Although they’re available year round, peppers are indubitably at their best during their traditional summer season. Italian cookery has embraced this New World import with a passion only exceeded perhaps by the tomato. It includes an almost infinite number of recipes for the pepper: fried, pickled, gratinéed, or paired with pasta, egg or chicken. The list goes on and on…
But peppers really shine when they take center stage, as they do when they are stuffed and baked. We’ve already featured some lovely peppers stuffed with meat and with tuna. In today’s post we’re making a stuffed pepper recipe from Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, the doyenne of Neapolitan cookery: peperoni imbottiti alla napoletana, or Stuffed Peppers Neapolitan Style. In this recipe, the peppers are stuffed with a mixture of eggplant, breadcrumbs and a bit of tomato, enhanced with typically zesty Neapolitan seasonings: garlic, capers, olives, anchovies and oregano. Francesconi calls it the ideal summer dish, light yet full of flavor, and I couldn’t agree more.
This classic of the Neapolitan table makes for a really tasty starter, but it’s substantial enough to be a light main course. It’s easily veganized by omitting the anchovies. And you can make it ahead. In fact, it only gets better after a day or two.
- 6 bell peppers, preferably red, yellow and/or orange
For the filling:
- 250g (1/2 lb) eggplant, cut into small cubes
- 6 heaping Tbs breadcrumbs, or more if needed to fill the peppers
- 2 cloves of garlic, one minced and one left whole
- A handful of capers
- A handful of black olives, roughly chopped
- 1-2 tomatoes, chopped
- A good pinch of oregano
- A couple of sprigs of fresh parsley, minced
- A few anchovy filets, to taste, cut up
- salt and pepper
For sautéing and baking:
- olive oil
- 100 ml (1/2 cup) white wine or water
In a large skillet or sauté pan, fry the eggplant cubes in abundant olive oil until they are soft and lightly brown. Remove from the oil and set aside.
In the same skillet or pan, add more oil if needed and sauté a garlic clove gently until it has just begun to brown around the edges. Remove from the pan.
Add the breadcrumbs and let them sauté gently for a minute or two until they’re just beginning to turn a nutty brown. Ddd the capers, olives, tomato, oregano, parsley and minced garlic. Give it all a good turn and let it simmer for another minute or two.
Add the anchovy and the fried eggplant cubes to the pan. Give everything another turn to incorporate them well into the mixture. Drizzle in some water, enough to moisten the breadcrumbs so the mixture adheres. Season to taste and turn off the heat.
Cut the peppers in half vertically and remove the seeds and ribs. Fill each half pepper with equal portions of the filling.
Grease a baking dish large enough to hold all the pepper halves snuggly, then pour in the water or white wine. Lay the stuffed pepper halves in a single layer in the dish and drizzle some olive oil over them.
Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for 45-60 minutes, until the peppers have softened and slightly charred, and the filling has nicely browned on top. If they’re not browned to your liking, increase the heat and/or turn on the convection function for another 15 minutes or so.
Let the peppers cool to room temperature before serving.
In the preface to her recipe, Francesconi traces the original recipe for peperoni imbottiti back to 1781 and famed Neapolitan gastronome Vincenzo Corrado’s cookbook Il Cuoco Galante. His recipe is found in a chapter dedicated to vegetarian dishes entitled Vitto pitagorico (named after the famed ancient vegetarian Pythagoras). Corrado’s pioneering work was followed in the 19th century by Ippolito Cavalcanti, who in the 1839 second edition of his iconic compendium of Neapolitan cuisine Cucina teorico-pratica offers up a recipe which, apart from its lack of eggplant, is very much like Francesconi’s modern version of the dish.
There’s more than one way to stuff a pepper…
Personally, I like to cut the pepper vertically for stuffing. This produces a kind of “open faced” stuffed pepper as pictured here. I like the look better and enjoy the extra crustiness of stuffing that’s been exposed to the oven’s heat. But many cooks prefer to just cut off the tops of the peppers and stuff them standing up, so to speak.
In the old timey recipes, you cut only the tops off the peppers, but you then lay the pepper on their sides rather than standing up. That’s because the traditional pepper for this treatment is a red cornetto, a long, thin horn shaped sweet pepper popular in southern Italian cooking. (As far as I know, isn’t available in the country. You can find some similar shaped peppers, but they’re hot like the Fresno, or green like the Cubanelle, or both.) Cornetto peppers are usually fried in oil rather than baked in the oven.
To peel or not to peel?
