Amy BizzarriChicago Tribune
When Joseph and Lucia Napolitano emigrated from southern Italy to America in 1903, they packed their Ellis Island-bound, wooden trunk with their cherished belongings, including their most prized possession of all: precious seeds that would produce the fruits and vegetables needed to feed their growing family — eventually 15 children in all — and establish their slice of the American dream.
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Farmers in Italy, the Napolitanos had escaped a crushing rural economy, where civil and economic unrest as well as soil depletion left many southern Italian families with no other choice but to emigrate. They ended up in suburban Chicago, where a handful of the seeds they brought, gathered from pepper plants that once grew wild in the volcanic earth of Nocera Inferiore (a small town about 12 miles southeast of Naples), found success in the rich soil of Melrose Park.
Delectable, tender and sweet, and named after their new American hometown, Melrose peppers have come to be among the most beloved fruits of the local Italian-American backyard garden. Each pepper is about 4 to 6 inches long, with thin skin and, despite the resemblance to hot chiles, zero heat. When harvested young and green, a Melrose pepper tastes like a super-sweet, green bell pepper; when fully ripe and brilliant red, these beauties are all the sweeter and richer.
Italians, mainly from the southern end of the boot, began settling Melrose Park in the early 1900s, attracted by well-paying industrial jobs and large tracts of fertile farmland. Small, family-run farms nicknamed "pepper patches" sprouted up along North Avenue, from Mannheim Road to Fifth Avenue, according to "Melrose Park: 100 Years of Progress," a book published in 1982 to celebrate the suburb's centennial. Joseph and Lucia built their pepper patch on land in what is today the Winston Park subdivision of Melrose Park, at Ninth and North avenues.
The Napolitanos' firstborn son, Tom, grew up working beside mom and dad in the fields, changed his last name to the easier-to-pronounce Naples and began selling the fruits of the family farm at a fruit and vegetable stand on North Avenue in Melrose Park, says his grandson, Tom Naples Jr. From the mid-1920s to the late-'80s, Tom Naples Homegrown Vegetables and Fruit was best known for its fine selection of seeds, flowers and plants in the springtime, painted pumpkins in the fall, Christmas trees in the winter, and a variety of produce available year-round. In the late summer, Melrose peppers sold out almost as fast as they hit the stand.
Naples Jr. recalls working beside his grandfather in the field.
"Grandpa Tom would carefully examine the Melrose pepper crop, taking the plants with the biggest and best buds and moving them to a separate row, at the edge of the field. He gifted the peppers harvested from those select, hardy plants, to local ladies, for free; in return, the ladies would string and dry the peppers for use throughout the year in their kitchens, making sure to reserve the seeds for Grandpa Tom, who guaranteed a bushel from the next year's harvest. We also sold the Melrose pepper plants themselves, first wrapped in newspaper, then in wooden and then plastic flats."
Italian-American Melrose Parkers were known for tending their own, abundant backyard gardens filled with zucchini, tomatoes, peppers — all the fruits and vegetables that reminded them of home. Despite the conversion of area farmland into retail and residential neighborhoods in the 1950s, backyard gardens continued to thrive among the Melrose Park Italian-American community.
Melrose Park-born Mike Quagliata fondly remembers the bountiful Melrose Park garden that belonged to his grandfather, Mario Quagliata.
"When I was a kid in the later '50s and early '60s, just about everybody I knew had a vegetable garden in their backyard," Quagliata says. "Grandpa loved to work in his garden. He especially liked opportunities to walk people through his garden, to show off what he was growing. He grew all kinds of vegetables, but he loved Melrose peppers the most of all."
Come spring, Mario Quagliata would start growing the peppers indoors, basked in natural light from a window, Mike Quagliata says. In May, he moved them to a makeshift greenhouse outside his garage, made from a cement block enclosure with an old storm window acting as a roof.
"Later, in May, he would set the little pepper plants in his garden," Quagliata says. "Mario's wife, my grandma Josephine, cooked up great meals with the garden harvest. It was so much fun for the extended family to get together at Mario and Josephine's house for dinner, with the closeness of the family and the fantastic aroma of grandma's cooking."
You'll find the peppers themselves only in the Chicago area, in the late summertime, at farmers markets or area Italian-American grocers, notably Angelo Caputo's Fresh Market in suburban Elmwood Park, which stocks the highly anticipated peppers in late August. They are sometimes also found at select Mariano's stores, but call first to check.
"Word spreads quickly when the Melrose peppers become available, and the feasts begin … along with the debates over whose recipe is best," says Sam Fantauzzo, vice president of development for Angelo Caputo's Fresh Markets. "No matter how they're prepared, they offer a unique, mild, tender, sweet pepper flavor that, as it sizzles in a pan of garlic and olive oil, creates an aroma that's both distinctive and immediately recognized."
