If a gastronomia or delicatessen prepares good food, it can survive for decades. But if a gastronomia also promotes a social cause, there is a risk that clients will visit once to silence their consciences, and not return. At Sfizzicariello, a “social gastronomia,” the food is at once excellent, and the cause worthy.
A group of 10 people with mental health disorders run the deli, an example of commitment but, above all, quality dishes that will keep people coming back. Here is one of the best eggplant Parmigiane in Naples, an exceptional endive pizza, and a number of unparalleled meatballs. Come for a quick snack, a long lunch break sitting at one of the few tables scattered about or to order take away. The environment is modern in design, with eight seats inside and four out.
But let’s start from the beginning. Fourteen years ago, like many dreamers before her, hairdresser Lina Chiariello had a desire to help the world. But what to do? “Initially, we thought of a social bar where artistic initiatives could take place, a small space for people with mental health problems to work. But then we realized that the real turning point would be not only getting them work, but to open a delicatessen where there is permanent contact with the ‘audience’,” Lina, now 65, says.
Sfizzicariello is a place where social inclusion is being put into practice, and it’s a place where good, genuine, Neapolitan food is eaten.
“I thought that a delicatessen could work; a place to try cooking like I used to do at home. But above all, I wanted people with mental disorders not to be hidden, to work with me in a real shop with doors on the street.” So, Lina asked her son Carlo Falcone, an engineer, to help her set up the social cooperative. “You think about bureaucratic paperwork, I do the good things,” she told him. Carlo, now 45, is the president of the social cooperative. To find staff for the shop, the two worked through word of mouth in lieu of an agency.
Nine people have joined Lina to run all things food in two shifts, allowing them to be open throughout the day. Lina has taught them how to do it all, from prepping the food to organizing the work loads. “I started teaching them little things, peeling aubergines, potatoes. Now they’ve gotten better than me,” she says.
Neapolitans come from every neighborhood to sample Sfizzicariello’s eggplant Parmigiana. A very old, multi-layered dish, its name recognizes the city of Parma – even if in Parma it is not so famous. But cooking vegetables in layers is an art that Neapolitans know well, and what could be more of a success than folding in Neapolitan mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes into the layers of eggplant.
“I was alone at home from morning to night; now I am among people who love me,” Francesco, a 40-year-old server behind the counter at Sfizzicariello’s tells us. “I have a job. I have economic independence.”
“It’s so good that almost no customer realizes that it’s a social gastronomy,” says Antonio, an architect and client who has a studio nearby. “In fact,” he says, “I want to evaluate it for its goodness and gastronomic excellence, appreciating the social commitment but without letting myself be conditioned by a feel-good attitude.”
The gastronomia’s endive pizza might be the best measure of its culinary skills. The dish is a typical rustic pizza of Neapolitan cuisine; a double layer of salted pasta contains an endive stuffed in oil with garlic, black olives, capers, pine nuts, raisins and anchovies. For many locals, it’s the best dish in the house.
The delicatessen does more than create opportunity for its workers, though. Each customer can leave a “suspended meatball” – buying a meatball for the next person to arrive. The entree is another must of Sfizzicariello: fried, baked, with eggplant, broccoli or zucchini, all must be tried. Eccellente.
Home deliveries start at noon, and some of the employees take food to the homes of others in the neighborhood who don’t have autonomy of their own accord.
“They are all nice and kind, but above all they cook very well here,” says Chiara, a 47-year-old working in the tourism sector. She sheepishly admits that she had a hard time meeting workers’ eyes when she first stepped foot in to the establishment, not knowing what to expect. “Today, we embrace,” she says.
Carlo himself takes heart when he hears these stories of people overcoming their prejudices. “Our mental discomfort is overcome by being with others, giving personal dignity to each person, as well as a job and the opportunity to relate to others.” He recounts how two of his employees fell in love while working at Sfizzicariello. “Here is a reason to rejoice in what we have achieved,” he says with an earnest smile.”
Sfizzicariello is a place where social inclusion is being put into practice, and it’s a place where good, genuine, Neapolitan food is eaten. For this reason, it can live on today without support from public funds – all it needs is the public’s love for good food.