I·ATE Food Term of the Week: The Neapolitan Gattò di patate

June 1, 2019 10:00 am

Gattò di patate, also commonly known as gattò – a term derived from the linguistic corruption of the French gâteau (“cake”) – is a savoury oven-baked dish made of potatoes, and it belongs to the traditional Neapolitan and Campania cuisine. This Neapolitan delicacy, appreciated throughout Italy, is sometimes also called pizza di patate or torta di patate (literally “potato pizza” and “potato cake” respectively).

Its origins can be traced back to 1768, when Archduchess Maria Carolina, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria’s daughter and future wife of Ferdinand I Bourbon, invited to the court of the Kingdom of Naples a staff of high rank French chefs, known for this reason as monsieurs – a French epithet that the Neapolitans modified into monzù. For Maria Carolina’s wedding the monzù introduced in the Parthenopean capital several dishes, including some sweet gateaux, coming from the other side of the Alps, adapting and mixing them with the ingredients and the uses of the Neapolitan gastronomic tradition.

These refined chefs, who were also serving the noble Sicilian families of the Kingdom as monsù (a local variation of the term monzù), preferred to remain in the aristocratic palaces, even when the French court of the then king Joachim Murat was forced to leave Naples after the defeat against the Austrian army in 1815. In addition to the delicious gattò di patate, the monzù created dishes that immediately became part of the Neapolitan gastronomic tradition and have over time become renowned worldwide, such as ragù (from the French ragoût), sartù di riso (from surtout), and sciù (from chou). Over the centuries gattò has turned from sweet to savory dish, typically served warm but not cladding hot as a main course, although a thin slice can be eaten as a starter or as a side dish.

From representing a gastronomic term born in a local context to indicate the typical savory pie made of potatoes, eggs, sliced meat and cheese, the headword gattò is today present in some Italian dictionaries such as the Il Nuovo De Mauro (according to which the word appeared even earlier than 1775) and the Dizionario Garzanti Linguistica, as evidence of the attested use of the term into the Italian national lexicon. The Accademia della Crusca provides detailed information about the particular graphic form of the term – with double t, instead of one, and the open tonic o, instead of the closed one. This spelling recalls the original French pronunciation (even if the more recurrent doubled form gattò coexists with gatò), and can be explained by the phenomenon of the frequent phono-syntactic doubling, typical of the Neapolitan dialect.

English language dictionaries such as the Cambridge Dictionary and the English Oxford Dictionaries simply indicate, with the headword gateau (using the adapted spelling that does not include the circumflexed accent of the original French form), a cake decorated and filled with cream, fruit or chocolate. They thus do not mention the typical Neapolitan dish. Conversely, the latter is mentioned in the Italian Vocabolario Treccani, although in relation to the French term gâteau.

Finally, versatility is the distinguishing feature of this dish, which lends itself to all sorts of variations according to town and family traditions or personal taste.

References:

Accademia della Crusca, Alcune osservazioni sul gattò di patate, che non è un gâteau, www.accademiadellacrusca.it/it/lingua-italiana/consulenza-linguistica/domande-risposte/alcune-osservazioni-gatt-patate-g-teau. Accessed on May 17, 2019.

Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/it/dizionario/inglese-italiano/gateau. Accessed on May 18, 2019.

Dizionario Garzanti Linguistica, www.garzantilinguistica.it/ricerca/?q=gattò. Accessed on May 18, 2019.

English Oxford Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gateau. Accessed on May 18, 2019.

Francesconi, J. C.(1995), La vera cucina di Napoli: in 300 ricette di ieri e di oggi, Roma, Newton.

Il Nuovo De Mauro, https://dizionario.internazionale.it/parola/gatto_2. Accessed on May 18, 2019.

Penta De Peppo, M. (1988), Cucina napoletana, ricette raccontate, Rimini, Idea Libri.

Santasilia di Torpino, F. (1988), La cucina aristocratica napoletana, Napoli, Sergio Civita Editore.

Vocabolario Treccani, www.treccani.it/vocabolario/gateau/. Accessed on May 17, 2019.


Written by Vincenzo Simoniello, PhD in European Languages and Specialized Terminologies, University of Naples “Parthenope”.

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