While I don’t bother with it, most traditional recipes for peperoni imbottiti, including Francesconi’s, call for removing the skin. Francesconi provides two methods for loosening the skin, which you then rub off. First, you can fry the peppers in oil just until the skin loosens up. Or you can roast the pepper over a flame, under the broiler or even in an air fryer, until the skin is slightly charred. After a rest wrapped in a paper or plastic bag, the skin will loosen up nicely.
However you do it, don’t overdo it. Just apply enough heat to loosen the skins without softening the pepper too much. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with a pepper that’s too flaccid for stuffing. That’s another reason I skip this step—which by the way, Francesconi blesses in her recipe as a valid option. And if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. She tells you to just increase baking time to 45-60 minutes. In addition to that advice, I also like to add a little liquid to the baking dish, which produces wet heat to speed the cooking. If you pre-roast the peppers, you can reduce baking time to 30-45 minutes or so.
There are, of course, lots of ways to play with the filling. Francesconi’s use of breadcrumbs here is actually rather unusual. Most recipes for peperoni imbottiti alla napoletana I’ve seen call for stale bread, which you soak in water and then squeeze dry. In other recipes, you simply cube and toss the bread with the other filling ingredients. Francesconi does mention this as a variation on her main recipe. She suggests cutting bread into small cubes and frying them.
Not all recipes for peperoni imbottiti alla napoletana call for the eggplant, but Francesconi’s does and I had a stray one on hand that needed to be put to good use. Otherwise, just increase the amount of breadcrumbs—or better yet bread for its superior texture—accordingly. Indeed, Francesconi provides a second recipe, from Cavalcanti, which is largely similar to this one but omits the eggplant and tomato. In Cavalcanti’s recipe you toss the filling ingredients together uncooked rather than being sautéed. This less caloric approach is very common in more modern recipes.
A good number of recipes also include egg, which of course produces a more compact stuffing. I prefer to leave it out, but I do add a drizzle of water to bring all the stuffing ingredients together. It also helps keep the filling from drying out in the oven, especially important when you’re baking them open faced as pictured here.
Finally, a good number of recipes for peperoni imbottiti include grated parmigiano-reggiano or, less often, pecorino. Personally, I don’t think this filling needs it. It’s plenty tasty on its own and for one, I don’t think anchovies and cheese get along very well. Apart from mild ones like mozzarella or scamorza, that is. And in fact, I’ve seen recipes that mention mild provolone, which strikes me as a better choice.
As mentioned at the top, peperoni imbottiti alla napoletana is extremely easy to veganize. That’s because it’s practically vegan to the begin with. You just need to omit the anchovy. Truth be told, you won’t lose much by doing so, either. The small amount of anchovy this recipe calls for is really there for the umami it lends to the dish, and the olives and capers already provide plenty of that. Of course, if you’ll also need to avoid variations involving egg or cheese.
Peperoni imbottiti alla napoletana
- 6 bell peppers preferably red, yellow or orange
For the stuffing
- 250g 1/2 lb eggplant peeled and cut into small cubes
- 6 heaping Tbs breadcrumbs or more if needed to fill the peppers
- 2 cloves garlic one minced and one left whole
- A handful of capers
- A handful of black olives roughly chopped
- 1-2 tomatoes chopped
- A good pinch of oregano
- A couple of sprigs of fresh parsley minced
- A few anchovy filets to taste, cut up
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
- 100 ml 1/2 cup white wine or water
- In a large skillet or sauté pan, fry the eggplant cubes in abundant olive oil until they are soft and lightly brown. Remove from the oil and set aside.
- In the same skillet or pan, add more oil if needed and sauté a garlic clove gently until it has just begun to brown around the edges. Remove from the pan.
- Add the breadcrumbs and let them sauté gently for a minute or two until they're just beginning to turn a nutty brown. Ddd the capers, olives, tomato, oregano, parsley and minced garlic. Give it all a good turn and let it simmer for another minute or two.
- Add the anchovy and the fried eggplant cubes to the pan. Give everything another turn to incorporate them well into the mixture. Drizzle in some water, enough to moisten the breadcrumbs so the mixture adheres. Season to taste and turn off the heat.
- Cut the peppers in half vertically and remove the seeds and ribs. Fill each half pepper with equal portions of the filling.
- Grease a baking dish large enough to hold all the pepper halves snuggly, then pour in the water or white wine. Lay the stuffed pepper halves in a single layer in the dish and drizzle some olive oil over them.
- Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for 45-60 minutes, until the peppers have softened and slightly charred, and the filling has nicely browned on top. If they're not browned to your liking, increase the heat and/or turn on the convection function for another 15 minutes or so.
- Let the peppers cool to room temperature before serving. They're even better after a day or two.
