Shortly after we arrived in Agropoli our hosts, the Astones, took us to a fine local restaurant for a taste of traditional Cilentane foods. It proved to be a memorable meal.
The restaurant was the Ristorante Casareccia, located between Capaccio Scalo and Capaccio Vechio, Capaccio-on-the-Road and Old Capaccio. Another paired community, one up on the flanks of the mountains and the other down in the lowlands. This is almost the rule in the Cilento, not the exception. The reasons are both practical and strategic.
One practical consideration is simply that transport is so much easier by water in a pre-industrial context, and the Cilento is richly blessed with natural harbors and bays, so it was perfectly natural for little coastal communities to develop all along the Tyrrhenian coast, as far back as the Neolithic and perhaps even earlier in some cases. There was a thriving commercial system here as early as the Early Bronze Age, and that trade only intensified with the coming of classical Greek colonies such as Poseidonia, modern Paestum, and Elia, today’s Velia.
But, as mentioned earlier, the soils of the alluvial plains such as those of the Calore and Sele river regions in this area were simply too dense for early farmers to plow, equipped as they were with the simple ard plow. So arable farming was restricted to the lower foothills of the mountains where soils were light and easily turned but retained enough moisture to carry crops through the dry Mediterranean summers.
And there may have been another reason as well, one which goes back to the very beginnings of the Neolithic Revolution. Archaeological research conducted in central Italy in the last 20 years suggests that there was an early phase of proto-agriculture when ‘crops’ were not so much planted as nurtured in their natural environments, and these incidental ‘gardens’ were supplemented with the herding of cattle such as sheep and goats. Add to that a rich supply of meat garnered from hunting, just as had been done in the Paleolithic, especially of the various indigenous deer in this area. But deer, like their domesticated cousins the sheep and goat, are migratory in central Italy, following the summer fodder into the uplands where moisture is more plentiful. In the realm of domesticated cattle it’s called transhumance, the practice of transferring cattle from winter lowland pasturage to summer uplands. Think of Heidi, following the cows into the upper Alps and returning in the fall with wagons laden with beautiful Swiss cheeses. Again and again, even from late Paleolithic, we see summer hunting/herding communities along drove roads leading down to winter coastal communities.
The strategic reason for the upland communities is simply for protection against marauders. It is difficult for an American to understand how the tragic history of the Mezzogiorno may have molded in subtle but profound ways the psyche of the modern southern Italian. But once your native land has been invaded, there is a psychic scar that lasts for generations. Now imagine being invaded repeatedly, with all the attendant murder, rape, pillage, and destruction. If my calculations are correct, Agropoli has seen some 23 changes of regime, so to speak, most of them instigated by violence. Some of the Medieval villages in this area are almost unbelievably inaccessible, so much so that many are being abandoned as people look for easier access to jobs, good highways, entertainment, you name it. Fernando has a friend who has bought a whole Medieval village on the slopes of Mt. Soprano and is turning it into a tourist destination!
Capaccio Scalo has a much more prosaic history; it simply developed as a node along the new highway built back in the early twentieth century and is therefore essentially a modern town.
At the restaurant we were warmly greeted by Antonio, the proprietor, so warmly, in fact, that I thought our hosts must be hard-core restaurant patrons. Later we discovered that Antonio, Antonello or Nello as he is called by family, is the son of Filomena’s cousin. And a cousin in southern Italy is every bit as welcome as in the American South.
We began our repast with plates of antipasti consisting of the famous cheeses of the area, namely, little bocconcini of mozzarella, and the aged caciocavallo. They were accompanied by the most impossibly red and sweet little tomatoes I have ever seen. Then there was aqua sale, literally ‘salted water’, which was a revelation. These were little chunks of the local bread baked in a wood-fired oven, but in this case then sliced into slabs about 2” in thickness, placed on a sheet pan on their sides and baked again, a true biscotto. Our hosts explained that these were quickly dipped in water (the time depends on how old and dry the bread is, so it’s an empirical process, as I discovered when I tried my hand), broken into chunks, salted generously, then sprinkled with herbs, perfectly ripe halved grape tomatoes and doused with the best olive oil. Absolutely simple, and absolutely delicious.
