“Sometimes we saw him climbing up the scaffolding of new buildings that were rising floor by floor, or in a hat made of newspaper, in the sun, eating bread with sausage and greens during his lunch break...”
Even though it is the first of four Neapolitan Novels, finishing My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante left me bereft – or, as my nine-year-old self once said, “end-of-book lonely”. Also it left me feeling guilty: I galloped through the last 60 pages in much the same way I often eat food – greedily and not really chewing properly. What happened between Fernando and Silvio Solara? Why was Marcello wearing the shoes Stefano bought? Answers – and no doubt more questions – would come with book two, which could be bought from the English bookshop near the Spanish steps... It was only 4:30pm: I had more than enough time to get there. Or was that hasty? I would read the last 40 pages again. On the train to Naples.
It is not just Ferrante. Journalist Rachel Donadio is also responsible for my Sunday whim. A few years ago, she wrote an article in the New York Times called Seduced By Naples in which she describes her enduring love for the city, and how, when living in Rome, she would often escape to Naples – “a surefire adrenaline rush, a slap in the face, a semi-failed state only an hour south by train”. Naples had slapped me some years before I read the article – it was the city I arrived in when I first came to Italy – but her words persist, as good writing can, and tempt me. It takes an hour and six minutes to get from Roma Termini to Napoli Central if you catch the Frecciarossa, which I did, leaving a recuperating five-year-old and patient partner watching The Incredibles, beside them a floor fan with a death rattle. “The last train back is at 9:37pm,” Vincenzo reminded me as I closed the front door. “The one after that is 1am,” echoed down the lift shaft with me.
There is nothing like a train journey with a good book, your eyes on the page, but also aware of the world flashing past. The 60 pages reread, and mind now on a Napoli-style charity dinner I was going to help cook in London the next day, I flipped back through the book. References to food punctuate My Brilliant Friend, but in a restrained way – lean details such as the “yellow peach” given to Elena by her dad – which turns out to be a revealing part of Ferrante’s lucid and compelling storytelling. As I walked around the ancient heart of the city on Sunday, all the details were there: a woman washing vegetables, the yellow peach, the scent of frying pizza and so much fruit on a hot day. All this mingled with the the kids on the hot steps, washing; almost violent beauty, breeze blowing in from the sea. “What a sea... the waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white foam on their peaks, then broke in a thousand glittering splinters”.
Then we have Pasquale, the son of a carpenter, in a hat made of newspaper, in the sun, eating greens and sausages during his lunch break. The greens Ferrante mentions are no doubt friarielli. Known as broccoletti in Rome, cime di rapa in Puglia and rapini in Tuscany, friarielli are a slightly bitter cooking green related to both broccoli and turnip tops, with softly spiky leaves and scattered clusters of broccoli-like buds. Opinions and thoughts about how best to prepare these greens are strongly held, and nowhere more than Napoli, where they are often cooked with sausages.
As we prepare the dinner in east London a day later, Paolo, the Neapolitan chef at Campania & Jones just off London’s Columbia Road, warns me never to boil friarielli. Trim rigorously to get rid of tough bits, he continues, then cook them in lots of oil, with chilli, garlic and white wine until tender, then add the sausages.
Not that we have friarielli. It is not the season. But with Ferrante in mind we are cooking greens with sausages. Tenderstem broccoli can tolerate a par boil. We re-cook the florets with olive oil, garlic and chilli until tender – a good bed for meaty sausages. Paolo also prepares tortelli stuffed with aubergine, sartus of rice that seem like little red sandcastles in a puddle of tomato sea, fried dough balls called zeppole, and marinated vegetables. A good cook is a curious one and never too proud to learn something new, he reminds me, then laughs.
The small kitchen and back room are overflowing with goodness: crates of date-shaped tomatoes, cherries, bulbous onions the colour of a bishop’s cassock. Two caprese (chocolate torte) balance on a window ledge, sloshing tubs of putty-coloured batter and wet dough. Containers are brimming with grilled aubergine slices in olive oil. The stove seems alive, sputtering: “Passing by you caught a whiff of spices, of olives and salami, of fresh bread, of pork fat and crackling that made you hungry.” And not just for food.
Sausages and greens
6-8 tbsp olive oil
1-2 garlic cloves
A small red chilli, finely chopped
White wine (optional)
4–8 pork sausages
1 If you are using broccoli, romanesco, sprouting broccoli or tenderstem, trim and cut into florets, then parboil. If you are using broccoletti, friarielli or rapini, just trim away all the tough parts.
2 Warm the oil in a large frying pan. Peel and crush the garlic for a milder flavour; chop it for a fiercer one – then add to the pan with the broccoli, chilli and a pinch of salt. The par-boiled broccoli will need a few minutes until is is ready. Uncooked greens will need longer – and possibly some wine and time under a lid. It should be tender and tangled in the end.
3 Keep an eye on the greens and taste now and then. Cook the sausages in another frying pan or under the grill, then unite them with the greens and leave to mingle for a bit. Serve hot or at room temperature, with bread ... possibly wearing a paper hat.
Rachel Roddy is an award-winning food writer based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard); @racheleats