Friggitelli are small, elongated and slightly crumpled sweet peppers, and it is their season. While classed as sweet to reassure us that the hot gene is recessed, friggitelli peppers are, in fact, not sweet at all. Rather they are the David Byrne of vegetables: intensely savoury with thin, crisp flesh and, while there is no searing heat or spice, they have something ever-so-slightly piquant about them – the so-called trigeminal effect some ingredients cause, which, in this case, is a cooling in your mouth. Friggitelli also don’t suffer the unripe flavour of many green bell peppers, but have a sure, vegetal tone.
Two hours down the coast from Rome in Naples, friggitelli are called friarelli, which is confusing as it is one letter away from friarielli, the local name for cime di rapa, or turnip tops (which, to add another layer of etymological confusion, are called broccoletti in Rome, even though they have nothing to do with the broccoli family). Peperoni friarelli, however, are part of the capsicum genus; members of the nightshade family; bright migrants from Mesoamerica to Europe in the 1400s. The word friarello derives from the Neapolitan dialect, che si frigge (meaning “that is fried”); three of the finest words reminding us in no uncertain terms of the best way to cook them.
I don’t bother to remove the seeds, but rather throw the peppers whole into a frying pan in which I have heated a good amount of olive oil (lets say six tablespoons), until it is good and hot (but not smoking), and add a pinch of salt.
Friggitelli make for lively cooking: they hiss like angry cats and occasionally leap in the pan – especially when you press them with the back of a wooden spoon, which splits the skins and releases liquid, which means they hiss all the more. You want the friggitelli to collapse and soften, for the skins to lightly char and ashen ever so slightly. To serve, tip the friggitelli on to a plate and sprinkle with salt – ideally flakes that crunch. As with larger bell peppers, cooking friggitelli turns them from crisp into soft and almost velvety.
In Vegetable Literacy, Deborah Madison calls sauteed peppers or friggitelli “summer’s best bite, absolutely the best thing to nibble on with drinks”. She is right. To me, friggitelli are as much summer as long days, lollies and the smell of mosquito repellant. I would argue that “nibble” is too delicate a word here. The convenient thing about leaving friggitelli whole is the stem, which you can use to lift the whole thing into your mouth, which means tipping back your head like a peasant king. To take them one step further, lay anchovy fillets along the lengths of the cooked friggitelli (length-wise, they seem made for each other); the combination of the searing, salty fish with the soft green flesh is, as a drunk friend once pointed out, to die for.
If you haven’t died from pleasure, you can prepare the second batch of friggitelli with tomato, another classic combination from Naples and Campania. Begin as you did with the fried peppers, letting them collapse and char in hot olive oil until they look like rumpled cloth. Before I add the peppers though, I scent the olive oil with garlic: peeled and cracked for a bold flavour, peeled and sliced for a stronger one. Once the garlic has given its scent and flavour, I remove it before searing the peppers – any more heat would burn the garlic; this makes it a bitter bully. Garlic lovers have no fear! I then return the garlic to the pan along with 500g tomatoes – halved if you’re using cherry, or peeled and roughly chopped for larger ones. Small or large, the important thing is that the tomatoes are ripe and sweet. Let them simmer at a blip, blip, burp, stirring from time to time and crushing the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. You want the tomatoes to soften into a rich sauce that clings to the already-collapsed peppers, and catches the pools of now red-tinted olive oil. In the last minutes of cooking, when everything is a soft, crumpled mess, taste, add salt and a big handful of ripped basil, then leave to sit so the flavours mingle.
Friggitelli with tomatoes
Prep 10 min
Cook 30 min
500g ripe tomatoes (cherry or large)
2 garlic cloves
6-8 tbsp olive oil
To deseed the friggitelli, cut off the stalk end, split the pepper down the side and scrape out the seeds.
Next, prepare the tomatoes: cherry tomatoes can simply be cut in half, while larger ones should be plunged into boiling water for 60 seconds, then into cold, at which point the skins should split so they can be pulled away. Roughly chop the tomatoes, discarding any hard bits.
Peel and crush the garlic: for a mild scent, crush so it splits but remains whole, or peel and slice for a stronger one.
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and garlic over a medium-low heat until the garlic is fragrant. Now, lift out the garlic, otherwise it will burn and turn bitter; you can put it back in later.
Add the friggitelli and a pinch of salt and fry, moving the peppers around and pressing them with the back of a wooden spoon, until they collapse and their skin turns opaque.
Add the tomatoes (and garlic, if you want), raise the heat and continue the lively simmer for 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes are saucy. If the pan seems a bit dry, add a little water. Add the basil in the last minutes of cooking; taste and add salt as required.