As always, thank your for this recipe Frank. I made it today and it was very good. I thought at first that it may have had too many ingredients, and some with strong flavors, and that they may have overwhelmed the flavor of the pepper but they didn’t; all worked together in perfect harmony. Bread crumbs and rice make a much better base for stuffing vegetables than meat does although different recipes that include a little sausage are also very good. Bravo!
Thanks so much Denio! So glad you liked it. Fully agree about different types of stuffing. Meat stuffings tend to take over, so it’s really all about the meat with the veg being a flavoring, while with breadcrumbs and rice it’s still about the vegetable. Different strokes, I guess…
I always like making stuffed peppers and this filling sounds so delicious! While the anchovies are likely my favorite part of the Neapolitan seasonings, I might try them without them so the two vegetarians in the house will partake. 🙂 ~Valentina
Frank these sound absolutely fantastic! When I can start eating veggies again, your recipe will be one that I will be trying.
Stuffed peppers really are one of the best summer and early fall dishes – filling yet not too heavy and so versatile. I love this This Neapolitan version, so many great flavours going on here!
So true, Ben. Thanks for stopping by!
Thanks for this recipe. I love it! My main attraction was to the way you cut the peppers. I agree with you: I think it’s more attractive. I also love that this is meatless.
Great minds think alike… 😉
This Neapolitan version of stuffed peppers sounds absolutely fantastic, Frank! We just stumbled across an amazing farmer’s market here in Asheville, and they are loaded with HUGE fresh bell peppers, tomatoes and eggplants. Sounds like fate was weaving it’s web given the timing of this recipe! 🙂
It really does sound like fate played a hand… Enjoy!
i used to make a similar dish often back in the day. Roasted capsicums we call them! Must make again.
Thanks, Sherry! Yes, I think they deserve to be part of everyone’s regular rotation. 🙂
great recipe from a great book and one of the best versions of stuffed peppers. I belong to “remove thy skin first” but I am curious now to try your version. stefano
If you do try it, I’d be curious to hear what you think. Thanks so much for stopping by!
The colors are so beautiful, Frank — they really invite you to the table. I love stuffed peppers and l really like this version stuffed with so many vegetables!
Thanks so much, David. I’m a big fan of stuffed peppers, too. Especially this time of year.
You have given me a new recipe for which ‘thank you’ ! Have always enjoyed stuffed vegetables with zucchini and mushrooms most often thus attached :_ ! But do enjoy capsicums . . . cut your way always AND with breadcrumbs usually . . .have not always succumbed to the Southern olives, capers and anchovies I love . . . shall copy in a ‘hurry’ . . .
You’re welcome, Eha! I think you’ll enjoy this one.
My hardcore vegan relatives would argue you loose the badge cause of the anchovies. Sounds great to me …off to the farm stand.
That’s true. I guess it’d be more accurate call this dish “veganizable” rather than vegan…
Such a great recipe! Most stuffed pepper recipes are rather heavy (that meat stuffing). This is much more to my taste. I’m with you on not peeling the peppers — the only time I bother is when I’m roasting them. And as you say, a roasted pepper just doesn’t have the proper texture for this dish. Anyway, really nice — thanks.
Thanks, John! Seems we’re on the same page!
SOOOO delicious! I love pickled peppers done this way, but then I am an absolute vinegar fiend, the stronger the acidity the better! Wish my peppers were ready!
Thanks, Christina! I guess you’ll need to steel yourself of patience until your peppers are ready. Sadly I can’t even think about growing peppers or any other vegetable as our backyard is just too shady! An potted herbs on the patio are about all I can manage…
Simple yet definitely a show stopper! Those mini peppers would make a novel hors d’œuvres or appetizer. Hungarians use a lot of stale bread in their recipes too, but they generally soak it in milk, at least that is what my mother did.
Thanks, Eva! I’ve seen some Italian recipes where you soak bread in milk, mostly from the north if I remember correctly—canederliCanederli (Tyrolean Bread Dumplings) for example. But in the center and south it’s always water.
They look fantastic cut down the middle. It makes me want to cook several plates of them and serve them at a big outdoor lunch. I’m sure I’ll be cooking these soon!
Excellent, MD. Hope you like them.
Beautiful! Another perfect example of the simplicity of Italian cuisine. Let the ingredients shine. Parsley is misspelled in the list of ingredients, if you care. My eyes just see typos, I can’t help it. Not my own, of course…
Yes, I do care. Thanks for the heads up! I actually found a few more typos while I was at it. This week I didn’t have time to give the post a good proofread before posting it. I really need a good editor…