Jeanne Carola Francesconi

Jeanne Caròla Francesconi: La Cucina Napoletana

In Campania, reference by Frank34 Comments

As I’ve written many times, Jeanne Caròla Francesconi (b. 1903, d. 1995) is my muse for Neapolitan cookery—apart from my grandmother Angelina, of course. And I’m certainly not alone. Often called the doyenne of Neapolitan cuisine, her classic 1965 work, La Cucina Napoletana, is the most iconic cookbook on the subject, perhaps second only to La Cucina Teorico-pratica (1837) by Ippolito Cavalcanti (b. 1787, d. 1859) and much easier to cook from for today’s cooks. Francesconi is to Neapolitan cooking what Artusi and Ada Boni are to Italian cooking in general.

As celebrated as her cookbook is, there is remarkably little to be found on her personal life, perhaps because it was, in a sense, unremarkable. She was a devoted mother of four children who, I read in this article, continue to share her passion for the local cuisine—especially her son Armando. He tells us that she was the host of legendary dinners for the upper class society of Naples. Food, family and friends, it would seem, were her life. Not a bad way to live, if you ask me.

Francesconi’s Masterwork: La Cucina Napoletana

Her masterwork, La Cucina Napoletana, is a true compendium of classic Neapolitan cookery, over 480 recipes in all, including a whopping 77 recipes for pasta. She devotes a whole chapter just to pasta-and-vegetable dishes, a staple for southern Italians, as well as 37 recipes for (mostly vegetable-based) soups. Rice also makes an appearance, including fives different versions of Naples’ best known rice dish, sartù di riso. And, of course, homemade pizzas, pizzettecalzones, taralli and other fried or baked dough-based dishes take their rightful place, along with a generous chapter on fritti, or fried food, so beloved of Neapolitans and Italians in general back in the day.

As for second courses, Francesconi gives us ten recipes for that old-time favorite, baccalà, along with seafood dishes of every description. The short but informative following chapter on eggs includes six frittata recipes. She doesn’t neglect meat, of course, but the 70-page chapter dedicated to vegetable recipes might well be her tour de force. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: Vegetables, perhaps even more than pasta, typifies the local cuisine, so much so that Neapolitans were once called mangiafoglie, or “leaf eaters” by other Italians. Desserts round out the collection, among which her personal take on the iconic babà al rum, struffoli (Friend Honey Balls), la pastiera (Neapolitan Easter Cheesecake), and Cavalcanti’s old time biancomangiare (Blancmange), together with a whole nine-page section on that most Neapolitan of pastries, the sfogliatella. And she includes a few desserts that might surprise you, like melanzane al cioccolato, or Eggplant with Chocolate, something even I haven’t had the nerve to try (yet). Gelato and other frozen sweets get their own chapter, topped off with a short chapter on homemade liqueurs.

Her recipes are generously larded with historical notes and personal stories. She lavishes special attention on the icons of Neapolitan cooking like ragù, which has come down to Italian-Americans as “Sunday Sauce“, and minestra maritata, the original “Wedding Soup”, along with classic dishes less known outside Campania like la genovese, beef stewed in onions, and the soffritto napoletano, a thick stew of pork innards (lungs, heart, spleen and so on) simmered in a thick tomato sauce. While she mostly conveys traditional recipes, including a good number of Cavalcanti’s, in some cases she shares a personal recipe, like her vermicelli ai molluschi (Pasta with Mollusks) or her own idiosyncratic take on a classic dish, like her insalata di rinforzo (Christmas Cauliflower Salad), which includes hearts of curly endive, or her fish-based variant of sartù. She shows a distinctly modern take on vegetables, telling the reader not to overcook them. And she’s not averse to technology, either; her chapter on ‘tips and tricks’ recommends frozen foods to save time.

Finding Francesconi’s Recipes

As far as I’m aware, Francesconi’s masterwork is only available in the original Italian. It is available through amazon.com, albeit at exorbitant prices. But if you don’t read Italian or don’t want to pay upwards of $275 for a cookbook, no worries—just keep reading this blog! I consult Francesconi whenever I blog on Neapolitan dishes and, even if I don’t always follow her recipes, I will generally let you know what her take on the recipe is in the Notes section that follows. Here are some of the posts on this blog that mention her:

The ones with an asterisk are the recipes based on the version of the dish set out in La cucina napoletana. The other posts mention her version of the dish, generally in the Notes section.

A Personal Note

I feel a special attachment to Francesconi’s work. As Neapolitan actor Luca De Filippo explains in the Introduction, her reason for writing La cucina napoletana was very much my own for writing this blog: la memoria. As De Filippo puts it:

La memoria. I believe it was just this intimate, primary need that inspired Jeanne Caròla Francesconi to write La cucina napoletana. Every page, every recipe, every word conveys the desire to remember and, above all, to pass on the ancient traditions of her family, justly preserved with love and pride. 

I couldn’t put it better myself. If I have captured just a little bit of Francesconi’s spirit here on Memorie di Angelina, then I can feel like I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

Comments

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  5. I just found this post while researching my husband’s family roots in Naples. I find this very interesting and wondered if you have any more family information on this fascinating lady. Was her maiden name Carola?

    1. Author

      Betsy, I don’t know for sure, and a quick Google search didn’t answer the question, but it seems logical that it was.

  6. Pingback: La pastiera/Easter Neapolitan sweet pie with wheat and ricotta | Italian home cooking

  7. Nice article, Frank. It made me muse on the subject of memory. In the past, traditions were shared “in real time” and thus passed on to the next generation. Gatherers of recipes ensured that kitchen memories would survive social changes, so we owe them a lot. Yet recipes in books need to be made otherwise they eventually die. You have been doing a precious and excellent work in bringing gems of knowledge to the public. At the root of you words’ passion there is the passion you put into making food, bringing recipes to life. Thank you!

