We all have days when we don't know the answer to the question, "What's for dinner?" Busy papa, busy Mama, busy Nonna... stuff happens and we forget to plan ahead. But even if you are a newcomer to the Cucina Italiana, there are always simple, quick meals that you can throw together without any pre-planning, as long as your Italian Pantry is stocked with essentials.
Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil) is one of the simplest, yet fulfilling meals any Italian can make. The cooking time is little more than the time it takes to boil your dried spaghetti and can be a base recipe for adding ingredients from leftovers. Even the most basic Italian pantries should have a box of spaghetti, extra virgin olive oil and garlic...
Serve with slices of crusty bread and some Chianti for a simple and tasteful meal.
This recipe is certainly a classic from Naples, but you can think of it as a base recipe for adding other ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, diced prosciutto, capers, olives, etc. Don't ever hesitate to be creative with Italian recipes!
When I was a boy, my father would often cook when my Mom was out with her "lady friends" to take in a Broadway show or an evening in a Manhattan night club. His style of cooking was something very different from my mother's... He would look into our old Philco refrigerator, see what was leftover or what vegetables we had, and somehow--without a recipe--whip something up to satisfy us for dinner.
When I'd ask what we were going to have for dinner, he just say a dialect word which to my ears sounded like "ba-BOOK-ya", with the "ya" part trailing off becoming nearly imperceptible. I knew the adventure was about to begin...
Recently, I was determined to research this word, even though I was unsuccessful in finding out its meaning in past attempts. But this time, I asked the friendly people in the I Love Molfetta Facebook page... and hit pay dirt!
As it turns out, the word is papocchio...
(or papocchia), pronounced "pah-POH-kee-yo". Now that I see it spelled out, I can picture my father pronouncing the "P"s almost like "B"s, with his soft-mouthed, mumbling Molfettese manner of speaking. Words are blended in his dialect. The end of words sort of trail off. So, "ba-BOOK-ya" fits perfectly with my memory!
Papocchio can have multiple meanings: Intrigue, cheating, trickery, a mess. Shockingly, I have even discovered that the word was used by northern Italians to refer to someone messing up a situation, in the "typical Southern Italian style", or "papocchio". Wow! Northern Italians had many such words and idioms that denigrated the Southern Italian. So, in this context, a "papocchio" is described as a screw-up not worthy of being considered a Northern Italian.
The sarcastic use of the word was used as the title of the 1980 comedy film Il Pap'occhio--the Pope's Eye. They took the meaning of the word "papocchio" and added the ' between the "pap" and "occhio" forming the compound word for Pope's Eye. It was such an irreverent look at the corruption of the Pope and the church that the film was shut down with two weeks of its release.
What does all this have to do with Dad's "ba-BOOK-ya" recipe? Not much, but it does give a lot of historical perspective to the word papocchio. When I asked my Dad for its meaning, he motioned with his hands with his fingers stretched out with a twisting movement, "When I was a kid we'd put everything in one bowl or pot... (hands twisting) all mixed up".
He told how his poor immigrant family would gather around the table for the family meal, each having their own fork but only one big bowl in the middle of the table. He said that they would use whatever they had that day to make the meal... a tomato or two (if in season, grown in their tiny Hoboken backyard), some ramps (wild onions picked near the railroad tracks), broken up pieces of stale bread, potatoes, smelt or eel or crab (if he or his brothers caught any that day on the river), a bit of cheese, some salt and olive oil. Sometimes he would fry the leftover ingredients to heat everything together in a large pan. Other times he would make a sort of cold rice or pasta salad. He also liked to make a frittata using eggs as the base for all the found leftover ingredients. Mom had her mainstay recipes, but with Dad, it was as if he was a stand-up comic doing an improvisational skit--being able to handle whatever the audience threw at him.
Ecco... Ba-BOOK-ya... Papocchio!
Recipe? Not really...
Here is the simple method of how my father, Sal might have thrown a papocchio together for a weekday meal.
If you have small bowls, portion out the dish. Otherwise, everyone grab a fork and dig in, but no fighting! Serve with crusty bread and a glass of red wine on ice mixed with 7-Up.
That's the way Dad would have done it...