BY KURT MICHAEL FRIESE
Seeds for the Jimmy Nardello Pepper are available from Seed Savers Exchange. (Photo courtesy of SSE/David Cavagnaro)
In southern Italy, at what one might call the “instep of the boot,” is a mountainous region called Basilicata. In the subregion of Potenza, with its small coastline on the Thyrrhenian Sea, sits the tiny town of Ruoti.
For several years there, Giuseppe Nardiello and his wife, Angela, nurtured a favorite variety of sweet frying pepper. When they set sail from the port of Naples in 1887 for a new life beside the Golden Door, Angela carried her one-year-old daughter Anna and a handful of the pepper seeds with them. They settled in Naugatuck, Connecticut, where they raised the peppers, and eleven children. The fourth one was a son named Jimmy.
Jimmy’s son James, who is now 81 and still residing in Naugatuck, told me that the teachers in Jimmy’s grade school dropped the “i” from Nardiello, apparently believing that theirs was the proper spelling. It stuck to Jimmy, and to all the subsequent siblings and descendents.
James also said that his father was the only one of the Nardello children to inherit Angela’s love of the garden, and that Jimmy lovingly cared for his own throughout his life. He built them the way his mother taught him, in terraces, the way all gardens were built in the mountains of southern Italy. There he grew hundreds of peppers, but the sweet frying pepper was his favorite, and he would string up his bounty and hang them to dry in the shed, so his family could enjoy them all winter long.
Jimmy passed away in 1983. But before he did, he donated some of the heirloom pepper seeds to Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) in Decorah, Iowa. SSE specializes in protecting heirloom seeds, with more than 11,000 varieties protected in two separate climate-controlled vaults. They grow out roughly ten percent of the stock on a ten-year rotating basis, refreshing and expanding the supply each time. One of these seeds is the one that has become known as Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper.
One hundred and twenty years after the Nardellos set sail, bringing a small piece of their homeland with them, the pepper that bears the family name is becoming a favorite among chefs and home gardeners nationwide, but it is still registered as “endangered” on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Tastes. The Ark is an effort to find, catalog, and protect the world’s endangered flavors from the onslaught of the standardization of agriculture and cuisine.
Right now, though, in gardens around the country and right here in Iowa (including mine), the Nardellos are turning from their youthful kelly green to a mature fire-engine red, indicating that they are ready to be picked, sliced, fried in olive oil with garlic, and slathered over steaks alongside a generous pour of Primitivo.
They are also delicious as a sweet edge in your favorite chili or salsa recipe, and they are the best sweet pepper for drying. To dry them, string them on thread with a needle, careful to pierce them through the stem and not the fruit. Hang them near a sunny window or on the porch, and they’ll add decoration as they dry.
The best ones resemble a pig’s ear. James says that’s how his dad picked them. They grow in full sun in neutral to acidic soil, and are quite prolific as long as they are not over-watered.
If you’d like to learn more about this and many other capsica, consider a day trip to the Chicago Botanical Center for their “All About Peppers” weekend, August 25-26.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Comments may be directed to Kurt@EdibleIowaRiverValley.com.