In most cultures, exploring food means exploring history—and the Italian south has plenty of both to offer. The pasta-heavy, tomato-forward “Italian food” the world knows and loves does not actually represent the entire country; rather, these beloved and widespread culinary traditions hail from the regional cuisines of the south. Acclaimed author and food journalist Katie Parla takes you on a tour through these vibrant destinations so you can sink your teeth into the secrets of their rustic, romantic dishes. Parla shares rich recipes, both original and reimagined, along with historical and cultural insights that encapsulate the miles of rugged beaches, sheep-dotted mountains, meditatively quiet towns, and, most important, culinary traditions unique to this precious piece of Italy. With just a bite of the Involtini alla Piazzetta from farm-rich Campania, a taste of Giurgiulena from the sugar-happy kitchens of Calabria, a forkful of ’U Pan’ Cuott’ from mountainous Basilicata, a morsel of Focaccia from coastal Puglia, or a mouthful of Pizz e Foje from quaint Molise, you’ll discover what makes the food of the Italian south unique.
Praise for Food of the Italian South
“Parla clearly crafted every recipe with reverence and restraint, balancing authenticity with accessibility for the modern home cook.”—Fine Cooking
“Parla’s knowledge and voice shine in this outstanding meditation on the food of South Italy from the Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria regions. . . . This excellent volume proves that no matter how well-trodden the Italian cookbook path is, an expert with genuine curiosity and a well-developed voice can still find new material.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“There's There’s Italian food, and then there's there’s Italian food. Not just pizza, pasta, and prosciutto, but obscure recipes that have been passed down through generations and are only found in Italy… . . . and in this book.”—Woman’s Day (Best Cookbooks Coming Out in 2019)
“[With] Food of the Italian South, Parla wanted to branch out from Rome and celebrate the lower half of the country.”—Punch
“Acclaimed culinary journalist Katie Parla takes cookbook readers and home cooks on a culinary journey.”—The Parkersburg News and Sentinel
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FINDING THE SOUTH
Before delving into the recipes in this book, familiarize yourself with a map of South Italy (see page 13). We’re not exploring “Southern” Italy, which includes the lower peninsula and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Rather, we’re looking at the south, which is composed of Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria. The Italian statistics bureau and the European Union have made this important differentiation between “South” and “Southern” Italy.
Odds are, if you’re Italian American like me, your family is from the south. Some areas get a lot of love in the press (headlines declaring “Puglia Is the New Tuscany” are common) and the Amalfi Coast is world famous, but there are many other spectacular parts of the south that deserve attention. But first, we need to understand the geography of the regions we’re discovering in Food of the Italian South.
Molise, southeast of Rome, is a two-hour drive from the Italian capital into the mountainous heart of Italy. The food is hearty, rustic, and vegetable-forward. Until 1970, Molise was part of the combined Abruzzi e Molise region. Now the two regions are separated, making Molise the second smallest in Italy, both by area and by population (first prize goes to Valle D’Aosta). The population has fallen with nearly every census since 1921 due to emigration to Italian cities in the north, as well as to Northern Europe and abroad. The roughly 312,000 molisani are mainly clustered around the cities of Campobasso and Isernia, both nestled into the Apennine Mountains. Almost 95 percent of the region is mountainous or hilly, and its sparsely populated land is largely agricultural. Small farms produce farro (emmer, spelt, or einkorn, depending on the variety), cicerchie (grass peas), and wine grapes like the indigenous Tintilia. The coast of Molise stretches thirty miles along the Adriatic Sea. The main port is Termoli, which is flanked by deserted sandy beaches and the occasional trabocco, a traditional wooden fishing platform.
The cuisine is rich in herbs, vegetal soups, lamb, goat, and rabbit. Thanks to their shared geography and history, Molise and its neighbor Abruzzi share many common traditions, such as ventricina, a coarse salami flavored with garlic, fennel, and peperoncino, as well as some sheep’s-milk cheeses. If you’re familiar with them, you may notice an abruzzese echo in some of the molisano recipes here.
Just south of Molise, Campania is one of Italy’s most populated regions, with 5.8 million inhabitants, ranking it behind only Lazio and Lombardy. Dubbed Campania Felix (“fortunate countryside”) in Roman times, the region was colonized by Greeks well before Rome arrived and has a millennial tradition of agriculture. The region is known for produce like eggplants, tomatoes, legumes, and peppers, all of which thrive in Campania’s nutrient-rich soil.
The region’s largest city—and Italy’s largest port—is Naples, which sits on a crescent-shaped bay overlooked by Mount Vesuvius and the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The bay is bookended by the wine-producing Phlegraean Fields in the north and the citrus-rich Sorrentine peninsula in the south.
