I've begun my trip with a visit to the province of Cosenza in Calabria, the southern "foot" of Italy's boot. My mother's family is based here, and it is a place I have been hearing and dreaming about since I was a tot. Seeing the town where my grandparents were born and married and where my mother spent a portion of her childhood was emotion-packed for sure; the journey was made even more meaningful by the staggeringly good food. At meal after meal, my own deep food memories of childhood were stirred in a way that was delightful and unexpected.
I've been savoring the taste of the Calabrian table for as long as I can remember. My mother is a fantastic cook, as were both of my grandparents, and together they remained faithful to the cherished recipes of their corner of Italy, teaching me to love them with the same amount of pride and passion. I traveled to Calabria to fully grasp the source of that pride. The roots lie in the ingredients, typical local products that are grown and produced in here that make the cooking deliciously rich and varied. Calabria is a food paradise, and I can state with absolute certainty that its cuisine stands tall alongside—and even surpasses—that of Italy's more popular northern regions.
Here is my quick, top ten primer that scratches the surface of Calabria's bounty, an introduction that is purely subjective, coming at you straight from my heart, and the heart of the Cosenza province:
I'm talking about peppers, of course. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors, from sweet to fiery hot. Their reach extends far beyond the region, but in Calabria, they are a cornerstone of flavor and a daily presence at mealtime. In markets they are sold hanging in thick curtains; in homes they are displayed in kitchen windows or hung from doorways. Round, long, curly, ruffled or pointed, every citizen of Calabria can have an extended conversation about how they like their peppers cooked, preserved, canned, fried, crushed or stuffed. Life would simply come to a halt without them. Hot peppers, softened and crushed into olive oil is a condiment called "the caviar of the poor" by one of my Calabrian hosts; spread onto the local fresh bread, it is pure heaven.
Another pantry staple, the most common way to enjoy them is ripieni, or stuffed with walnuts and baked. They are served after dinner, alongside fresh fruit of the season, with a plate of biscottini, or cheese. The best are baked slowly, keeping them moist in the center, concentrating the natural sugar to a deep, toffee-like intensity.
Any drive in the Calabrian countryside is sure to yield multiple sightings of these cactus trees, bursting with fruit and drooping over the side of the road or clinging to a building. Ranging in color from golden to bright pink on the inside and heavy with juice, fichi d'india taste a bit like a cross between a pear and an apple. Calabrians use them in confiturra and mostarda, to flavor granita or gelato, in salads and antipasti, or simply for their sweet juice.
Calabria's woodlands produce an array of delicious funghi, or mushrooms, including plenty of plump, flavorful porcini and other wild varieties. They find their way most often into sauces for pasta, especially over one of the most popular local pasta shapes: a thick, long, tube called fusili in Calabria, not to be confused with its more common, curly counterpart. Another favorite is a warm antipasto, a sauté of wild mushrooms with both sweet and spicy peppers in plenty of olive oil with rosemary and bay leaf.
The local ceci, harvested in the province of Cosenza are positively explosive with flavor. They are most often served with wide ribbons of pasta known as lagane, or stewed until they are tender, served in a bit of their own broth with lots of crushed bay leaf and a bit of spicy dried peperoni.
Cipolle selvatiche are little wild onions that find their way into all sorts of Calabrian dishes, but I love the variations that usually included in the antipasto course: lightly pickled and tender-crisp with cracked green olives, or pan roasted, in padella, with plenty of rosemary until charred and soft.
I introduced you to 'nduja in this post last year, and can only heap more praise on its variations. The loose version is not dried in a casing, but jarred with olive oil and absolutely delicious; the pork flavor is joined by the bright color and lively flavor of finely chopped hot peppers and herbs.
The fragrance of Origano Selvatico della Calabria fills the air around the markets and alimentari where it is sold in large bouquets. Calabrian oregano has a unique, intense flavor thanks to the unusually high concentration of essential oils found in this native variety. To use it, simply shake the entire bouquet gently over your plate or pot for a shower of flavor; to Calabrians, it is truly the flavor of home.
Potatoes from the Sila
Patate di Sila are grown in the provinces of Catanzaro and Cosenza, around the Sila National Park, and sold throughout Calabria at roadside stands and in every market; they are pretty much the last word on potatoes in this part of the world. Thanks to the particular soil and microclimate of their growing area, they have a higher concentration of sugar than most potatoes, with a pale golden color and a dreamy-creamy texture. The most traditional preparation is to slice them thin and pan fry them with sliced sweet peppers in olive oil, seasoned with a bit of onion, Calabrian oregano and rosemary.
The Calabrian panifico is likely to be stacked with bags of these round bread loaves with a hole in the middle. They are split crosswise and twice-baked to toast them hard and crunchy. My grandmother would always serve a large frese before Sunday dinner, moistened with a bit of water to soften it, then soaked liberally with olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper, and in season, a bit of crushed fresh tomato. I'm crazy for the integrale, or whole-wheat variety.
Calabria's tourism officials are making a tremendous effort to attract more visitors to their region, which is rich with art, culture, and of course, amazing food. To plan your own trip, start with a visit to their official website—there is more information in the Italian version of the site, so don't be afraid to dive in with dictionary in hand.
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.