While in Italy this past summer with a group of friends, we stopped for lunch at a tiny cucina called ‘e Curti, on the northern hillside of Vesuvius. It was our first meal together as a group, and the restaurant, hidden in the winding narrow streets of Sant’Anastasia offered surprises and delights beyond any expectations. The small staff regaled us with platters of exceptionally prepared regional culinary treasures and stories about the origins of the restaurant.
‘E Curti is named for Luigi and Antonio Ceriello, two brothers from S.Anastasia who were dwarves (“curti” being a dialectic term for someone of inferior height). After having toured for years as circus ringmasters, they returned to their hometown where they took over the tavern and cucina from their uncle. Their young niece helped them in the kitchen; today she is the chef.
After too much rich food, and many glasses of wine, we needed to hurry to get to our villa before night. Our host offered one last taste – small glasses of the house specialty: Nucillo ‘e curti, a slightly sweet, nutty and spiced digestivo made from walnuts. We left giddy, intoxicated with nut liquor.
The historical origins of nucillo are pagan but the liqueur is part of the region’s gastronomical tradition. The nucillo prepared for ‘e Curti is produced by hand, using walnuts from Sorrento, picked from trees on the slopes of Mount Somma in the heart of National Park of Vesuvius. The harvest date is specific: June 24th, coinciding with mid-summer night. Following several steps of processing plus 60 days in the sun, by mid-September the nucillo is ready for consumption.
I bought one bottle of the walnut liqueur, and I regret I didn’t buy several more. I also brought home a bottle of their grappa, made from the residue from the nucillo process. If you ever find yourself heading down the E45 toward Naples, consider making a side trip for a meal at ‘e Curti. And please bring me back a half dozen bottles of their nucillo.
Until then, with a couple pounds of walnuts I need to use up while they are still fresh, I prepared a big batch of sweet spicy walnuts to serve as an appetizer for an upcoming dinner.
These are slightly sweet, with a hint spice and a bit of extra crunch due to the cornstarch in the 10x sugar.
Sweet salty spiced walnuts
Peanut or canola oil for deep-frying
Finely ground sea salt (white, pink, gray or black)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 t ginger powder
1# walnut halves (about 4 cups)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
(Alternate spices could include using 1t salt with either 1t of curry powder or garam masala.)
In a small bowl, combine 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon black or white pepper, the cinnamon, ginger and cayenne and mix well. Set aside.
Fill a large saucepan ½ to ¾ full with water; bring to a boil over high heat. When the water is boiling, place the nuts into the boiling water, cook about 1 minute for large halves (less time is needed for smaller halves.) Pour the nuts and water through a colander to drain. Shake off excess water then transfer the nuts to a large bowl. While the nuts are still hot, add the sifted sugar and stir well to coat evenly. The sugar will melt on contact with the moisture and heat. Keep stirring and tossing until all the sugar has melted. If unmelted sugar remains on the nuts, they will not fry properly.
Using a deep fryer or a stockpot, pour the oil to a depth of at least 3 inches and heat to 350F (it helps to use a candy or instant read thermometer.)
Stir the nuts again before frying. Using a large slotted spoon, transfer a scoop of nuts to the hot oil, allowing the foam to subside before adding another spoonful.
Fry the nuts until they turn a medium brown, about 1 minute for large halves, less time for smaller halves. Be careful not to overcook.
Remove the golden browned nuts with the slotted spoon and scatter them on a rimmed baking sheet to cool slightly. Fry the remaining nuts in the same way, always working in small batches. While the nuts are still warm, sprinkle evenly with a portion of the spice mix. Toss to distribute the spices and then taste. Add more spice mix to taste, tossing well after each addition. Use a paper towel to remove any excess oil that has dripped on the pan. Allow to cool completely. Store nuts in a zip locked bag. They will keep at room temperature for about 2 weeks, longer if refrigerated or frozen.
Makes 4 cups.
The nuts make great little holiday treats when boxed or bagged, tied with colorful ribbon.
Can be made ahead and store well in the fridge for two or more weeks.