Italians don’t care much for turkey, until that holiday in November rolls around.
By Bill Tonelli
St. Martin of Tours as he was, a Roman soldier offering a beggar his cloak.
The city of my birth, Philadelphia, has 1.58 million inhabitants and one contribution to the culinary world, the…well, you know what it is. The town where my grandfather was born — Nereto, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, population about 3,000 — has twice as many signature dishes, and you can make of that statistic what you will. One of them is capra neretese, goat meat sauteed with onions, peppers and tomatoes, which is somewhat well-known (assuming you’re up on regional abruzzese cooking). It speaks of the time when shepherds and their flocks roamed the hills there, and people ate only what nature would provide.
That’s not the dish I’m thinking of right now.
Their other traditional dish is tacchino neretese, a turkey recipe that’s served just once a year, on a holiday in November — not that holiday, naturally, but on the 11th of the month, the feast day of the town’s patron saint, San Martino, or St. Martin of Tours as he is remembered elsewhere.
St. Martin was born either in 316 or 336 in what was then Pannonia and is now eastern Europe, and lived mostly in Gaul. The neretesi revere him because in the 12th century, Benedictine monks belonging to the cult of St. Martin came to town and built a church, which still stands. Why San Martino gets turkey, no one there could tell me. Turkey is not such an Italian thing; one year, when we lived in Rome, we went from butcher to butcher trying to find a turkey to make for Thanksgiving, and lucked out only when we asked a butcher who specialized in horse meat and other exotics.
It was July when I first heard about San Martino and tacchino alla neretese, from Francesco Perilli, an artist who has lived there all his life. He invited us to return in November for the big day, but we would be unable, I told him. So, he decided that he and his wife, Gabriella, would make it then, in the middle of summer.
It was not the easiest thing to do. The traditional side dish, which they call verze and we call savoy cabbage — it originated in Savoy, a historical region in northern Italy — was not eaten in summer. They found some anyway, and also the other requirement, corni di capra — sweet peppers that are long and thin like a goat’s horns. On the festa di San Martino, the meal is always accompanied by vino novello — newly harvested, barely fermented red wine, traditionally released on November 6 — the one thing even they found impossible to get.
Francesco and I got into his car one hot morning and drove away from the town and into the country surrounding it. My Italian wasn’t good enough to understand all the details when he told me where we were going and why. When we parked outside a farmhouse and walked into a yard where chickens and turkeys wandered around pecking in the dirt, I figured it out.
A woman came out of the house and listened to Francesco explain. She nodded, then began to look around on the ground. She found an empty feedbag and, with a small knife she pulled from her dress pocket, cut off one corner. She looked around again and picked up a piece of twine that was lying in the dirt. Then she eyed the birds for a minute, walked over to a turkey, scooped it up, and brought it plus the bag and the twine inside a shed.
When they came out, the bird was in the bag with only its head poking out of the hole in the corner. The woman held the turkey upside down, by its feet, which were tied together with the string. The animal seemed resigned to whatever was coming next.
She walked over to a metal stand and tied the string holding the turkey’s feet to the top. The bird hung there, not moving or making a sound. Then the woman placed a metal washtub under it, on the ground. She pulled out the knife again, with her right hand, took the turkey’s head in her left, and cut its throat. The bird began thrashing its wings and convulsing inside the bag, but the woman held the head still so the blood poured down into the tub. She looked away and waited. The noise was terrible. After a minute, it stopped.
The woman untied the turkey’s feet and took it back into the shed. Francesco smoked a little cigar and we stood there not talking, watching the other birds. A few minutes later the woman and the turkey returned, the bird now gutted, cleaned, plucked, headless, in a plastic bag. Francesco paid the woman and we said goodbye and left.
Once we got back home, Gabriella prepared the turkey in a roasting pan, and then Francesco and I walked it down the street to the baker. The woman there put it into the bread oven, thereby not overheating the Perilli kitchen in July. The same custom was (and maybe still is) followed in some places in South Philly, where on Thanksgiving morning you could bring your turkey to the bakery, and for a few dollars they would roast it for you, freeing your kitchen for the preparation of the holiday’s important courses, the pasta and the desserts.
But what made it tacchino neretese? There’s just one step in the preparation that makes the dish special; it’s also what makes most people cringe when I describe it. But it’s the key, crucial ingredient in what is otherwise a pretty simple recipe: Before you roast it, you cover the entire turkey with a half-kilo — roughly a pound — of what they call strutto di maiale and we call pork fat. Lard. Everyone I spoke to in Nereto used the same word to explain why: the lard renders the meat “morbido.” The Latin root of the word is the same for morbid, as in sickly or diseased, or as we use it to mean obsessed with death. There, it just means tender, which is a consideration when it comes to roast turkey in any language. The thought that adding a pound of lard to a turkey might have any nutritional or health implications puzzles Italians. When I brought it up, Francesco said, “A little pig fat never killed anybody,” notwithstanding the pig and then of course the turkey.
That night, my family and I showed up at the Perilli home and found a long table set for many people. Soon, more than a dozen of us were gathered, friends and neighbors of Francesco and Gabriella and their son Daniele. The food, naturally, was very, very good. My Italian was poor, and I was unable to ask how funny it was for them to be eating tacchino neretese in summer — like we might feel pretending it was Thanksgiving in July. The turkey was morbido, in case you wondered.
Here are Gabriella Perilli’s recipes for tacchino neretese, verze, and corni di capra.
Season the turkey with coarse salt and black pepper inside and out.
Put three heads of garlic and some rosemary into the cavity.
Cover the turkey with the lard, most of it on the skin but also some inside the cavity.
Pour a glass of dry white wine over the turkey.
Roast it as you would your normal Thanksgiving dinner.
Remove the outer leaves, chop the cabbage, and parboil to soften it a little.
Remove it from the water and saute it in garlic, olive oil and, if you want, some pancetta.
Fry in a pan with the cooking oil of your choice — sunflower, corn, or olive oil.
As for the vino novello, you’re on your own. Any young red would work — new Italian wine isn’t so easy to find, but a beaujolais nouveau would be okay.
Bill Tonelli is the author of Mob Fest ’29 (Amazon Kindle Singles)