July 2011


Peter Robb

Stardust memories

Chef Tony Bilson whips up some 'cucina ricca'. © Danielle Smith/Fairfax Photos

In search of real Italian food

Food people are news, and Tony Bilson was talked about last April when he introduced, at Bilson’s in Sydney’s Radisson Plaza Hotel, a new degustation menu of 15 courses for $280. This is probably the most expensive prix fixe in town. Nobody spending that much on their food would be likely to skimp on the wines, which implies a meal costing $500 per head. Or a thousand, easily. The menu was news not for the price – this is Sydney – but for one dish, a raw egg yolk “encrusted” with gold and served on sprinkles of something called “chicken sand”, rye and parmesan.

Tony Bilson has done incomparable good for eating in Sydney over a long time. The gold-coated egg yolk was a Melbourne boy’s astute pitch at Sydney’s easily bored diners – he talked of “keeping them interested”. Yet you wondered whether Bilson, who has been thrashing around a bit lately, losing hats and speaking out sharply, didn’t feel a twinge of regret. Was that all it came to, 40 years on from Tony’s Bon Gout? After decades of labour in Sydney and environs? A raw egg yolk coated in gold dust?

Tony and Gay Bilson became famous for their food in the 1970s, though I couldn’t dream of eating at a Bilson place then, and haven’t yet. About the time they were opening Berowra Waters Inn on the Hawkesbury north of Sydney – the most famous restaurant in Australia’s memory – I took off for Naples, where however bad things got, and they quite often did, I could always afford to eat out like the locals. Often pretty well.

One of those long ago days a friend in Naples suggested I write a book about the poor food of the city. Meaning not bad food but the contrary. Cucina povera was the food and the cooking of the poor people in Naples, who were most of the population. Nobody has ever done more with less in the kitchen than the Neapolitans.

The lady who proposed this did not herself belong to this group. She lived in an enormous palace that rose massively from the water’s edge at Posillipo. It had been built, she told me, for an Armenian prince in the nineteenth century, but for a long time it had been shared – a level each – by her husband and his brother and their respective large families.

There was plenty of room for everyone, even in the shared courtyard garden and the boathouse on the lowest level with its slipway into the sea. Something in the palace’s craft and style recalled the residential buildings of Gaudí in Barcelona. You could see it, with its deep puce walls and granite trim, from well out to sea when arriving or departing on the Palermo night ferry, or sailing to Capri on her brother’s yacht.

The lady had people to cook for her, and people who attended to other tasks that running her vast establishment involved, but she was an attentive mistress of her household. On the basis of a few unscheduled meals in the palace at Posillipo and some summer weeks at the villa in Sardinia, I’d place her family as the luckiest eaters, day by day, I’ve ever known.

And what they ate, a lot of the time, were the same things the poor ate. It was done with the finest ingredients and occasional extras but was not essentially different. This was the point of the distinguished lady’s interest in what I knew about what people ate in the homes and trattorie of Naples. She knew it too, and she knew that the knowledge was special; she thought it deserved to be known outside its native ground.

I later met, far from Naples, a wealthy and urbane art merchant who lived in a castle in the Italian North – and had once been thrown fully dressed into Sylvester Stallone’s swimming pool. When I mentioned the ignored glories of Neapolitan cooking his diffuse amiability became focused passion. He was a secret Neapolitan. In Naples, he said, you can walk into the simplest trattoria – he was thinking of a hole in the wall Vini e Cucina – and eat the same things you get in the fancy places and just as well cooked.

There are reasons Neapolitan and southern Italian food is ignored by serious people. A century ago, when the people of the South – millions of them – fled to the Americas, they took their basic foods with them to the raw societies of the new world. Pasta and pizza adapted downwards as the fast foods of the new industrial societies. The omnipresence of industrially produced tomato sauces in North America’s favourite Italian dishes was another backhanded gift from Naples.

The Campania region around the city produces better tomatoes and more varieties of them than anywhere else. They come sequentially through the seasons. I counted seven or eight kinds once, from green salad tomatoes in early spring to the tresses of little mountain tomatoes that you hung on the wall and cooked through winter.