  8. Frank, I so enjoyed reading this post and cannot thank you enough. Of course having the actual book in English would be wonderful, but at that price…. I will opt for the Italian version on my next trip. Having you reference those recipes which mention Francesconi was especially thoughtful. I do enjoy Arthur Schwartz’s book and it was nice learning that his work was resourced via Francesconi.

    1. Author

      As much as I love the book, I don’t think I’d pay those prices, either, Paula! You can pick it up for only 17 euros at Feltrinelli!

  9. Frank – You are a real repository of classic Italian recipes and those who made them famous. I had never heard of this woman even though I read your blog and have plenty of Italian cookbooks. Somehow she slipped through the cracks. I look forward to reading more of your Neapolitan cuisine posts. And thank goodness that these family “memorie” are written down by people like you and Francesconi.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much, Linda! I do heartily recommend Francesconi to you. You can find her book in just about any bookstore in Italy next time you’re there.

  10. Ciao Frank,
    Somehow this legend of Neapolitan cuisine has escaped my notice until now, even though I’m sure I must have come across her name previously here on your blog. And I have Neapolitan friends who would surely be familiar with her. At any rate, I’m glad to know about her now. I’ll be sure to pick up a copy of her book next time I stop in at Feltrinelli. Thanks for putting her in the limelight; it sounds like she definitely belongs there. Cheers, D

    1. Author

      Well, I’m happy to have lead you down a new path, Domenica, that I’m very sure you’ll enjoy exploring!

  11. I probably have gone through all the recipes mentioned but will again. I am such a composite of American and Italian. Partly because I am second generation and mostly because Grandma wrote nothing down so her children all cooked by “memory.” Love the sentiments involved. Someday, some publisher will realize that she could make a killing introducing the book in English.

    1. Hi
      for everyone else who is interested in Campania cooking and maybe is not very proficien in Italian, It is worth mentioning a really good book written in English The Food of Naples, by Thomas Schwartz…the book does feel really authentic and well researched.
      Stefano

      1. Author

        I think you may be thinking of *Naples at Table*, by Arthur Schwartz?—and yes, it’s excellent. Not so coincidentally, he takes many of his recipes from Francesconi.

    2. Author

      A lot of people seem to be in the same boat with you, Claudia. I agree with you that a translation of Francesconi’s book would make a killing. In the meanwhile, I try to do my part. I get messages all the time from Italian-Americans or other diaspora Italians thanking me for letting them to rediscover the recipe for some dish or another from their childhood. It’s the best feedback a blogger could ask for!

  12. grazie per questo meraviglioso post Frank, sono orgogliosa di avere mezzo sangue campano, anche se vivo al nord devo riconoscere che la cucina dell’Italia del sud è inarrivabile….Buona settimana, ho letto e visto che dove vivi c’è un sacco di neve, stai al calduccio mi raccomando, un abbraccio !

  13. Grazie Mille!!! I was born in Naples to my mother who grew up there (she was about 10 when Naples was bombed daily) & to my father who grew up in Mondragone (province of Caserta) but lived in Naples as a medical student. He was about 13-14 during WWII & was captured by the Germans twice & was able to escape twice. The 3 of us came to the US when I was 2. Since we had no relatives in the US, we were fortunate to visit our family in Italy almost every year. My mother (like her mother & sisters) was an amazing Naploletana in every way, including her cuisine. I miss my parents & extended family in Italy, but every mention of Naples, it’s cuisine & customs brings them back & brings joy. No disrespect to any other region of Italy, but truly there is no one like the Napoletani from hard-working and law-abiding families!!! Tanti cari saluti a tutti!! Margherita

  14. I am looking forward to the upcoming recipes and stories that go along with it. I love reading recipes in Italian — perhaps I’ll go on the hunt to find more of these treasures. Great Post!!!!!!

  15. What a lovely article, Frank. There are a handful or truly special Italian cookbooks, and surely this is one of them.

  16. Any chance that you might publish her recipe for la pastiera? My nonna (from the island of Procida) used to make this for Easter and I would love to have a true Neopolitan recipe for it.

  17. Hi Frank e hi everyone,

    I agree with all the above – it is a splendid book, Nothing to add. By the way, as u mention Luca de Filippo, who just passed away actually, there is also a book on Neapolitan food written by his late great dad Eduardo/rather good, especially the edition with the drawings by Eduardo’s sister, Titina (a wonderfull actress too)). .
    But on more practical level: if you happen to go to Italy, the Francesconi book (the new edition, e.i.the republished 1965 first edition) is for sale at all major bookstores at a very reasonable price: I was in Salerno few months ago and I bought it at the local Feltrinelli Bookstore for less than 35 euros)

    + free legal downloading: if u are interested in neapolitan cooking there are the books of Marinella Penta de Peppo available from Lulu: she is an old lady, she must be in her 80s now, and has written few good books on Neapolitan food (she also has a Ytube channel)- now they are there for everyone for free. well worth checking it. She could be considered as a minor Francesconi: recipes, historical background, curiosities… good stuff.

    if someone is particularly interested in one of Francesconi’s recipe, drop me a line and I can take a picture of the recipe and send it (this is legal, because I own the book).

    ciao, stefano

    1. Author

      Indeed, Marinella Penta de Peppo is a definitely treasure as well! I wish she would make more videos…

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