From Sorrento, the jagged Amalfi Coast curves to Salerno, another major port. From there, former marshlands around Paestum, Battipaglia, and Capaccio produce the world’s finest buffalo mozzarella. Further south, Cilento’s dramatic and sparsely populated coastline rises up to a vast national park, where cows and animals graze through pine forests and across the Vallo di Diano plain. The predominance of fresh fish, seasonal produce, unrefined cereals, and olive oil led the American physiologist Ancel Keys to declare Cilento among the healthiest places in the world. Keys is a champion of the Mediterranean diet, an eating philosophy that posits diet as the main indicator of health and longevity.
The interior of Campania, which is split by the Apennine mountain chain, is divided into a number of subregions. The Alto Casertano near Caserta isn’t far from the Molise border and has become a popular destination for pizza tourists, who visit Pepe in Grani to eat Franco Pepe’s legendary pies (see page 194) made with local ingredients. The surrounding areas are known for a heritage breed of pig called the Nero Casertano and an ancient style of pungent amphora-fermented cheese called Conciato Romano similar to cave-aged, herb-encrusted sheep’smilk cheeses. The adjacent Sannio area, named for the Samnites, a bellicose pre-Roman tribe that inhabited the area more than two thousand years ago, is a cluster of remote villages set in the mountainous Parco Regionale del Matese. Just south, Benevento, an ancient city along the Via Appia Antica, is home to Distilleria Liquore Strega (see page 242), the south’s most widely distributed liqueur. The steep hills of Irpinia flank Benevento to the northeast, and their dramatic gradients collapse into gentle rolling hills near the Puglia border.
When the Mycenaean Greeks landed in Puglia (Apulia in English) in the Iron Age, they found a climate and coastal geography quite similar to their native terrain. Puglia’s long coastline wraps around the “heel” of the Italian boot, including the Adriatic along the region’s east coast and the Ionian Sea along the west. Stretches of it still have a prehistoric feel thanks to their rocky landscapes. While the major port cities of Taranto and Bari hold commanding positions on the sea, most of Puglia’s historically important towns were founded inland to protect against invading fleets and pirates. The western part of the region rises up from the sea to a plateau called the Murgia. This was the breadbasket of ancient Italy, supplying the peninsula with grain. Today, the vast plains of the Murgia grow durum wheat, a main ingredient for the area’s rustic breads and hand-shaped pastas.
The Murgia bleeds into Basilicata, among Italy’s most mountainous regions, also known by its ancient name, Lucania. The Murgia plateau’s durum wheat is milled into flour and baked into rustic loaves in and around Matera, the region’s newly rediscovered and reinvigorated troglodyte city and one of several desperately impoverished villages immortalized in writer and activist Carlo Levi’s 1945 memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, which details his years in political and intellectual exile under the Fascists. South of Matera and not far from the Ionian Sea, the legacy of ancient Greek colonies survives at Policoro, Italy’s strawberry cultivation capital and one of the few stretches of Basilicata’s terrain anywhere near sea level. The mountainous interior to the north and east grows potatoes and legumes, while cattle, including the Podolico heritage breed, are raised for their meat and milk.
The volcanic terrain in the north of the region near the Campanian and Puglian borders grows primarily red grapes, like Aglianico, for wines. The western part of the region has a short coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea—the main town there is called Maratea. The meager seven-mile stretch means there isn’t much fresh fish in the cuisine of Basilicata; the region’s fish consumption is mainly baccalà, salt cod.
Parco del Pollino, a vast mountainous national park popular with hikers and nature enthusiasts, sprawls over the borders of Basilicata and Calabria. At its southwestern edge around Senise, red peppers are dried and fried. These so-called peperoni cruschi are crushed into a powder and used throughout Basilicata to impart a sweet and slightly smoky flavor.
Just over the Calabrian border at the edge of the Parco del Pollino, the twisted, mountainous terrain is punctuated with a few dozen villages, home to the Arbëreshë ethnic minority (see page 108), founded in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries by Albanian refugees fleeing the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans.
Calabria, the “toe” of the boot is a long and mountainous zone known for its pork-driven cuisine. Calabria’s geography begets decisive flavors in the form of torpedo-shaped onions from Tropea and piquant licorice from around Rossano. The vast Parco Nazionale della Sila runs through the center of the region and is thick with trees ideal for spawning mushrooms, while the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, which meet at the port city of Reggio Calabria, wrap around the toe and support small-scale fishermen, who catch cuttlefish, swordfish, and tuna in their waters.