Learning To Make Nucillo In Its Italian Homeland

nucillo

Roberto Marrone pouring the housemade nucillo at ’E Curti.

Brothers Luigi and Antonio Ceriello were born in Sant’Anastasia, a Vesuvian village on the north slope of Mount Somma hewn from dark basalt. They went by the collective nickname ’e curti (“the short ones” in local dialect) due to their below-average height. For many decades, the brothers carried the name with them, first as circus performers who traveled the world, and ultimately as trattoria owners back home. Their eponymous eatery, ’E Curti, serves Vesuvian comfort food and nucillo, a stiff walnut liquor, to this day.

I never met the brothers; they both passed away by 1990. But I often eat at ’E Curti, now run by their extended family, making the detour to Sant’Anastasia whenever I head south to Naples. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Angela, Vincenzo, Sofia and Roberto, who carry on the business, dutifully reproducing the food and drink of their predecessors according to century-old recipes.

Each time I sit down to a long lunch or dinner at ’E Curti, the Ceriellos conclude my meal with a complimentary glass of nucillo (more widely known as nocino) and an invitation to participate in the annual walnut harvest. After years of postponed invitations, I finally made it last year. My delayed attendance wasn’t for lack of interest, but rather because the date of the walnut harvest, once predictable, is now subject to the impacts of climate change. Since time immemorial, families throughout Campania would pluck green walnuts from lanky branches each year beginning at midnight on June 23 and continuing into the morning of June 24. The harvest date was chosen to coincide with the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The date also corresponded to the period in a walnut’s life cycle when it was perfectly soft for macerating in spirit to make nucillo.

The harvest date gets earlier every year, so the Ceriellos have begun checking their walnuts’ ripeness beginning in mid-June. On June 20 last year, I got a message from Vincenzo with the command: “Scendi!” (Get down here!). Soon I was on my way from my home in Rome down to the smoldering south. The air en route was warm enough, but as soon as I parked in Sant’Anastasia, the heat that had been beating down on the town’s volcanic stone streets enveloped me. This was no day for a heavy, meat-laced meal at ’E Curti, and I was thrilled to find the Ceriellos in their nucillo workshop preparing a simple snack of sliced tomatoes, bread, wedges of mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil—about as refreshing as it gets on a hot Vesuvian night.

We spent the late afternoon and evening preparing the workshop by washing and drying dozens of bulbous glass demijohns, then filling them with pure alcohol. In generations past, the Ceriellos harvested the nuts themselves, but now they entrust the task to farmers who climb their tall trees just 200 yards from the workshop on the edge of Sant’Anastasia. The next steps, however, are still a family affair. The green walnuts are handled by women only as tradition mandates, and after being counted and divided into piles, they’re sliced into four pieces by an iron instrument resembling a large garlic press. The walnut quarters are dropped into the demijohns with a satisfying bloop! Once the work was done, we shared a bottle of the previous year’s nucillo and made a date for tasting the product of this year’s harvest, November 1, All Saints’ Day and ’E Curti’s official nucillo inauguration—regardless of climactic conditions.

In the meantime, the Ceriellos would see to the intermediate steps. A week after the harvest they distributed a secret blend of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon among the demijohns, then set aside the jugs for another 90 days, at which point they filtered out the walnuts and spices using fine Holland cloth before adding simple syrup to the brown liquor and dividing the nascent nucillo among bottles to rest.

On November 1, I headed south to Sant’Anastasia once again. I ordered my usual at ’E Curti: the ample antipasto spread, sicchie d’a munnezza (spaghetti with dried fruits and nuts) and lamb innards. The rich meal called for a stiff digestif, and nucillo was the obvious choice. Without my even having to place the order, Roberto approached my table with a bottle and a glass and poured me a shot of the viscous brown liquid, which I sipped under the gaze of a black-and-white photograph of Luigi and Antonio Ceriello, ’e curti.


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