Dancing Tomatoes

Before our recent trip to Naples, I lined up a restaurant kitchen so that Sami and I could film a video for you.  I had vague ideas for subjects but knew that once there I’d find something specific.  It turned out even better than that.

Villa del Carmelo

Some background.  We were at Villa del Carmelo, a beautiful restaurant and hotel in the town of Mercato San Severino, about forty minutes northwest of Naples.  There, set amidst silvery greenery with views of the valley and hills beyond, this former residence of nobles built in the 1700’s, welcomed us with airy elegance.

Villa del Carmelo restaurant
Restaurant Villa del Carmelo

A Light Hand with Classic Fare

We were there for a meal prepared by chef Enrico Ruggiero, noted for his light hand with classic fare.   And because the leitmotif of the trip was San Marzano tomatoes, each course featured them, from the miniature and elegantly crisp eggplant parmigiano appetizer through the candied cubes of fresh San Marzanos sprinkled over sweetened ricotta. 

The Humility of an Italian Genius

After the meal we slipped into the pristine kitchen where surfaces gleamed, and two staff members stood at attention while chef Ruggiero welcomed us with the generous humility so characteristic of Italian geniuses.  I had ordered ingredients several days before, hoping to recreate a simple tomato sauce for spaghetti, a dish I’d learned to love and admire in the days since being in the birthplace of the San Marzano tomato.  My idea was to make it while Sami filmed, but Chef Ruggiero had another idea.

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Nonno’s Sauce

“I have all your ingredients,” he said, pointing to sweet little dishes holding garlic, basil leaves, salt, and a touch of cheese.  “But I wondered if you’d like me to show you how to make my grandfather’s tomato sauce?”

I didn’t just like the idea, it was beyond my wildest dreams and completely unexpected.

Fabulous Italian Cuisine

We began; you’ll see the process on the video and realize that within the recipe and the dish lies all that is fabulous about Italian cuisine, specifically that around Naples.  First, the pasta.  “It’s our local pasta, from Gragnano,” Chef Ruggiero said.  This historic pasta producing area, not far from Mercato San Severino, uses local wheat to produce a rustic yet extremely elegant pasta which is slowly dried to maintain incredible flavor and perfect texture.

The Ingredients

He grabs a handful spaghettone, (a thicker version of spaghetti), enough for one person and puts it in boiling, salted water (wouldn’t you love that set-up for cooking pasta?!) to cook for at least 12 minutes.  Then he grinds the canned San Marzano tomatoes so their texture remains intact.  The garlic is browned in oil to give the requisite hint of its flavor, the tomatoes are added, and the whole cooks to a fragrant thickness.  Finally, he adds a few torn basil leaves.  The recipe speaks of restraint yet in the mouth, it’s the sun, the soil, the atmosphere in full bloom.

E’ Buono, Vero?

When I tasted that spaghettone I almost cried, though I said nothing about this to Chef Ruggiero. Instead, he said it to me.  “E buono, vero/It’s good, right?” Proud of his reputation – it’s a big one – he makes no compromises, so that serving diners his Nonno’s spaghettone with a simple tomato sauce is fundamental to his work and his philosophy.  “I came to my home region to do just this,” he said with simple pride. “I have a history, the region has a history, and I want to live here and cook it.”

You’ll try this, and you’ll agree that while simple, it is complex too. And yes, it’s beautiful.  Buon Appetito.

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