History can be written over. The ugly past of Neapolitan food in North America needn’t matter today. But cucina povera still uses the cheapest ingredients you can find. Much of the food starts its life as wheat. Bread in Naples – a Campanian country pagnotta from a woodburning stone oven, with a blistered crust like hardened lava and combed with great holes inside like the ground under Naples – is the best in the world if you have teeth to break the crust and jaws to chew, and a great cleaver to hack it into pieces. With a drizzle of olive oil and a ripe San Marzano tomato pressed into it, the bread is a meal.

Durum wheat became dry pasta in endless shapes and sizes; soft grain flour also became fresh pasta when mixed with eggs, and pizza dough leavened like the bread. In Milan, in the boom years of the early ’80s, pasta was tossed with smoked salmon and vodka and other arriviste novelties. In Naples after the earthquake, torn apart by hard drugs and gang murders, the core choice remained pasta with white beans, pasta with chickpeas, pasta with potatoes, pasta with lentils. Made with assorted fragments of broken pasta from the bottom of the bag, these were exquisite.

The daily staple of white bean pasta became a luxury dish when a few fresh mussels were added. There was spaghetti with tomatoes, with baby clams, with baby clams and tomatoes. The clams were already a luxury component, and in harder times before the war cloves of garlic were trimmed to look like small clams without their shells.

A decent fish was treated with the respect it deserved of total minimalism. It was grilled or steamed in the simplest way and delicately picked apart. Sometimes done in acqua pazza – cooked very fast in a pan with seawater, olive oil and fresh tomato that had reduced to a dense liquor by the time the fish was done. Baby squid and little prawns and tiny pink rockfish were cheap and fried up together.

Octopus made a salad – another friend told me she added a wine cork to the boiling water to help the never-quite-achieved tenderising – and slow-cooked baby octopus a stupendously subtle and endlessly giving stew. My favourite fish were the most despised, the beautiful fresh silver anchovies, with their dense, oily, pungent flesh. Nothing was better than a plate of them, dusted with flour, briefly plunged in hot oil, and served with half a lemon and some of that bread. Salted baccalà and sundried stoccafisso from the North Sea were medieval survivors that came into their own in winter.

The vegetable glory of Naples, antedating the arrival of dry pasta from Sicily – the food storage system of the Arab navigators changed the world’s eating – and the arrival of tomatoes and eggplants from the Americas, was the green leaf plants grown in its volcanic soil. I bought mine from Antonio in the street market at Borgo Sant’Antonio Abate. He grew his own, harvested them at dawn and drove them into his place on the street each morning, along with the chooks’ new eggs, on the back of his three-wheeled transporter.

Folded into a book, I still have don Mario Silvestri’s handwritten instructions for making a proper minestra maritata. The soup marries masses of these greens with a modest quantity of meat in a good stock, and made the Neapolitans famous in Europe as ‘the leaf eaters’ of Italy. Mario’s notes specify seven different green leaf vegetables – among the many – all prepared and cooked separately before being added to the stock in the right proportions.

All of these breads and pastas and pizzas, all of these vegetables, all of the fresh cheeses that were another marvel of food in Naples – the daily mozzarella, the fior di latte, the smoked provola – and all the combinations of the three into the city’s favourite dishes, and the wine and the oil, were immensely labour-intensive, in the peasant labour of their production and in the female domestic labour of their preparation. They still are, though the labour is mostly immigrant.

I never wrote my book on the cucina povera of Naples. Who would ever have used it? People who use recipe books now, like people who go to restaurants, are not making desperate economies. Their aim is not to make delicious food out of things that cost next to nothing. They aren’t ready to spend hours and hours and hours peeling, kneading, grinding, pounding, sieving, watching, soaking, shelling, stirring, turning, rinsing, testing, separating, combining, marinating, skimming, moistening, ladling the things they will eventually eat. And if they were – the urge to cook a splendid dinner can invest unlikely people – the makings would have to be special and costly. The language of cucina povera is a dying tongue even in Naples.

Italian food travels well. Especially to Australia. The Italians who came here in the decades immediately after World War II made a gentler landfall than their grand or great-grand relatives had in the Americas. They found neither the chaotic violence of Brazil and Argentina nor the brutal industrialisation of the United States, nor the freezing puritanism of Canada. In Australia they found a modest provincial Anglo settlement not unaware of its own limitations and touchingly eager, as the money started coming in, to get to know the new, the exotic, the glamorous.

