In researching a novel set in ancient Rome, writer Jesse Browner has an unforgettable meal that resurrects a long-lost empire.
I was having an "Ozymandias" moment. The lone visitor to the vast archaeological park at Cuma, an hour’s drive from Naples in the Campania region of Southern Italy, I perched atop the ruins of the crumbling acropolis and ruefully surveyed the detritus of a wasted empire. Ancient Cumae, a colony founded by Euboean Greeks some 2,800 years ago, was once a major power on the Tyrrhenian coast and is said by Virgil to have been Aeneas’s landing place on his way to fathering the Roman nation. Where were its armies now, its vaunted fleets, its great trading networks, its vast port, today entirely silted over and planted with fennel and lettuce?
I had come to research my historical novel, The Uncertain Hour, set at a seaside villa in Cuma almost 2,000 years ago, when the town was already past its heyday. Based on a story related by the Roman historian Tacitus, the book describes the final hours of the Roman aristocrat and writer Petronius, who had been ordered by the emperor Nero to commit suicide. Over the course of a single night, Petronius threw the party of a lifetime. His guests were expressly forbidden to mourn, commiserate or otherwise dwell on the imminent tragedy; instead, they were enjoined to sing, dance, eat, drink and celebrate life. By dawn, Petronius was dead.
Having undertaken a great deal of research already, I felt that I had a firm grasp of everything I needed to know about ancient Roman life—cooking, architecture, politics, clothing, etiquette. Still, I imagined that a visit would help me to capture the physical details that I couldn’t experience in a library: the light reflecting off the sea, the rise and fall of the rocky coast, the rich scent of a myrtle grove at sunset. To get myself into Petronius’s head, I wanted to see the place as he might have seen it, and perhaps to eat as he might have eaten at his last meal.
But I was having a rather frustrating time of it, to say the least. Although Cuma is near both Naples and Pompeii, it sits on a hilly peninsula—known as the Campi Flegrei, or the Burning Fields—to which time and modernity have not been kind. It is a region full of both natural and man-made beauty, including the spectacular imperial ruins of Baia, the erstwhile East Hampton of the Roman aristocracy. And unlike other, better-known areas of Southern Italy, it is not overrun by tourists. Still, its wealth of history and artifacts is somewhat counterbalanced by ramshackle development and industrial sprawl. I began to wonder if I had not made a mistake in coming at all.
And then, one evening, I found myself on a dock overlooking the charming bay of Miseno in the village of Bacoli. Miseno was once the winter harbor for the Roman fleet, but I was not here for the history. I had come to eat and drink. The modest setting of Da Fefè restaurant, near a decaying stone wharf, belies its stellar reputation as one of the best restaurants of the Campi Flegrei. "To cook properly," owner Bruno Esposito told me as he joined me at my table, "you must have something to say. You don’t have to say you’re the best; you just have to say you want to please." As we talked, we shared a glass of his famous "aperitivo da Fefè," a concoction of Aperol (a bitter orange-flavored aperitif), gin and fresh fruit juice. At that moment, I was happy to forget everything I’d ever learned from history books and more than glad to set aside the disappointments of recent days. I just wanted to be pleased.
But as my supper arrived at a very leisurely pace, course after course after course, a funny thing happened. Ancient history began to come alive for me in a way that it had failed to do among the crumbling stones and pillars of Cuma. And because my novel takes place over the course of a single banquet, I paid careful attention to each dish.
While lavish banquets may have been one aspect of imperial-era decadence—in Petronius’s Satyricon, he describes a feast that included figpeckers (small birds) marinated in egg yolk and stuffed into peahen eggs, as well as a roasted boar stuffed with quail and garnished with cake piglets—most Romans liked their food simple and unadorned. The most assertive seasonings included cumin, coriander, honey, raisin wine and liquamen, a fermented fish sauce that may have been similar to the Vietnamese nuoc mam. The Romans also made extensive use of wine, pepper, oregano, olive oil and onions. And they valued freshness and subtle, natural flavors above all. It was these values that Bruno’s kitchen brought to life.
