Last night I had the pleasure of playing matchmaker to the great actor John Turturro and my great friend Arthur Schwartz. They are both in love…with Naples! John Turturro, as many of you know, is one of America’s finest actors, writers and directors best known for his roles in Barton Fink, Quiz Show, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and more than 50 other movies. Today, he most wants to be known as the director of a new film, Passione, about the street life and music of Naples. Arthur Schwartz, as many of you know, is one of the world’s great cooks and authorities on Italian cuisine, specifically food from Naples. Today, he wants to bring a musical production from Naples to Brooklyn (and brought the sound track to seduce us.) Since the Turturros live directly across the street from us and Arthur and Bob live around the corner, it seemed the perfect moment to open a bottle of Prosecco and talk about their beloved city. We had a blast. The day started with Arthur and I going to buy salumi and prosciutto and pane at Di Palo’s — the city’s most celebrated Italian food store. It has been in existence since the 1930’s. They recently expanded to include a fantastic wine shop and it was too much fun spending time with Lou di Palo who, according to Arthur, knows more about Italian food producers and products than anyone. At 7:30 p.m. the six of us (with John’s wife and my husband), sat in our living room talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and watching John slowly unfold: Before we knew it, John was “in character” telling us about the joys of producing his new musical — which will be available in the states sometime early next year. Arthur and Bob have already seen it in Italy…and loved it.
You can experience a bit of last night by making Arthur’s fabulous caponata. Arthur brought it, along with some lovely parmesan “cookies”, and they went beautifully with all the cheeses, salumi, “melted tomatoes,” Sicilian breadsticks, olives and fresh fennel that we had. After the Turturros went home (it was snowing when they left!), Arthur and Bob stayed for a light supper — a cheese-and-onion tart, wild arugula salad, and wine cake with lemon buttermilk sorbetto for dessert. Strong coffee followed.
Here is Arthur’s classic, unpublished, recipe for caponata; and here is the link to the trailer for John’s “Passione.” Ciao, ciao
Classic caponata can be very oily, but Arthur has reduced the final oil content by soaking the eggplant in salt water, which decreases the amount of oil it absorbs when fried, and by draining the oil from the fried eggplant before adding it to the sauce.
2 1/2 pounds eggplant (I prefer several small ones instead of 1 very large)
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
2 outside ribs celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup)
1 large onion, sliced very thin (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 tablespoons plus 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups tomato puree
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa (optional)
12 (6 to 7 ounces) large Sicilian green olives, cut off their pits in large pieces
1/2 cup salted capers, rinsed well and soaked in cold water if very salty
3 rounded tablespoons raisins
3 rounded tablespoons of pine nuts or almonds (optional)
Put about 2 quarts of cold water into a very large bowl with about 3 tablespoons of salt.
Wash the eggplants. Cut them into 3/4 to 1-inch cubes. As they are cut, put them into the bowl with the salted water. Let stand for at least 30 minutes, weighted down with a plate so the cubes stay submerged.
Meanwhile, boil the celery in lightly salted water for about 3 minutes, until crisp-tender. Drain well.
In a 12 to 14-inch skillet, over medium-low to medium heat, sauté the onion in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until tender and lightly golden, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomato puree, stir well and simmer 1 minute.
Add the vinegar, sugar, salt, and cocoa. Stir well and simmer another minute.
Add the olives, capers, raisins, and the reserved celery. Stir well again and let heat through 1 more minute. Set aside.
Drain the eggplant cubes.
Heat 1 cup of olive oil in a 9 to 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When hot enough to sizzle an eggplant cube immediately (or bubbles gather around the handle end of a wooden spoon), fry the eggplant cubes in several batches. The eggplant can fill the pan, but only in 1 layer. Fry for about 4 minutes, turning the cubes a couple of times. The eggplant should be soft but no more than very slightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon or skimmer and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining eggplant. There will probably be 4 batches.
After each batch of eggplant has drained a minute or so, transfer it to the pan with the sweet and sour sauce. Stir each addition into the base sauce.
When all the eggplant has been fried and it is all in the sauce, mix well but gingerly so as not to break up the eggplant too much. Heat through gently, just until the mixture starts bubbling at the edges.
Taste for salt and vinegar. You may want to add a little more of each. Or a trace more sugar.
The caponata is best eaten at room temperature the day after it is made, but it is quite good even fresh and still warm. Makes about 2 quarts