The Italians also found, on the continent’s south-eastern seaboard, a climate much like the one they’d left, a sea richer than the Mediterranean in edible life, and a soil infinitely receptive to plantings of zucchine, melanzane, peperoni, carciofi, fave, basilico, oregano, bietola, rape, broccolini, radicchio, purchiacchelle, olive, mandorle, noci, melograni. And all the new strains of tomato and endless grapevines. The people of the Mezzogiorno – serious, modest and skilled market gardeners, winemakers, fruitgrowers, fishers, butchers, greengrocers, poulterers, bakers, pastry cooks, confectioners, ice-cream makers, cooks and waiters almost to the last man and woman, complemented by a clutch of self-dramatising rogues, conmen, amiable losers and brilliant improvisers – never looked back.

Who from Melbourne in the ’60s will forget that theatre of abundance round the corner from Pellegrini’s coffee bar, in the lane off Bourke Street – a little Cockayne where you pointed at what you wanted among the things you’d never seen or tasted before? The gelati and cassate that followed? The coffee? Who will forget the coming to life of Carlton’s Lygon Street, the strip of coffee shops and restaurants for students and migrants that grew gaudy as the decade ended? Unassuming little places like the Perla Nera vanished without trace.

Uniquely among the immigrant peoples after the war, the Italians knew how to seize what their new land offered to refine and develop their arts of food. What’s left now of the cucina povera they brought from the Italian South? After half a century, what remains of that core understanding that a restaurant’s business is to satisfy hunger and modestly gratify the senses? What does ‘Italian’ mean, in a time when nearly everyone has more money than they know what to do with, and no idea how food is produced, how it’s cooked, or what it costs?

I went to the Enoteca Sileno in Carlton, where everything was costly but so well chosen and so well prepared, so amiably and unobtrusively presented, that it was beyond reproach. Not many could make the Enoteca their daily resort, but anyone would. In Sydney, Lucio’s in Paddington is on a different and Ligurian matrix but fresh, punctilious, complete, inventive as it needs to be and never more. Neither the Enoteca nor Lucio’s has an Italian cook: Italy in Australia has created its own culture and educated a generation. At Lucio’s you can have a fish baked sealed in a crust of salt: as I learnt in Palermo once, the best way of all to cook a whole fish.

Neapolitans themselves travel badly. The infinite complexities of their city disqualify them from the simplicities of success elsewhere. They make the world’s worst emigrants. Lots return to Naples, some sooner, some later, preferring failure at home. Di Stasio in St Kilda had a good Neapolitan name and a proprietor born in Melbourne. I’d enjoyed a Sunday lunch there once in the alcove by the bar. Dinner now was desolating. The main room’s tobacco tinted, unpainted hard plaster looked like a Kings Cross crime scene from the ’40s. Shadowy clients begged for recognition and pretended they still liked it. The pasta was OK. It was radio days. Everything dies.

I’d sometimes dined with my father in the austere old Florentino in Bourke Street, patriarchal Ernesto standing by the enormous antique coffee machine in the corner, Bill the doorman still downstairs from the last war. And in London at stately Gennaro’s in Soho, a restaurant adored by the younger Virginia Woolf. I’d caused unhappy family scenes in the Dorchester Grill. Gennaro’s is long gone, the Florentino carpeted and monogrammed out of existence, the Dorchester Arab glamour. The Di Stasio details reduce to a chunky glass calyx of hard plain ice-cream topped by a maraschino cherry. I clung to the pinot bottle for its ancient rectitude. Sometimes the past should be oblivion.

Back in Sydney, home of instant gratification – nothing could take less time than sprinkling gold dust over a raw egg yolk, or swallowing it – I looked at Tony Bilson’s online menu and found that his yolk had proletarianised. In April it was gold encrusted. By mid May it was arriving with cauliflower, sprouts and Vegemite. Three of my least favourite early food memories on the same nouveau plate. It was nothing to do with hard times. The set menu still cost $280 without wine.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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