Melrose peppers have inspired many dishes. They can be fried into cruschi, crispy, potato-chip-like delicacies; blended into a creamy pasta sauce served with penne rigate; or baked according to the Naples family's traditional stuffed-peppers recipe.
Delia Abruzzo of Abruzzo's restaurant in Melrose Park prepares traditional cruschi, sun dried and fried peppers, by stringing the peppers and hanging them outside to dry for 20-25 days during the remainder of the summer months, then deep-frying them in olive oil. "They have the texture of a chip and taste sweet yet slightly spicy," says Abruzzo. "Crumble the cruschi over scrambled eggs, serve as a topping for polenta, add to your favorite pasta sauce for an extra kick, or serve as is."
Melrose peppers are also sublime in their simplest form: sauteed in garlic and olive oil and served with a loaf of crusty Italian bread.
Amy Bizzarri is a freelance writer.
Cruschi (sun-dried and fried Melrose peppers)
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 3 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Southern Italy has a centuries-old tradition of preserving peppers via sun drying, so they can be enjoyed even in the cold winter months. I recommend serving the crispy peppers as an accompaniment to a glass of one of Campania's two DOCG-certified white wines, Greco di Tufo or Fiano di Avellino. (This recipe was not tested by the Tribune.)
8 Melrose peppers, ripened to red
1 quart olive oil
1. Rinse the Melrose peppers, and pat dry. Remove the seeds and stems, and cut into pieces.
2. Place the cut peppers on a baking sheet, and set in the sunlight every day until dried. To speed up the process, you can also place in a 200-degree oven for 2-3 hours until dry. Store in a cool, dry space until you are ready to deep-fry.
3. In a deep skillet, heat the olive oil to 350 degrees.
4. Fry the peppers in the hot oil, in small batches, until the skin turns a slightly darker red, about 3 minutes.
5. Remove and drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with sea salt. Eat immediately, or store in an airtight container to retain crunchiness.
Penne with creamy roasted Melrose pepper sauce
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: 4-6 servings
If the peppers are large, cut back to just four peppers.
8 Melrose peppers, ripened to red
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano
1 pound penne rigate
1. Roast the peppers: Rinse the peppers, and pat dry. Place the peppers on a rimmed baking sheet. Slide under a hot broiler on the top rack. Roast until black spots appear; turn the peppers. Continue to roast and turn until all sides are blackened. Let cool, pull off blackened skins and remove ribs, seeds and stems. Coarsely chop peppers.
2. Heat a large skillet over medium; add the oil. Saute the garlic until golden brown and soft, about 1 minute. Add the peppers and stir. Season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper.
3. Transfer pepper-garlic mixture to a blender; puree. Return puree to skillet; heat to a boil over medium. Stir in the cream and the cheese. Simmer over low heat, 5 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, cook penne in a large pot of well-salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and add the penne to the skillet, stirring and cooking over low heat, 3 minutes.
Stuffed Melrose peppers
Prep: 2 hours
Cook: 2 hours
Makes: 4-6 servings
Every family in Melrose Park seems to have their own unique way of stuffing and baking Melrose peppers. Some pack the peppers with ’nduja, a spicy, Calabrese pork sausage; others top the stuffed peppers with a generous heaping of shredded mozzarella, provolone or Scamorza cheese, before baking. The Naples family of North Avenue fruit and veggie stand fame keeps it simple by filling the late-summer peppers with a combination of Italian sausage, ground round and pecorino Romano, drenching them in an easy, homemade marinara; then roasting them in the oven to bring out their natural sweetness.
2 pounds green Melrose peppers
1 cup white rice (not instant)
1 pound ground round
1/2 pound Italian sausage, removed from casing
1/2 cup pecorino Romano, grated
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
Salt and pepper
4 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley
1. Heat the rice, 2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Cover and lower heat to a simmer. Simmer until rice is done, about 20 minutes. Spread rice on a baking sheet to cool. When cool, mix the rice in a bowl with the remaining stuffing ingredients, except the oil.
2. Wipe the peppers with a damp paper towel. Cut out the stem and remove the seeds. Fill each pepper to the top with the shuffling (We used a pastry bag to pipe in the mixture.) Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the stuffed peppers, in batches, and turning as you go, until brown on all sides, about 4 minutes per side. Place in one or two roasting pans, preferably in one layer. Repeat with remaining peppers, using more oil as needed. Set aside and prep sauce.
3. For the sauce, in the skillet used for frying peppers, cook the onion until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic; cook until golden, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes; season with salt and pepper. Simmer on low heat, 30 minutes. Stir in basil and parsley.
4. Pour sauce over peppers; bake in a 350-degree oven until peppers are soft and filling is cooked through, about 40 minutes.