When I invite someone to dinner who is not from Naples and I say we’re having a sartu', they look at me questioningly. Only those who know Neapolitan cuisine appreciate the novelty, in part because it is a dish that requires a certain preparation. “His Majesty”, as some jokingly call it, is often made for festive occasions, given that it makes many portions for the different guests; it is also sumptuous and striking, and is generally baked in a ring tin to give it a lovely circular shape. And even if the preparation is long and elaborate, it really is worth it, because it is absolutely delicious. Some true Neapolitans claim that it is even better the day after, so don't worry if you don't eat it all right away.
But first let's take a leap into tradition. First of all, the name of this delicious timballo [TN: Italian bake with pasta, rice or potatoes] dates far back in time: it is not, as it might seem, a term of endearment or a nickname, but is of far-reaching etymological origin. It derives from the French term sur tout, used to describe a garment able to “cover everything”, such as a coat or a cloak, and this name was mangled by the Neapolitan dialect, which changed the u into an a. It appeared in the eighteenth century, when the French cooks who worked in the houses of nobility and at the Court, invented this rice-based dish, adding tomato to a rich filling of meat, eggs and peas.
But it took time for the sartu’ to become popular with the people of Naples, who at the time were very big on pasta–especially maccarruni–and snubbed rice, because they considered it a poor man’s food and not at all suitable to be used in succulent dishes. Rice already been in Italy for two centuries: it arrived for the first time in Naples at the end of the 14th century, brought from Spain, in the holds of the Aragonese ships.
Observed with suspicion by the Neapolitan nobility, it was used above all as a medicine: doctors from Salerno prescribed it boiled without condiment to treat intestinal or gastric diseases, which were widespread since several epidemics were raging at that time, primarily cholera. From the South, it was imported to Northern Italy, where it began to be cultivated.
Historians narrate that when Ferdinand of Bourbon, king of the Two Sicilies, also known as King Lazzarone, married Maria Carolina of Austria, by the will of the queen–who did not like Neapolitan cuisine, considering it too repetitive–he called the very finest French cooks to court: they were called Monsù (from the French monsieur) which the Neapolitan dialect then mangled into Morzu.
One fine day, these cooks, who knew of the Neapolitan aversion to rice, decided to offer it in a tastier form by adding a pummarola, i.e. tomato sauce, peas, hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, meatballs and sausage and disguising all these ingredients inside a timballo covered in breadcrumbs. Thus, they presented themselves to the Court, showing off the new dish. Legend has it that the king wanted to taste it and found it so tasty that he requested it several times. In the end, the fame of sartù spread very quickly, allowing the dish to become officially part of the culinary tradition of the Kingdom. Over time, two versions were tested: one white (with béchamel instead of tomato sauce) and one red, while the filling can vary according to taste. The base is obviously rice, which must be drained al dente.
And since every family in Naples has its own personal recipe (which they claim as the only “real” one, but in the end, it’s anyone’s guess), I will describe the one I make. I assure you that the result is spectacular; literally mouth-watering.
The secret, handed down for generations, is to cream the rice with a lot of sauce: here too, my recipe is a bit different from usual. For example, my grandmother and my mother preferred a Bolognese-type meat sauce, i.e. with mince, to a simple tomato sauce. Instead of the mozzarella found in the basic recipe, they used provola cheese in the filling, another very popular ingredient in Neapolitan cooking.
They also always recommended sprinkling into the filling a lot of grated Parmesan cheese, and to be sparing with the salt because the filling is already tasty enough. Another tip: use Carnaroli rice and wait at least 4-5 hours before serving to prevent it crumbling! This is how I do it: I first prepare the ragu’ (Bolognese style, as my mother says!), which is easy: finely chop and sauté half a carrot, half an onion and a stick of celery, then add 600-700 grams of mince and brown gently. Warning: the meat must be well cooked.
Add half a glass of red wine, or better still brandy, and allow to evaporate, a pinch of salt and herbs to your taste; I prefer a couple of cloves, 2 or 3 sage leaves and a sprig of rosemary. When the meat is ready, I add about two bottles of tomato passata, and let it cook for twenty minutes. Then add a few leaves of basil and, voilà, the ragu' is ready. Then I cook the rice (500 g) and, once drained, add plenty of sauce, leaving some for the “cover”. Take the ring tin–which in Neapolitan is called a ruoto–and line with a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs mixed with grated Parmesan, and a couple of ladles of sauce.
Variation: some people like to cover it with slices of cooked ham (I personally don't like it). Now add a layer of rice with sauce in the ruoto and then a layer of filling made up of: pieces of provola cheese, frozen garden peas, diced ham, small meatballs and three hard-boiled eggs cut into pieces. Aside: the meatballs must be prepared separately.
In a bowl, mix 200 g of mince, grated Parmesan cheese to taste, a pinch of chopped parsley, one egg, salt and pepper and then make a lot of little meatballs and fry them in peanut oil. Back to our sartu': once the filling has been added, cover with another layer of rice, and then add more sauce. Place the ruoto in a static oven at 180 °C for 40 minutes. Don't forget to do a toothpick test to make sure it’s cooked through!
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