From aristocratic dining halls to the people’s kitchens

He was not a professional. He was not a cook by trade. He was not a scalco, that is to say, a superintendent of aristocratic kitchens and master of ceremonies. He was not a trinciante, the man responsible for carving food, often meats, on the fly, holding them in mid-air with a big fork, right in front of the dining table. Nor was he a bottigliere, the expert who chose the banquet wines.

The author of Cucina teorica-pratica was a gastronomy enthusiast. Not a mere enthusiast, like so many, but a cultured and confident one.

The author

Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino (1787-1859), was a Neapolitan aristocrat who descended from the same ancient, aristocratic Florentine family from which came Guido Cavalcanti, Dolce Stil Novo poet and friend of Dante Alighieri.

As he enjoyed cooking, Ippolito took time out of his many commitments (together with his brother-in-law Giuseppe Como, Baron of Santo Stefano, the Duke was one of the so-called “Naples Elect”, a small circle of noblemen who helped govern the city) to publish a recipe book,

Cucina teorica-pratica, that became a milestone in Italian gastronomic literature.

The work

Cucina teorica-pratica col corrispondente riposto ed alcune nozioni di scalcare (Theoretical-practical cuisine with corresponding answer and some notes) is a compendium of traditional Neapolitan cuisine, but also includes some French-inspired recipes, as in the first half of the 19th century French cuisine was very popular in the dining rooms of the aristocracy and the high bourgeoisie.

The book, published in Naples by Luigi Marotta in 1837, was supplemented, in the second edition of 1839, by an appendix entitled Cusina casarinola co la lengua napolitana (Rustic cuisine in Neapolitan dialect).

Ippolito Cavalcanti’s work – whose ten subsequent editions (the last one in 1877) were quite different from one another as they were being constantly updated and added to by the author – addressed an audience from the upper strata of society; however, the addition of recipes then in use among the lower classes and written in Neapolitan dialect show the author’s intention to reach a wider range of readers.

Cavalcanti gave a nod to local cuisine, and he did so from a position of equality with the ideal of a “national” cuisine and the French model, and not of inferiority. And this was due to the Duke of Buonvicino’s high cultural level.

The other works of “regional” gastronomy, too, increasingly numerous in Italy from the late 18th century onwards and addressed to the bourgeois classes and housewives, achieved an individuality of their own next to the Italian and, especially, French cuisine. The specific interest of these “minor” works lies precisely in this remote conversation between “equals”, despite the often poor calibre of their authors.

Why read it?

The treatise and compendium by Ippolito Cavalcanti, both written in a simple and accessible style, enlivened by witty and interesting observations, are of significant historical importance. Do you know why? Because they include some of the most popular recipes in modern Italian cuisine.

Here, for example, we find the first description of a pasta (vermicelli) with tomato sauce.

Although it is practically impossible to establish who was the first one to think of the combination of spaghetti with tomato sauce (the chef Francesco Leonardi, author of late 18th-century L’Apicio moderno – The Modern Apicius – and the first to regularly use tomatoes in his recipes, claimed the invention of the gastronomic combination of pasta with tomato sauce as his own), there is no doubt that the recipe of vermicelli with the fruit originating from the Americas was presented for the first time in the work of the Neapolitan duke.

By the first half of the 19th century, spaghetti had been common fare in Italy for several centuries, while tomato sauce had been invented just a few decades earlier, more precisely in 1762 by the abbot Lazzaro Spallanzani, a lover of natural sciences, who was the first to discover that boiled tomatoes could be preserved for longer when put in hermetically sealed containers. What is certain is that the combination of spaghetti with a tomato-based sauce originated in Italy, giving life to a dish that would become part of gastronomic history, not only in Italy but worldwide.

In his Cucina teorica-pratica, Cavalcanti presented other dishes of Neapolitan origin that would become mainstays of Italian gastronomy, such as panzerotto, spaghetti with clams and fried codfish, as well as many local dishes prepared for special festivities such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Easter.

Do you have a Neapolitan dish that you are particularly fond of and that you cook often?