Octopus alla luciana: when history is eaten at the table

by Daniele Nocera

Octopus, cherry tomatoes, parsley and black olives: everything you need to bring to the table one of the tastiest recipes of poor Neapolitan cuisine. THE Octopus Luciana style, in fact, they have always represented one of the most characteristic dishes of Neapolitan culinary art and tell a story that goes well beyond the pleasure given to our taste buds.

To get to know the recipe for Polipetti alla Luciana, therefore, it is not enough to remember the ingredients and its preparation by heart, but you have to dig deeper. The origin and its very name are inextricably linked to the events of Borgo Santa Lucia; retracing them therefore means re-appropriating them and fully understanding the link between what might seem like a banal recipe and the partly bitter destiny of a piece of the city. But let's proceed in order!

Polipetti alla luciana: quando la storia si mangia a tavola
Octopus Luciana style

The origins of the name and the recipe

Polipetti alla Luciana owe their name to luciani, a term used to designate the inhabitants of Borgo Santa Lucia, one of the oldest districts of the city, located on that thin strip of land lapped on one side by the waters into which the Siren Parthenope plunged and on the other by the Pizzofalcone hill. By its very vocation, Borgo Santa Lucia had a special bond with the sea and it is no coincidence that most of its inhabitants were addicted to fishing.

As we read in the numerous stories of those who have experienced or witnessed scenes of daily life in the village firsthand, the moment of departure and return of the fishermen was marked by a real ritual. Anyone who happened to be near the ancient coast at the first light of dawn would have seen throngs of fishermen drag your rowing boats from the Chiatamone caves until they reach the water. They would then return to that same gravel several hours later, taking the spoils from the Gulf waters with them to sell to the highest bidder.

Polipetti alla luciana
The appearance of the beach before the drainage of the sanitation
Source: S. Lucia Group, nu neighborhood cà nun sè little scurdà, photo by Raffaele Anatrella.

Anchovies, clams, sea bream, cod and the inevitable baby octopus paraded from hand to hand under the lights of a now high sun until they reached the kitchens of the whole city, ready to become soups, fish comics and, why not, in a very short time the inevitable Polipetti alla Luciana.

It is also said that in specific circumstances the Lucians used to adopt the so-called 'amphora' fishing technique, which prescribed the use of amphorae and terracotta pots containing white stones. Placed along the seabed, they would have attracted and captured octopuses during the night, guaranteeing fishermen an excellent result without too much effort.

But what remains of those beaches today? Probably only the distant echo of a story interrupted by blows of picks and concrete starting from the first works of Remediation. What seemed to be an intervention to improve the living conditions within the city, while largely achieving this goal, deprived the Lucians of their place of origin. Their homes were replaced by bourgeois buildings and residences and the streets of the village enclosed between the Pizzofalcone hill and the new curtain of buildings on Via Caracciolo.

Every time you taste this delight, therefore, know that you are eating much more than a common restaurant dish. Yours will be a real one symposium with history; a more discreet story than others, which certainly does not share the glories and celebrations of the great events of the past, but which brings with it the stories of a people intimately guarded in a handful of baby octopus and a few tomatoes!

The recipe for Polipetti alla Luciana

We at Storie di Napoli like to follow tradition and prepare octopus as follows:

Ingrediants: 1 kg of baby octopus, 1 kg of peeled tomatoes, 1 glass of dry white wine, 2 cloves of garlic, 100 g of black olives, parsley, oil, salt, pepper to taste

Preparation: clean the baby octopus, wash them and place them in a saucepan without adding water or oil. After ten minutes, pour in the wine and be sure to let it evaporate completely. Then add the cherry tomatoes, the garlic, the pitted and chopped black olives, the parsley and the oil. Complete with salt and pepper and cook for fifteen minutes. We recommend serving the baby octopus on croutons or using them to season pasta al dente.

-Daniele Nocera

For a variant of the recipe see:

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