Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cappelleti alla Romanesca - A Fake-Italian Brazilian Specialty

Brazil is full of Italian restaurants, like the rest of the world. Brazilians are, on the whole, not terribly adventurous eaters, and even in the big cities of Brazil you'll not find the huge range of ethnic restaurants that you'd find in New York, Paris, London or Vancouver. But two foreign cuisines have won a place in Brazilians' hearts - Italian and Japanese. Both cuisines are ubiquitous in Brazil - a fact that largely stems from immigration patterns - and both find their purest Brazilian expression in São Paulo - also due to those same immigration patterns.

The typical Brazilo-Italian restaurant - the casual, trattoria-style, not the upmarket contemporary style - boasts a menu which is heavy on pizza, pasta and standard Italian-inspired meat and fish dishes. Not all that different from the New Jersey red-checked tablecloth version. Nor are the choices of pastas all that different from what folks in the northern hemisphere know and love - the pastas are spaghetti, linguine, penne, rigatoni, lasagne etc. and the sauces are bolognese, pesto, amatriciana, arrabiata and puttanesca.

There's one pasta dish that's almost always found on the menu in these establishments, cappelletti alla romanesca, and it hadn't dawned on me until this morning that I'd never seen it offered outside Brazil. In today's Estado de S. Paulo newspaper I read an article on Italian foods found in Brazilian restaurants that really aren't Italian at all - they were invented in Brazil. And there it was as the prime example - cappelletti alla romanesca.

This dish, which basically consists of a plate of meat-filled cappelleti sauced with a combination of chopped ham, peas and mushrooms in a cream sauce, turns out not to have traveled across the Atlantic in the collective memory of Italian immigrants to Brazil, but rather to have been created by a Brazilian chef, Giovanni Bruno, in the 1950s.

In the 50s, Bruno was the chef at a famous restaurant in Bela Vista, São Paulo's Little Italy of that time. The restaurant itself, Gigetto, had opened in the 1930s and is still open, and perpetually packed, today. During chef Bruno's time at Gigetto, the restaurant was a hangout for artists, musicians, actors and assorted hangers-on. Today, it's mostly populated by tourists.

Giovanni Bruno
From the day that cappelleti alla romanesca first earned its place on Gigetto's menu it has never been removed. It's still the most popular menu choice there, and in the years since it's debut it has spread around the country and can be found from Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil to Boa Vista in the far north and everywhere in between. Sr. Bruno himself has long since moved on from Gigetto and now owns Il Sogno di Anarello, another São Paulo Italian restaurant, where he continues to serve - you guessed it - cappelleti alla romanesca. In 2011, Sr. Bruno celebrated his 74th birthday, and his 60th anniversary in the restaurant business.

Now that I'm aware of the story of this dish of pasta, I'm going to look out for it on Italian menus outside Brazil. I'm curious - it's conquered Brazil, but has it traveled beyond Brazil's borders? I don't know, but intend to find out.

2 comments:

  1. Love your blog..

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  2. I grew up in Sao Paulo and the Italians I knew as a kid always told us Brazilians changed a lot of their typical dishes.
    Starting with the Pizza, that in Italy, is usually much more simple, it has less ingredients, many times, just the crust with tomato paste, sometimes cheese, but not always and not in all parts of Italy.
    You know Pizza in Sao Paulo and the US are loaded with all kinds of different ingredients. I personally prefer Sao Paulo's Pizzas. I just can't stand all the grease meats and sweet and spice stuff from American pizzas.
    One major difference between Italian Food in Sao Paulo and in New Jersey/Boston/New York/Providence is all the spicy dishes in the US versions.
    I have never had ANY spicy Italian food in Sao Paulo.
    My Italian relatives tell me that this striking difference is because Italians who immigrated to Sao Paulo were from the NORTH of Italy and the ones in the US came from the SOUTH, so there are subtle differences, but the one that stood out for us from day one are all the SPICY Italian food in the US that I never knew from Sao Paulo.
    Another difference is that NORTHERN ITALIANS in Sao Paulo never used Pepperoni in Pizzas or anything else for that matter.
    Pepperoni is very popular in the US, in Pizzas and in other dishes.
    Interesting enough, Pepperoni can be found in Sao Paulo after the strong influence brought with the arrival of the US Pizzas in the city such as Pizza Hut and Domino's and also because of Hollywood movies making Pepperoni popular and the Paulistas who travel and live in the US and want Pepperoni on their Pizzas.
    I never even heard of Pepperoni until I came to the US for the first time in 1989.
    I have to say, I don't really care for it. Too grease and too spicy for a traditional Paulista taste! :)
    Great post!

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