His opening salvo was a plate of sea urchins taken that morning from the cold waters off the nearby island of Procida. We washed them down with a glass of Fiano di Avellino, a locally produced DOCG (the top classification for Italian wine). The Fiano grape, a descendant of the Roman Vitis Apiana, yields a citric, golden wine with notes of hazelnut. It nicely complemented the urchins, which we ate raw with lemon juice, scooped from the shell with bread, as the fishermen do. Whether served raw or tossed with garlic and mint over spaghetti, urchins remain the local delicacy they were 2,000 years ago, when Apicius included them in his famous Baian casserole (a dish Petronius’s cook serves him in my novel). As Pepe the fisherman explained when he strolled up the beach to join us at the table, they are harvested only under a waxing moon. Why that is neither he nor anyone else was able to say, leading me to chalk it up to superstition, which the ancient Romans exalted into a national religion. It was no strain on the imagination to picture Pepe and Petronius’s cook bargaining dockside over the morning’s catch.
My urchins were followed by a platter of crudo: tender calamaretti with marinated zucchini and carrots; dense, chewy swordfish, sliced paper-thin and drizzled with lemon juice; an artfully filleted carpaccio of fresh anchovy; and gambero rosso (red prawns) and neonati—tiny gobies, pink and translucent as bean sprouts. We shared the crudo in a way that would have been perfectly familiar to any ancient Roman reclining in his triclinium.
Night fell. A sweet breeze wafted off the Mediterranean, and the waterside tables filled with a lively mix of locals and sophisticated Neapolitans, chattering in dialect so thick they may as well have been speaking Latin. Substitute togas for blue jeans, and the diners could have been the guests at my semi-fictional dinner party, knocking back the local Falerno and Falanghina wines.
Bruno had moved us on to a delightful, straw-yellow Frassitelli, with hints of apple and pear, produced by Casa d’Ambra from Biancolella grapes grown on the island of Ischia, just across the water. Like all of the local wines, it is modest, memorable chiefly for providing the perfect complement to the unpretentious local cooking.
The dishes to follow were also constructed with the same local ingredients that could have been served at Petronius’s suicide banquet: tiny steamed mussels, meltingly tender and very salty, served with nothing but a strong dose of pepper; paccheri alla genovese, pasta tossed in an onion puree with octopus; squid heads stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic and parsley; and the sweetest pesce bandiera (scabbard fish) roasted with red onions and vinegar—a dish that almost exactly parallels Apicius’s recipe for ius in mullos assos, roasted red mullet.
But my favorite dish of the evening was the simplest and most traditional one: a grilled fillet of sea bream, also known as orata, a fish associated with the Campi Flegrei since time immemorial. Indeed, it was the ancient Roman gastronome Sergius Orata whose famously productive fish ponds just north of Bacoli gave the sea bream its Italian name. Orata was said to love his livestock so dearly, he would cry whenever one was to be sacrificed to the table.
Bruno’s eccentric choice of accompanying wine was just as charming, and he presented it proudly in an unlabeled bottle. It was a thin, young red, crafted by Eduardo Costagliola using Piedirosso grapes—Per’e Palummo ("dove’s foot") in the Neapolitan dialect—from his four-acre organic farm on the outskirts of the village. Again, it was a humble thing, with just the least suggestion of fig, and not likely to win many awards. And yet it seemed to have been produced as the sole credible complement to the orata.
For me, a single bite of that perfectly fresh, flaky orata was enough to conjure a lost world of opulent seaside villas, cruel Julian dynasts, a civilization raised to the heights of sublime rhetoric and abased in the blood-soaked arenas of mercenary politics. Now I could summon to my mind’s eye the ghost of Agrippina, murdered just down the road as ordered by her son, Nero; of Caligula, who built a two-mile bridge of ships across the Bay of Baia merely to disprove a prophecy; of Servilius Vatia, a man "famed for nothing else than his life of leisure," according to Seneca, and who so loved bearded mullet that he built his palace in Cuma near the lake where they were raised; of Pliny the Elder, author of the immortal Natural History and admiral of the Roman fleet right here in Miseno, who was killed trying to get a closer view of the erupting Mount Vesuvius; and, of course, of Petronius himself, who chose to die reclining at his table, fully sated at last with all the good things his beloved Campania had to offer. As I savored my orata down to the last juicy scrap, I felt at last that I might finally claim to understand the meaning of empire, and the soul of my long-dead hero.
Jesse Browner is the author of The Uncertain Hour, a historical novel that will be published next month.
Da Fefè restaurant, Via Shoah 15, Casevecchie, Bacoli; 011-39-081-523-3011.