the food of his homeland, he recognized that a plate of food is layered, like a Neapolitan timbale, with meanings and associations. As his recipes testify, much of what we consider to be authentically local, regional, or national, rests on small acts of self-deception and selective memory, the endless making and remaking of myths.

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Vincenzo Corrado was born in 1738 in the town of Oria, in the region of Apulia, part of the Kingdom of Naples, which essentially covered the southern half of what we now know as mainland Italy. We know little more about his youth than that his family origins were unspectacular, and that after the death of his parents he may have gone into service at the court of a Neapolitan aristocrat.

The years of Corrado’s childhood were an exciting time for the city of Naples, which was then the heliocentric force within the Kingdom. Since antiquity Naples had occupied a special place in Mediterranean life. In the days of the Roman Empire, it had been a paradisiacal southern retreat for the wealthy and powerful. But by the era of the Renaissance it was one of the most heavily and densely populated cities in the world. As a site of tremendous strategic importance in their wars against Muslims to the east and Protestants to the north, Naples’s Spanish rulers turned the place into a fortress, forbidding any building outside the city walls. The growing population piled up on top of itself. At a time when it was unusual for European cities to have buildings of more than two or three stories, Naples had the early modern equivalent of skyscrapers, reaching five, six, or seven stories tall. When Caravaggio turned up in 1606, he was struck by the intensity of Naples, all the extremes of city life in such close proximity. Within a month of his arrival, he had painted The Seven Works of Mercy, perhaps the most vivid record of the unique energy that so many felt in Naples, a combustible exuberance, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

When the eighteen-year-old Charles of Bourbon acceded the throne in 1734, he embarked upon a reign of so-called enlightened absolutism, turning Naples into what one historian has described as “an intellectual laboratory where intellectuals and government collaborated.” Under his guidance, there were reforms of the judiciary, the civil service, and taxation laws, and Jewish people were officially allowed to settle in the Kingdom for the first time in centuries. Before abdicating the throne to his son Ferdinand in 1759, Charles also invested heavily in Neapolitan arts and culture, patronizing artists, funding theaters, and recruiting the architects Ferdinando Fuga and Luigi Vanvitelli to design many of the landmarks of modern Naples. Taking Charles’s lead, wealthy Neapolitans used their money to beautify the city. One such person was Raimondo di Sangro, who paid for the reconstruction of the Chapel of Sansevero, complete with Giuseppe Sanmartino’s statue Veiled Christ. It was a work of such astonishing quality that locals suspected it had been made with alchemical wizardry rather than a sculptor’s chisel. At the same time as crafting the Neapolitan future, Charles also rediscovered its past: it was he who commissioned excavations of nearby Pompeii, one of the great cultural moments of the eighteenth century.

It was against this backdrop that Vincenzo Corrado entered a Celestine monastery in Naples at the age of seventeen, where he received a thorough education in astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and history. He also began a culinary education, traveling the Kingdom of Naples and other parts of the Italian peninsula, collecting recipes as he went. We don’t know much about how he refined his skills, but he evidently paid close attention at the tables, kitchens, and marketplaces of the various places he visited; the knowledge he would later display of food from Italy and beyond was immense.

Though it was the contemplative life of the monastery that brought him to Naples, it was the worldly pleasures of cooking and eating that made Corrado’s name. At the court of Michele Imperiali, Prince of Francavilla, he was given the magnificent title of Capo dei Servizi di Bocca, literally translated as “Head of Mouth Services,” and given responsibility for planning banquets that were not only lavish in the quality and quantity of the food served, but distinctly theatrical, of a piece with the social world of Naples that focused so much on display and performance. As well as dozens of individual dishes, Corrado designed table settings and elaborate ornamentations, often complex sugar sculptures or small models made from marzipan. He left few details of exactly who he cooked for, but the Prince attracted the glitterati from across Europe, and Casanova was a guest of his in the 1770s.

