Today is the feast of San Gennaro, Neapolitan dialect for Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, a celebration both in Naples and in Little Italy in New York city where many Neapolitan immigrants settled in the early 20th century. It was first celebrated in New York in September 1926 when immigrants from Naples congregated along Mulberry Street to continue the tradition they had followed in Italy. Naples actually has over 50 patrons, but Gennaro is the principal one, where he is the patron of the cathedral.
Little is known of the life of Januarius, and what gets repeated is mostly derived from later Christian sources, such as the Acta Bononensia (BHL 4132, not earlier than 6th century) and the Acta Vaticana (BHL 4115, 9th century), and from later folk tradition. According to these dubious sources (from no earlier than 300 years after his death), Januarius was born in Benevento to a rich patrician family that traced its descent to the Caudini tribe of the Samnites. At the age of 15, he became local priest of his parish in Benevento, which at the time was relatively pagan. When Januarius was 20, he became Bishop of Naples and befriended Juliana of Nicomedia and Saint Sossius whom he met during his priestly studies. During the infamous persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, he hid his fellow Christians and prevented them from being caught. Unfortunately, while visiting Sossius in jail, he too was arrested. He and his colleagues were condemned to be thrown to wild bears in the Flavian Amphitheater at Pozzuoli, but the sentence was changed due to fear of public disturbances, and they were instead beheaded at the Solfatara crater near Pozzuoli. Other legends state either that the wild beasts refused to eat them, or that he was thrown into a furnace but came out unscathed.
Saint Januarius is famous for the alleged miracle of the annual liquefaction of his blood, which, according to legend, was saved by a woman called Eusebia just after the saint’s death. A chronicle of Naples written in 1382 describes the cult of Saint Januarius in detail, but mentions neither the relic nor the miracle. The first certain date is 1389, when it was found to have melted. Then, over the following two and a half centuries official reports began to appear declaring that the blood spontaneously melted, at first once a year, then twice, and finally three times a year. While the report of the very first incidence of liquefaction did not make any explicit reference to the skull of the saint, soon afterwards assertions began to appear that this relic was activating the melting process, as if the blood, recognizing a part of the body to which it belonged, “were impatient while waiting for its resurrection.” This explanation was definitively abandoned only in the 18th century.
Thousands of people assemble to witness this event in Naples Cathedral three times a year: on September 19, on December 16 (celebrating his patronage of Naples and its archdiocese), and on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May (commemorating the reunification of his relics). The blood is also said to spontaneously liquefy at certain other times, such as papal visits. It liquefied in the presence of Pope Pius IX in 1848, but not that of John Paul II in 1979 or Benedict XVI in 2007. On March 21, 2015, Pope Francis venerated the dried blood during a visit to Naples Cathedral, saying the Lord’s Prayer over it and kissing it. Archbishop Sepe then declared that “The blood has half liquefied, which shows that Saint Januarius loves our pope and Naples.” Francis replied, “The bishop just announced that the blood half liquefied. We can see the saint only half loves us. We must all spread the Word, so that he loves us more!”
The blood is stored in two hermetically sealed small ampoules, held since the 17th century in a silver reliquary between two round glass plates about 12 cm wide. The smaller ampoule (of cylindrical shape) contains only a few reddish spots on its walls, the bulk having allegedly been removed and taken to Spain by Charles III. The larger ampoule, with capacity of about 60 ml and almond-shaped, is about 60% filled with a dark reddish substance. Separate reliquaries hold bone fragments believed to belong to Saint Januarius. For most of the time, the ampoules are kept in a bank vault, whose keys are held by a commission of local notables, including the Mayor of Naples; while the bones are kept in a crypt under the main altar of Naples Cathedral. On feast days, all these relics are taken in procession from the cathedral to the Monastery of Santa Chiara, where the archbishop holds the reliquary up and tilts it to show that the contents are solid, and places it on the high altar next to the saint’s other relics. After intense prayers by the faithful, including the so-called “relatives of Saint Januarius” (parenti di San Gennaro), the content of the larger vial typically liquefies. The archbishop then holds up the vial and tilts it again to demonstrate that liquefaction has taken place. The announcement of the liquefaction is greeted with a 21-gun salute at the 13th-century Castel Nuovo. The ampoules remain exposed on the altar for eight days, while the priests move or turn them periodically to show that the contents remain liquid.
