Food in Southern Italy: a brief gastronomical tour!
Naples and Campania; Abruzzo, Molise and Puglia; Basilicata and Calabria; Sicily and Sardinia
Pompeii; Sorrento; Capri; Positano (Amalfi Coast); Bari; Matera; Castellana; Alberobello; Lecce; Taranto; Calabrian Mountains; Taormina; Syracuse; Ortygia Island; Piazza Armerina; Enna; Selinunte; Agrigento; Mondello; Palermo; Naples
The south of Italy, especially the far south, is a different country when compared to the north, and food in Southern Italy is similarly different. Pasta is usually bought in its dry state, as opposed to the fresh homemade pasta and polenta of the northern regions. Pizzas served hot from the wood burning oven and topped with an assortment of vegetables, seafood, meats and cheeses are a lot different to foccacia, the flatbread of the north. Olive oil, especially extra virgin, is used instead of butter. The cuisines of the South are earthier and more peasant-like, with stronger flavors and bolder combinations of foods, mirroring the extremes of the climate and environment, and perhaps the hot blood of the people.
Naples is the most important city in the Campania region. Neapolitan and Campanian specialities include octopus prepared in a variety of ways, spaghetti dishes using a tomato-based fish sauce (particularly clams or squid), and dishes using the indigenous buffalo milk mozzarella, including of course, pizza (and my favourite, "pizza siciliana": tomato, mozzarella, garlic, basil, anchovies and olives – n.b. pizza napoletana has no olives). Two well-known dishes are "Pasta Puttanesca", a spicy tomato sauced spaghetti flavored with lots of garlic and capers, Gaeta olives and anchovies, and the ubiquitous Parmigiana di Melanzane, or Eggplant Parmesan. But the basic food staple beginning from 650 (long before Marco Polo!) has always been pasta.
Naples is of course on the sea, and Neapolitans prepare many seafood dishes like "zuppa di vongole" (clam soup) or "spaghetti con le vongole in salsa bianca" (spaghetti with clams in white sauce) or "cozze in culla" which are simply tomatoes cut in half, the pulp scooped out, and filled with cozze (mussels). A mixture of capers, chopped parsley, oregano and bread crumbs are sprinkled on top before baking golden brown in the oven.
Another basic Neapolitan dish usually eaten at home is "minestra marinata," a soup that combines pork fat and boiled greens. The richness of the soup depends on the richness (or otherwise) of the family, and it was the basic daily meal until the arrival of pasta 13 centuries ago.
Abruzzo and Molise are famous for their cured spicy meats, lamb, mutton, and pasta. Pasta in Abruzzo is made using a chitarra, a rectangular device strung with thin metal wires like a guitar, hence the equipment’s name. Sheets of pasta are rolled over this to form strips. The region is known for strong flavours including peperoncino (hot red peppers) and saffron from the town of Vanelli, near Aquila.
The cuisine of Abruzzo can be divided into that of the sea and that of the mountains. The first has the classic "brodetto" as a principal dish. Other dishes include fried fish and fish sauces often served with pasta, as well as fresh-water fish, mountain trout, and river shrimp. In the mountains, lamb now dominates. A speciality is pork liver mortadella. There are two different kinds of this sausage, that of "fegato dolce" that means with liver sweetened with honey, cedar and candied fruits, and that made up of “fegato pazzo ” (crazy liver), which is prepared with chilly pepper.
Peperoncino is used to flavour many dishes, to start with try pasta with aglio, olio, and peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and hot red pepper), fiery enough to burn a hole in the stomach. "Penne all’arrabiata" is one of my favourites, although now regarded as a Roman dish, apparently. This first course is often followed with "agnello all’arrabbiata" (angry lamb) but two in a row can be heavy going for those not used to such hot dishes.
To top off the spicy meal guests are frequently offered a "digestive" called "Centerbe ("one hundred herbs") di Tocco Casauria" made with more than one hundred herbs from the Maiella and other mountains in Abruzzo. This is cooking with an extrovert personality!
The saffron from the town of Vanelli, near Aquila, has a different flavour from Spanish saffron. The first saffron bulbs were brought to Italy in 1400 by a Domenican friar named Santucci who brought them from Spain. It’s used in cheeses and vinegars, but also is a key component of a wonderful pasta sauce with zucchini blossoms.
Abruzzo is also known for its food festivals which honour saints or simply celebrate. Their non-stop eating and drinking event is called La Panarda which traditionally serves people 30-50 courses of food and can last for a day or longer!