The guiding spirit of these elite occasions was certainly Parisian, the default setting of fashionable society across Europe. In Naples, high-status cooks were referred to as monzu, a Neapolitan corruption of monsieur, an indication of the style and atmosphere that Corrado’s food would have been expected to project. It’s for this reason that Corrado’s first book, Il cuoco galante, was a landmark in the development of Italian food—and therefore in the development of Italian national identity—when it was published in 1773. The last cookbook in a native language of Italy was published in the 1690s by Antonio Latini, another Neapolitan, and even that comprised mainly French- or Spanish-style dishes; it was the gastronomic testament of a thoroughbred monzu. In Il cuoco galante, Corrado pointed toward the Italian future, interweaving the dominant fashion for French cuisine with distinctively Italian flavors and textures. Though most of the peninsula is represented in one way or another, it is the Kingdom of Naples to which Corrado returns over and again. Throughout the text, he extols fish from the Bay, as well as the cheese, meat, fruits, and vegetables from Campania, and other southern regions. He has prototypical recipes for things that remain classics of Neapolitan cooking: Genovese sauce, timbales of various kinds, and parmigiana—though as he wasn’t keen on eggplant, his version uses fried slices of squash, layered between Parmesan and butter. For a wealthy, well-to-do audience, Il cuoco galante was the most articulate statement of colloquial Italian food to have been written for more than a century.

There’s a parallel between Corrado’s take on food and other trends in eighteenth-century Neapolitan culture, most notably opera buffa, a form of comic opera that told stories of ordinary Neapolitans, using the language and settings that everyone in the city would recognize. By 1730, Naples had three theaters dedicated to opera buffa, and the form spread to the rest of Italy. Some say the assertion of Neapolitan identity, sometimes at the expense of the political, social, and cultural establishment, can be detected in Corrado’s food writing. In a recipe for pheasant—stuffed with veal, wrapped in bacon, roasted on a spit—he remarks that the birds are in season from winter to spring when they are “persecuted and murdered by hunters,” a strange turn of phrase which the food historian Gillian Riley asserts is a dig at “the sport of kings, enjoyed by the idle and illiterate Bourbons,” the foreign dynasty that ruled the Kingdom.

Corrado was tapping into a widespread feeling of pride in Neapolitan food, but one that was tempered by social and cultural resentments, exacerbated by a deadly famine in 1764. At the cuccagna festival of that year—a kind of early modern Black Friday, in which the poor were encouraged to fight each other as they devoured giant structures made of food—the nobles were disgruntled that the chaos had begun before the King gave his signal. At the carnival four years later, pasta makers, seen by some as guardians of the true Neapolitan identity, handed out pamphlets denouncing the social elite for filling their tables with foreign foods. Pasta had become a symbol of everyday Naples only relatively recently. During the Renaissance, Neapolitans had been referred to, derisively, as “cabbage eaters” by those outside the region. From the late seventeenth century, images of lazzari (the poorest of all Naples’s inhabitants) eating long strands of pasta with their fingers began to appear in depictions of the city, and Neapolitans were now called mangiamaccheroni—“macaroni eaters.” Yet, Il cuoco galante shows us that pasta, and many other types of Neapolitan cucina povera, were also eaten by the wealthy and powerful. Corrado wrote down recipes for gnocchi, lasagna, ravioli, vermicelli, and a startlingly rich macaroni timbale, filled with cheese, sausage mince, mushroom, truffles, and ham, all cooked in a mold of flaky pastry. Though some of Corrado’s recipes were well beyond the means of ordinary people, in this city of extremes the consumption of pasta provided a common experience. Some sources suggest that even King Ferdinand IV ate pasta with his fingers just as the poorest of his subjects did.

What Corrado does not give us, either in Il cuoco galante or any of his subsequent works, is a recipe that fuses pasta with tomato sauce, the combination that, rightly or wrongly, has come to define Neapolitan—and Italian—food for millions around the world. The food historian John Dickie has described tomato sauce in Italy as “a national religion: its Holy Trinity is Fresh, Tinned and Concentrate; and its Jerusalem is Naples.” But, when Corrado was writing, the default accompaniments of pasta were butter and cheese; tomatoes—apples of love, as they were called in English—were still considered poisonous by many Europeans, and even Corrado, who encourages their use, advises removing the seeds and skin before cooking with them, such as in a recipe he called pomodori alla Napolitana, in which tomato halves are stuffed and fried. Elsewhere, he gives us tomato soup, tomato fritters, tomato croquettes, tomatoes stuffed with rice and truffles or anchovies. He also describes a precursor of passata, a broth of tomatoes fried in oil with garlic, parsley, radish, bay leaf, and celery, bulked out with bread crusts and pushed through a sieve. Though he may not have hit upon the killer combination of pasta and tomato sauce, the success of Corrado’s cookbooks (Il cuoco galante was reprinted several times in the decades after its publication) helped ensure that tomatoes became a key ingredient in Neapolitan cooking.