At the 19th September mass in Naples the cathedral is typically packed to overflowing. The Cardinal presides and after mass takes out the reliquary from a side altar. He then moves to the front of the church whilst the congregation waves white handkerchiefs. He walks with the liquefied blood down the middle aisle for all to see. He continues his procession outside and announces to the city that the liquefaction has occurred, then he returns the blood to the altar. The reliquary is left there for the next eight days.
After mass the streets of Naples are closed off for religious processions and there is a general carnival atmosphere throughout the city with vendors everywhere. It is no wonder that Neapolitan immigrants to New York continued the tradition – minus the blood, of course. There is a mass and a procession of the saint, with bystanders pinning money to ribbons trailing from the saint’s bier. All the streets of Little Italy are closed, and mobbed by visitors and stalls. It’s not particularly Neapolitan any more – more of an Italian-American celebration in general. I went one year eons ago. That was before I lost my taste for giant crowds.
For a recipe I’m stuck with several quandaries. I have my usual one which is to say, if you want authentic Neapolitan food, go to Naples. But then there’s also the question of whether to highlight Naples or New York. Festival street food in New York tends towards the generic end of the Italian-American spectrum, which is to say products based on Sicilian cuisine.
The main thing I’ve learned about Italian cooking since living here is that specialties are highly localized – often centered on a single town. There’s a sort of overarching sense that pasta and pizza are universal, but scratch the surface and you find that this is an overgeneralization, mostly perpetuated by foreigners. For example, where I live in the north, pasta is normal at every meal, but you’ll rarely find it sauced with anything involving tomatoes. That’s southern style. Likewise pizzas come in all different shapes, sizes, thicknesses, toppings, etc, with each region claiming that theirs is the best. You’ll find my modest rant on pizza – especially Neapolitan pizza – here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/pizza/ Talking about styles of pasta and their sauces would fill volumes.
There’s a host of great street food in Naples for festivals which is much more to my taste than a sausage and meatball sub or some cannoli found in New York street booths. Give me frittatine any day, or pizzette fritte. Fried rice balls might fit the bill. A common type, usually called arancini, are said to have originated in 10th-century Sicily at a time when the island was under Arab rule. The most common type of arancino sold in Sicilian cafés are arancini con ragù, which typically consist of rice stuffed with meat in a tomato sauce, and mozzarella. Many cafés also offer arancini con burro (with butter or béchamel sauce) or specialty arancini, such as arancini con funghi (mushrooms), con pistacchi (pistachios), or con melanzane (aubergine). In Roman cuisine, supplì are similar but are commonly filled with cheese. In Naples, rice balls are called pall’e riso or palle di riso. They are not like the Sicilian arancini, although they may be called arancini. Neapolitan rice balls typically do not have a filling but are simply mixtures of rice, eggs, and Parmigiano cheese. However they are stuffed or mixed, arancini are coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
For Neapolitan rice balls use the ratio of 1 egg to 1 ¼ cups of uncooked Arborio rice to ⅓ cup grated Parmigiano. Cook the rice until tender, drain, and let cool to room temperature. Beat the egg(s) and mix together with the rice and cheese. Form into small balls and roll them in breadcrumbs so that they are completely coated. Place on baking trays and refrigerate for at least one hour.
Some cooks shallow fry the rice balls, but I prefer deep frying. Heat vegetable oil in a deep fryer to 350°F/175°C. Fry the rice balls in small batches so that they are golden all over. Drain on wire racks and serve warm.