From time to time I get e-mails from Americans (and I mean Argentineans as well as US Americans) asking for some particular Italian recipe their grandmother used to make. I am happy to help whenever I can, I love those trips down memory lane, but occasionally I feel terribly sorry for not being able to lend my hand in their recipe search. Sometimes it is because, while I know the dish well, I have no idea of how the recipe looks like. Yet more often, I simply have no idea what dish they are talking about: the name might be familiar, but the description of the dish is not. The problem is that Italy simply does not have a national cuisine, but rather a collection of local ones that at times can change dramatically just going over the next hill. So, even for a born and raised Italian like me,m Italy remains an immense cooking school, with a promise of something new around the next road bend.
Shortly before leaving for my Italian break, I had one of these ah-ah!/I am learning something new moments. I was reading William Black's "Al Dente", a very well written and enjoyable book about Italian food and history, and stumbled upon his description of Tiella Gaetana, the stuffed "bread" typical of Gaeta . Now, I spent many of my childhood summer holidays in the area near Gaeta, so I had heard the name before, but I must admit I had no idea what the dish was. Black describes food in such a delicious way – something he definitely has a knack for – that I knew I had to get a bite of tiella as soon as I could. I also wanted to learn more about it.
I did not manage to find much about the history of this dish, but to me tiella symbolises the perfect union of love for food, local ingredients and a practical take to eating. According to some sources tiella was the fare of the local mariners: simple to eat yet delicious. Tiella is essentially two disks of bread dough, brushed with plenty of oil, stuffed with a moderate amount of simple ingredients, sealed and baked.
You can find similar items throughout many countries whose eating culture is centred on wheat, but tiella Gaetana has a couple of peculiarities that make it unique. First of all, the border sealing the two disks of dough is always wavy like the sea. The dough itself is made without oil, yet the bottom and top of the "bread" should be brushed abundantly with extra virgin olive oil. Finally the stuffing, which has a few rules of its own. The most classic of tiellas is made with octopus, some gaeta olives, tomatoes, parsley and plenty of olive oil, but there are plenty of variations: escarole and olives, escaroles and bacclà (salted cod), anchovies, tiny calamaretti and zucchini and cheese (sheep) are just a few. The purist say that once you cut the tiella into quarters and bite into it, there should be so much oil in the filling that it runs down your forearms. I don't find that particularly appetising, to be completely honest. Traditional recipes can be good, but sometimes there is a reason why evolution is better. On the other hand, I completely agree with the keepers of the Gaetan tradition when they claim that tiella should only be paired with wine, never water. A nice cool wine from Lazio or Campania goes down a treat with it.
For my taste of tiella, I followed Black's tip and went to Chinappi a tiny and somewhat hidden bakery that specialises in Tiella. It was a difficult choice, but the first go had to be tiella with octopus, which was simply delicious. The oily dough was a delectable container for the filling of sweet tomatoes, firm (but not hard octopus, rich of sea aromas, and the occasional slightly bitter punch of the olive. A good amount of oil in the filling too, but luckily not so much that it was dripping to my elbows. Now I am dying to try all the other fillings!
Via Fratelli Bandiera 4