Potato croquettes in a trattoria between Sorrento and Naples.
CROCCHE, GIGANTE shines on the electric sign outside Ristorante Pizzeria Ninuccio, which illustrates its singular house specialty with an unlifelike image (it appears to be a baguette). Crochette (croquettes) are found throughout Italy. Neapolitan dialect turns crochette into crocche (pronounced cro-KAY, like the lawn sport), and the dish is often found in pizzerie around Naples. To make them, mashed potatoes (sometimes enhanced with bits of leftover meat or vegetables) are held together by beaten eggs, then formed into cork-size cylinders, dipped in egg, covered with bread crumbs, and deep-fried.
At Ninuccio, the classic crochette has been enlarged to exciting proportions. Size does matter. They're truly the best croquettes I've ever encountered. Friends from the area, who knew I'd be amused, took me to this restaurant. It's in Meta di Sorrento, just off the main road that runs between Naples and the coastal towns of Amalfi - at just the point where weekenders often decide to halt for a meal.
They won't write home about the decor: imitation wood-grain wainscoting, overbright lighting on a modern wooden ceiling, blue brocade-like tablecloths with yellow napkins. Although Ninuccio offers a vast menu, I advise not challenging beyond what it does very well. Their bruschetta, for instance, is refreshing and good, and the pizza is actually wonderful. But everyone comes for the proclaimed house specialty: deep-fried, golden brown, potato croquettes, 12-inches long and an inch in diameter. One per person could be a meal, although my table of four consumed two with the greatest of ease and then ordered pizza.
They're quite rich, after a traditional recipe. Mashed potatoes are improved with ham, salami, and grated cheeses (Parmigiano plus a local one), dipped in egg and rolled in bread crumbs. Chilled croquettes are plunged for five minutes into 180°C (356°F - they will break at a lower temperature, warned chef Tonino), removed with a custom-made strainer, and sent to the table in a rectangular stainless-steel baking pan. The perfectly formed result is crisp with big bread crumbs outside, totally greaseless and satisfying inside.
How did they get so big? Four decades ago, the cook was too lazy to roll out and bread the croquettes as usual and decided to make them large. A journalist happened to dine there that day, went wild, wrote about it, and crocche, gigante have been on the menu ever since.
If you manage to save room for pizza, try the Margherita, a classic mozzarella-and-tomato, improved with arugula and fresh cherry tomatoes.
Warning: Ninuccio is packed on Friday and Saturday nights by weekenders. It's easier to find a table during the rest of the week.
Ristorante Pizzeria Ninuccio, via Casa Iaccarino 31, Meta di Sorrento, tel. 39-081-5321436.
Open every day.
June 12, 1999