Puglia (the "heel" of Italy’s "boot") is proud of its homemade pasta, often formed into unusual shapes like the "orecchiette" (little ears). Favourite dishes include "Maccheroni al forno" or baked maccheroni, made with little meat balls, sliced hardboiled eggs, pieces of artichoke, salame, and cheese, often surrounded with piecrust and baked in the oven. As for meat, beef tends to be used either for meat sauce or meatballs. The dominant meat in Puglia is lamb, served on a spit, roasted, stewed, or even fried.
A typical snack of this region is the "calzone" (big sock) which is made from a lump of dough spread with onions, black olives, capers, tomatoes, pecorino cheese, anchovies and parsley, closed and pinched around the edges, and baked in the oven. Cheese made from sheep’s milk is very popular including fresh ricotta, pecorino, and "burrata di Andria," which must be consumed within 24 hours to be properly appreciated.
Puglia has the longest coastline of any Italian region so seafood is both abundant and popular. Sea turtle, oysters, mussels, cuttlefish, and octopus are cooked in simple ways, sometimes even eaten raw in the markets. "Spaghettini allo Scoglio" (thin spaghetti with shrimp, scallops, baby octopus, cherry tomatoes, capers and oregano) and "pesce spada" (swordfish steak, grilled or pan-fried with lemon and oregano) are favourite dishes.
Home-grown yellow and white melons, sweet watermelons, and grapes often finish a meal in Puglia.
Sicily has a subtropical climate along all of its coast and a harsher, colder climate inland near rugged Mount Etna. Expect to eat lots of seafood and rich, filling pasta dishes that are often highly seasoned with strong black or green Sicilian olives or the staple of the south, the eggplant.
You must also be careful what you say when talking about Sicilian cuisine. The island may export oranges but "Arancini" (little oranges) in Sicily are fried balls made with rice, meat, and grated cheese; "quaglie" (quails) are eggplants opened and fried in oil so that they resemble the tail of a quail, and "minni di Vergine", or virgin’s breasts, are small mounds of pudding encased in pastry dough with candied-cherry nipples (I am not making this up).
As you travel round Sicily, you’ll notice the difference in cuisine between the east and the west. Arab influence was stronger in the western part of the island, so from Caltanisetta to Trapani the influence is Saracen, with strong flavours and contrasting combinations stimulating the palate. On the eastern side, from Messina to Siracusa, and Catania to Agrigento, the cuisine is more rustic and restrained, avoiding the sweet and sour and less generous with sugar in the sauces.
But if you’ve got a sweet tooth, this is the place for you! Amongst all the regions of Italy, Sicily takes the gold medal for its veritable cornucopia of sweets, fruits, and ice creams. The most well known of these is the Sicilian "Cassata" (a layered, cake, not an ice-cream!) and "cannoli" (a crisp pastry tube filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, candies and sometimes chocolate).
Sardinia has more sheep than people, and as you might guess, lamb and ewe’s milk (in the form of cheese that’s often made into pies and topped with honey) feature frequently on the menu, along with suckling pigs and of course, seafood.
"Bottarga" (pressed mullet roe or ‘poor man’s caviar’), is sliced paper thin and drizzled with Sardinian olive oil as an antipasto, or tossed onto "malloreddus", tiny ridged gnocchi, as a first course. Fregola, a semolina pasta shaped into pellets, is cooked in soups with cockles or herbs, or boiled and layered with pancetta, tomatoes, and pecorino.The lobsters of Alghero are boiled live and served with olive oil, salt, and a few drops of lemon. Sometimes a sauce with bits of lobster is served with pasta, or "spaghetti alla bottarga" which is the eggs of the female lobster, pressed and dried in the sun. "Carta da musica" a frisable bread, light and tasty, is often carried by the shepherds as a snack.
Sardinia has its own sweets based on almonds, orange and lime peel, cinammon, raisins, walnuts, and honey. These include papassine, rich with dried fruit and redolent with orange, and sebadas, large round ravioli that are filled with Pecorino and grated lemon or orange zest, then fried and drizzled with warm, slightly bitter honey from strawberry plants. Long-standing traditions mean that every special feast-day has its own typical dessert. "Torrone" (nougat) is a Sardinian speciality that can be made simply with nuts or flavoured with chocolate. Yum!
Food in Italy:More than pizza and spaghetti bolognese!
Food in Northeast Italy: Trentino-Alto Adige; the Veneto and Friuli.
Food in Northwest Italy: Lombardy; Valle D’Aosta and Piedmont; Liguria.
Food in Central Italy: Emilia Romagna; Tuscany; Umbria; Le Marche.
Food in Rome and around: Rome; Lazio.
Other Italy pages: