I Napolitani

by Michael Tucker
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melanzana-eggplantBrian and Maria Gabriella are Americans who live in Umbria part of the year. They’re opera singers and run a travel business on the side, which affords them some great travel perks as they check out possible adventures for their clients. They recently got back from a trip to Sicily and were regaling us with stories.

“I ate pasta with eggplant and tomatoes every day for two weeks,” said Brian. “Sometimes twice a day. “If I never see another bowl of pasta with eggplant and tomatoes, that’ll be just fine.”

All I could think of was that I wanted a big bowl of pasta with eggplant and tomatoes. He got me going.

And then the universe – as it will do sometimes if you’re lucky and aware – dropped a remarkable coincidence in my lap. The next day I was out shopping for, you guessed it, eggplant and tomatoes, and there was a truck parked in our little piazza manned by three guys from Naples. The back of the truck was filled with gorgeous produce, fresh from the south – not only the veg I needed for my pasta, but crates of red and yellow peppers, nectarines and strawberries so fresh that if you didn’t eat them within ten minutes, they’d be over.

I stood in line behind a woman from our town. Well, I stood next to her, really, because Italians don’t like to make lines, which are way too strict. They make loose groups instead. “Napolitani,” she said softly to me, like a secret. And she shrugged with a look that said, “Don’t touch them; they’re filthy; and don’t forget to wash all the vegetables you buy.”

But she pointed out the beautiful melanzane, — the eggplants. “I like the long thin ones, like this. The fat ones have too many seeds.”

I prided myself in understanding her Italian and asked her what she thought of the tomatoes. Will they be tasty enough this time of year? One of boys from Naples overheard me, grabbed a tomato and sliced it in half with his knife. Then he shoved it at me.

 

“Taste.”

I did and nodded that it was good.

“How many boxes?” he said and he began to lift the crates to carry to my car. If I hadn’t stopped him I would have been the owner of a year’s supply of tomatoes.

eggplantpastaNo!” I pleaded. “Siamo solo due! Io e la moglie.” I was explaining that I was buying only for my wife and myself but he didn’t want to hear it. He made rude gestures about me to his brother. If I didn’t want at least a crate, then I was an enemy and a fool; I would take a crate or I would get nothing.

He then turned to the apricots and proceeded to use his knife to halve one and shove it in my mouth. The apricot was sensational.

“How many boxes?” he started again.

I managed to get out of the piazza with only a kilo of apricots, the same amount of melanzane and tomatoes and – yes – an entire crate of strawberries. It’s hard to bargain with a Neopolitan.

Occasionally Jill’s and my food tastes come together and this was one of those times. I fried the eggplant separately; I peeled and seeded the tomatoes and made a sauce with garlic and, eventually, basil; I used farro pasta because that’s how Jill gets her protein. And we both agreed it was the best meal so far this year. Stay tuned.

 

Michael Tucker is an actor and author whose recent novel is "After Annie."  He writes about his love of food on his blog Notes from a Culinary Wasteland.

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