Naples is best understood through the lens of its golden age, between 1600 and 1800, when it was one of Europe's most elegant capital cities. Today the brightly painted and peeling palazzi are testament to its former Baroque splendor as is the local cuisine, full of French influence. Gattò, from the word gâteau, derives from the French period in Naples when this rich potato and cheese cake would be prepared for the aristocracy by their chef, a monzù or monsieur.
Naples was torn apart during the French Revolutionary Wars and transformed into the short-lived "Parthenopean Republique". The Bourbons were restored to power after just six months in 1799 and noble power ruled the "Kingdom of Naples and Sicily" until the unification of Italy. The Piedmont led Risorgimento dismantled the noble system and relocated the wealth and power from Italy's South. The Naples of Lila and Lenù, including the influence of the mafiosi,is strongly marked by these events, 100-years before their lives began.
In Elena Ferrante's second Neapolitan novel, Lenuccia's mother prepares gattò for her son-in-law who comes from a higher social class. The gattò is a dish meant to impress.
Gattò is a perfect dish to serve at a party and in spite of its aristocratic origin, very easy to make. Traditionally it includes chopped salame and hams though my version from our Ferrante Feast is a vegetarian version.
Gattò di Patate (Neapolitan potato cake)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
3 lbs yukon gold potatoes
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup smoked mozzarella or gouda cheese cut into 1 inch cubes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
Boil the potatoes and mash them with a potato ricer. Let the mashed potato mixture cool in a large bowl, then add the eggs, 2 tablespoons of butter and parsley. Gently incorporate all the ingredients with a fork.
Coat a pie plate with butter, then sprinkle half the breadcrumbs to coat the entire surface.
Add a layer of the potato mixture with a spoon, careful not to press down, but still cover the entire surface about 1 inch thick.
Add the cubed cheese to the top, covering the entire surface but leaving a inch ring along the outside so that the cheese won't run through the edges once melted. Cover the cheese with the other half of the potato mixture. It can be flat or rounded like a pie. Cover the top with breadcrumbs and crown with the remaining chunks of butter.
Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Serve immediately so that the cheese remains molten when served.