Next came plates of the local salumi, or cured pork products, for which this region has been famous for at least two thousand years: prosciutto crudo, what we would call a country ham, but not one of the fake ones you see today but a real hard-cured ham that requires no refrigeration. This one was cured in a facility behind the restaurant! It was thinly sliced and accompanied by slices of a delicious, spicy soprasatta.
Next we had our contorni, or vegetable course, a reminder that Italians love veggies so much that they either make them the whole focus of a meal or at least give them the stage to themselves so they can be appreciated as something more than second fiddle to a hunk of meat. We had a ragu of carrots, artichokes, celery and sweet peppers, cooked as simply as possible and slightly bathed in good olive oil. Along with these we had a melange of zucchini and eggplants, gently sautéed to the tender-crunchy stage and again dressed very simply. Probably my favorite part of the meal.
For the pasta course we were offered three local favorites, a ravioli made from handmade sheet pasta and stuffed with the local goat-milk ‘ricotta’, which is actually a full-fat farmer’s cheese. These were sauced with a simple marinara. Along with these we had fusilli con ragu. The fusilli in this case are long, hollow noodles hand-shapped by rolling strips of sheet pasta around a tiny dowel and then zipping them off. It’s apparently a real art; our friend Katiuscia says her mom can whip them out in no time, but hers are total disasters. These were sauced with a slow-simmered ragu, and thanks to Fabio I have some inside dope on this. When we went to Castelcivita to the Grotto there, Fabio had the clerk at the office of the tourist attraction make up two batches of fusilli and presented one to me. He explained that the secret of the ragu was choosing the best ingredients and then simmering low and slow, preferably for at least three hours. The absolute best ingredients are a bit of onion from the Astones’ garden, sweated in olive oil from the Astones’ orchards, to which a fairly coarse dice of a cut of beef has been added, but one with lots of connective tissue which slowly releases its unctuous gelatins. Into these should be stirred a bottle of Mama Filomena’s canned tomatoes, seasoned with herbs, salt and pepper. Turn the gas as low as it will go, add a cup of water and be patient. Your patience will be richly rewarded.
The third pasta was cavatelli, but not the sort we think of here, the extruded semolina pasta, but rather little gnocchi of soft wheat flour, hand crafted and sauced with a luscious cheese sauce and medallions of eggplant. It’s darned hard to make potato gnocchi that don’t have the texture of silly putty, but I can’t imagine how gentle one must be to create these soft little pillows of goodness.
For the meat course the restaurant pulled out all the stops and served fresh pork sausages, poultry and beef all three, à la Romans. It was delicious, all roasted over open coals and having that grilled flavor, but we were all a bit jaded by now and I think Filomena’s beloved dogs probably enjoyed the most benefit. These were served with a fresh salad and French fries.
The only one who opted for dessert with her caffé was a certain anonymous little porker, and this was a simple frozen cup. Italians don’t like desserts after a meal, preferring sweets as a mid-morning or late-afternoon spuntina (snack) to accompany the powerful espresso coffee that carries them through to the next meal.
With our meal we enjoyed three wines, a white Falanghina from northern Campania, an Aglianico of no particular distinction but still quite good, and, I presume in honor of Cousin Rolando who loves the Piemontese grapes, a Ciloso. The Aglianico had a delicious flavor but almost no discernible aroma, the Ciloso just the opposite, with lots of berry in the nose but a rough astringency on the palate. But the really delicious thing about Italian restaurant wines is that they are affordable. What a luxury to be able to enjoy with your loved ones a whole bottle of wine, without stinting! In my opinion, American restaurateurs who habitually insist on a 700% to 1000% markup on wines are being incredibly shortsighted.
The meal had been accompanied by sports news from a large-screen television mounted on the wall, something I usually despise, but really very entertaining in this case. We started our meal about an hour before the beginning of Italy’s World Cup match with Poland, and the whole restaurant was fixated on the panel of sportscasters, garrulously bloviating away just like their American cousins. Think Carolina-Duke basketball extrapolated to a national level. It was fun to watch all the earnest discussion, none of which we understood, but which clearly engaged the passions of the locals. By the time the match started the restaurant was practically deserted; everybody had skeedaddled home so they could scream blissfully at the screen in private. But Nello provided plenty of animation and local color for us as the Italian team did its usual stint at underachieving.
Altogether a fun and delicious afternoon and a wonderful chance to meet and get to know our host family in the best and most intimate way of all, namely, by sharing with them the sacred pleasure of food.