By Dana Perkiss
Emmy-winning actor and author of multiple cookbooks, Stanley Tucci, takes us on a food tour throughout the diverse regions of Italy in Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. He begins the show in the region of Campania, taking viewers through the ancient city of Naples and magical beaches of the Amalfi Coast.
From the original pizza in Naples to the delightful lemons of the Amalfi Coast, Tucci shows us the cultural, historical, and downright delicious importance of Campania’s food.
Let us begin in Naples, the ancient city living under the constant threat of Mount Vesuvius and where the famously beloved pizza was born.
Neapolitan pizza is the thin-crust, tomato and mozzarella cheese dish which was the inspiration behind New York-style pizza. It was just a Neapolitan dish for many years, but things changed in the late 19th century. Legend says that in 1889, the Italian queen ordered a pizza and started the craze of modern pizza. The chef, Raffaele Esposito, created a special dish for the queen called “Pizza Margherita”, using tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil to portray the Italy flag colors.
Now a worldwide famous dish, pizza was most common for the poor locals, especially in the 1970s when Naples was ravaged by the Cholera epidemic. Since the disease was spread by food and water, people began cooking bread in hot oil as the frying cleansed the produce — imagine that, fried food being the healthiest thing for you? This original pizza was called pizza fritta and was literally known as “the pizza of the people” as chefs would allow poor locals to eat now and pay later.
One of the families who provided this vital dish is still around today, running the famed Pizza Fritta da Fernanda. In Searching for Italy, Fernanda shows us how she makes the famous fried pizza, adding in fresh ricotta, provola, pork fat, and basil, which she says is the original of Naples. “Once you taste it, you’ll never leave,” Fernanda says with a smirk, and once you bite into the hot pocket pizza, you’ll immediately agree.
It’s no coincidence that Naples boasts the best pizza, as it’s also where you can get the freshest ingredients.
Buffalo roaming the hills of Naples produce milk for the freshest mozzarella, and Tucci takes us on a tour of how the cheese is made — hot tip, unlike other cheeses, mozzarella is best eaten as fresh as possible, so one must go to Campania for the richest mozzarella. If the mozzarella has a “V” shape, then you know it’s handmade, and if milk oozes out of the cheese, then you know it’s the best.
After the fresh mozzarella, Tucci takes us to the farm that boasts the tomato envy of the world: San Marzano. These tomatoes are famed for their balanced sweet and sour flavors, making them perfect for pizza. And though this tomato is replicated throughout the world, it can only truly be found here — fed from the rich nutrients of Mount Vesuvius.
To make the Neapolitan pizza, first goes the crushed san marzano tomatoes. Next, the creamy mozzarella nuggets and some pecorino, salt, and basil for fragrance — 45 seconds in the oven and voilà, cooked to perfection.
“The history of Naples in a dish,” Tucci says with wonder brimming in his eyes as he bites into the sizzling pizza. “Pizza is a gift, born in Naples.” You can pretty much smell the mouthwatering scents emitting from the screen — or was it just me whose stomach was rumbling while watching?
A little way north of Naples you’ll find the town of Scampia. It was built for the poorest Neopolitans, and families suffered from lack of jobs, transport, and hygiene.
Nomadic travelers from Eastern Europe began immigrating to Scampia, and were able to use the land to nourish themselves. Thus began an incredibly talented group of women with their own food traditions, who created a small kitchen to feed the locals. Now, Chikù is a full restaurant and catering company offering diverse Italian-Balkan cuisines like Sarma and Moussaka. People from all over Italy travel to this restaurant, so if you’re already in Naples, it’s worth visiting to experience the mixed cultural cuisines.
A little further and a ferry ride away from Naples is the volcanic island of Ischia, where you can enjoy an endless array of thermal waters and spas.
The island is famous for its cuisine, and Tucci takes us to Il Focolare for their renowned Coniglio all'Ischitana — or simply, Ischian rabbit. A dish made simply with olive oil, garlic, rabbit, white wine, tomato, and herbs, eating rabbit is an Ischian tradition enjoyed by families every Sunday. You may not be used to eating rabbit, but if you’re in Ischia, there’s no better place to taste the delicate meat.
So far, Tucci has shown us the makings behind famous dishes like Neapolitan pizza and Ischian rabbit — but what about some sweet Italian desserts?
Don’t worry, before the episode ends, Tucci takes us to the small town of Minori in the magical Amalfi Coast for the most delightful dessert.
Rich lemons growing on the coasts inspired pastry chef Sal De Riso to experiment with the lemon juice, creating a cream that introduced lemons to the world of dessert — the famous Lemon Delight.
What’s the “Delight” you ask? Lots and lots and lots of cream, with just a splash of lemon liquor and a squeeze of the fresh Amalfi lemon zest.
“This is the expression of the Amalfi Coast,” Tucci said. Next time you bite into a cream-filled Lemon Delight or shoot back some limoncello, close your eyes and imagine the salty waves of the Amalfi Coast washing in the distance — or better yet, taste a true Amalfi lemon by coming to visit.
Nowhere else in the world can you get an original pizza, pure San Marzano tomatoes, milk-filled mozzarella cheese, or perfectly sweet and sour lemons — only in Campania.