Beyond tomatoes, Corrado adored fruit and vegetables. In 1781, eight years after Il cuoco galante, he published Del cibo pitagorico, expounding the virtues of vegetarian food, and the bounty of the Kingdom’s harvests. His passion for local produce was evident, yet he was also keenly aware that much of what he was dispersing as Neapolitan cuisine was an invention of tradition, rather than its continuation. Tomatoes were products of the Americas, brought to Naples by its Spanish rulers, as were coffee and chocolate, novel ingredients that he included in his recipes. The same was true of potatoes, about which he published a book of recipes in 1798. A number of those recipes, the first in Italian history, have become Neapolitan favorites, such as potato cake, which Corrado suggested making with sweetbreads and pig’s liver.

As Corrado busied himself with a quiet revolution in Italian food, the violence of political and social revolution swept across Italy, leaving the Kingdom of Naples prone. In 1798, alarmed by Napoleon’s conquest of northern Italy, King Ferdinand decided to send an army of seventy thousand soldiers into Rome and halt the French advances. It was a calamitous error. Back in Naples, revolutionaries declared the end of the monarchy, though the nascent republic was violently torn down with the help of thousands of rural peasants and the lazzari of Naples, the “macaroni eaters,” a minority of whom were alleged to have acquired a taste for human flesh. Whether or not reports that counterrevolutionaries “ate their neighbors roasted” are true, they underline the astonishing brutality that enveloped Naples in the final year of the century. For the first sixty years of Corrado’s life, Naples had been a place that spoke of progress, of high ideals of civilization, beauty, and a celebration of Neapolitan culture, all of which shone through in Corrado’s work. As the city spasmed its way to the end of the century, it’s tempting to wonder which of his recipes the old chef turned to for comfort, redolent of the land he loved.

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Naples was in a tug of war for the next several years, until Napoleon’s demise allowed the Bourbon dynasty to reassert a firm grip on power. Corrado’s writing career wound down; the small amount he published lacked the exuberance of earlier work, perhaps reflecting his mindset in these more subdued, uncertain times. But he lived long enough to see stability return to Naples; he died aged ninety-eight in 1836, by which point a great deal of his take on Neapolitan cuisine had become standard.

Bourbon rule of Naples continued for another twenty-five years, until it was overwhelmed by the forces of national unification. When Garibaldi’s men closed in on Naples, a leader of the nationalist movement had rejoiced that “the macaroni are cooked and we will eat them.” The outside world, it seems, still tended to view Neapolitans through the holes of a colander, and in subsequent decades the old images of the lazzari eating pasta with their fingers were updated, in photographs staged for tourists who wanted a souvenir that summed up the city in one arresting cliché.

By the close of World War Two the Neapolitan diaspora had exported its cuisine to the rest of the planet. Elaborations on the traditional recipes from the old country were now viewed as quintessentially Italian, especially in the United States. When Paulie Gualtieri goes “home” to Naples in The Sopranos, he’s shocked to discover pasta served in ways he can barely stomach. Native Neapolitans mock him for requesting “gravy” with his macaroni: “and you thought the Germans were classless pieces of shit,” they say, in a language Paulie understands no better than the food on his plate.

As the international fame of Neapolitan food grew, so Italy itself became more attached to it. By the sixties, pizza of the variety made for Queen Margherita was essentially a national dish—a national symbol, even—along with many of the recipes sketched by Vincenzo Corrado nearly two centuries earlier. His books are still reprinted and read across the peninsula, and cafés, pizzerias, and trattorias across southern Italy bear the name “Corrado,” a word now synonymous with the glories of Italian gastronomy.

Read earlier installments of “Off Menu.”

Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. He is currently working on a book about Alfred Hitchcock. His former column for The Paris Review Daily was “The Lives of Others.” 

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