May 23, 2024

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How the ‘Evil’ Tomato Came to Define Italy’s Cuisine

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Meanwhile, prices for olive oil have soared — in Europe, up to 50 percent higher this January compared to January of last year — as production declines because of weather and disease, with millions of trees in Italy succumbing to the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, which scientists believe may have been brought over from Costa Rica on a coffee plant in 2008. And in perhaps the most direct hit to the nation’s soul, pasta prices rose so sharply in Italy last year, the government convened emergency talks, and consumer advocates lobbied for a price cap. Later, it was determined that companies were trying to recoup costs from buying marked-up wheat in the early stages of the war in Ukraine, a major producer. Prices stabilized; life has returned to normal. Perhaps pasta, at least, is safe — for now.

AROUND A.D. 39 or so, the Roman historian Suetonius (born later that century) recounts, a bridge was strung across the Bay of Naples. It was more than three miles long, built of boats weighed down by earth, so that the young emperor Caligula could ride atop the water, first on horseback in armor stolen from the tomb of Alexander the Great, and then in a chariot trailed by full military retinue. A tribute to human endeavor, and testament to its limits: Caligula was assassinated not long after, at age 28, and in A.D. 79, Vesuvius exploded. Black torrents of hot gas and ash swept down on the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, racing at up to 450 miles per hour and reaching temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of Venus, hot enough to crack bones and teeth and vaporize soft tissue, to make of flesh a sifting mist. One skull excavated from Herculaneum was found to contain a dark, translucent substance that, under examination, revealed proteins commonly present in the brain — the human mind, sealed into itself.

“We live in the shadow of Vesuvius,” Amedeo Colella, a 60-year-old local historian who designs food tours of Naples for a company called Culinary Backstreets, tells me. “Even when we speak of the future, we speak in the present tense.” Is this a self-conscious romanticization, or is poetry the only reasonable response to living with a volcano brooding on the horizon? Not to mention, even closer, about nine miles to the west, there’s the increasingly restive supervolcano known as Campi Flegrei (or Burning Fields), much of which lies beneath the Bay of Naples. Half a million people live within an eruption’s immediate reach. In the first 10 months of last year, more than 3,000 small earthquakes sent trembles through the region, raising fears of a coming rupture. The government drew up evacuation plans.

The world ends; the world continues. In Naples, I book a small room in a decaying 17th-century palazzo equipped sometime in the past century with an elevator, which can be operated only by slipping a coin into a slot. There seems to be an open border between past and present. History stalks the Italians I meet. One says, “After all, we were only unified in 1871,” as if this were yesterday. When night falls, I ride through the dark bristling streets on a Vespa, giddy with the cliché of it, prepared to deliver myself to my maker. Italians from elsewhere in the country have informed me that the Neapolitans are the worst drivers on earth, but I think they must be the best, for how else do they cheat death at every turn? And then I realize that what appear to me as near collisions are in fact virtuosic negotiations of space, knowing exactly how close you can get.

In a field in the Monti Lattari where ash descended nearly two millenniums ago, Abagnale lifts a handful of earth. The eruption “created great damage, but it also gave us this,” he says. A cataclysm that took place nearly 1,500 years before the tomato appeared in Italy created the kind of mineral-rich soil that would one day be essential to its thriving, and thus to its eventual union with pasta and the birth of an entire cuisine. Now, at the dining table in Sant’Antonio Abate, we eat. Once “pasta was reserved for feast days,” Zanini De Vita writes. Only after Italy recovered from the tolls of war, when the economy started roaring back to life in the late 1950s and early ’60s, were people in the countryside able to have it whenever they wanted. To think of pasta al pomodoro as a daily, basic dish, to take it for granted: This was a new kind of privilege.

At the end of the meal, we’re supposed to tear off hunks of bread to mop up any sauce still clinging to the plate, a ritual gesture the Italians call scarpetta. It’s a reminder of those days of want, when every mouthful mattered. Abagnale goes one better and brings the giant pan to the table, with the precious dregs like a pulped sunset, and we take our bread and run it through.

Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy. Retouching: Anonymous Retouch. Digital tech: Lori Cannava. Photo assistant: Karl Leitz. Set designer’s assistant: Natasha Lardera

Ligaya Mishan and Anthony Cotsifas

2024-05-13 09:02:00

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