In a sense, there’s no such thing as "Southern Italian cooking."
Each of the four regions that form the boot—Basilicata, Calabria, Campania and Puglia—holds fiercely to its own tastes and traditions. With a cuisine strongly influenced by its history of Greek and Arab occupations, Sicily is in a class of its own. Pasta con le sarde, a startling but inspired concoction of fresh sardines, pine nuts, currants and saffron, comes from Sicily, no question, while orecchiette with broccoli rabe is definitely a Pugliese specialty. Local culinary rivalries play a part, too. "My mom makes escargots a certain way, and in the next village, it’s done a different way," says Giuseppe Naccarelli, director of kitchen operations for California’s Il Fornaio restaurants.
The sunny hedonism of a pasta dish inspired by Southern Italian cooking is guaranteed to take the chill off the dreariest winter day. In the southern reaches of bell’ Italia you’ll find everything from long strands glossed with olive oil and tangled invitingly with fresh shellfish, voluptuous baked pasta crowned with crisp breadcrumbs, steaming bowls of pasta tossed with a boldly seasoned sauce and showered with sharp cheese. Such dishes reveal common strands that run through Southern cooking, regardless of regional affiliation: a reliance on vegetables and seafood, a delight in assertive flavors and contrasts (as in the sweet-and-sour blend known as agrodolce) and, of course, a preference for olive oil over butter and pasta over rice.
Dried Pasta in Southern Italy
The first thing to understand about cooking pasta the Southern way is that, with the exception of a few egg pasta specialties like ribbon-like scialatielli, we’re talking about dried pasta. The art of turning hard durum wheat into pasta was perfected there and remains fundamental. As Erica De Mane, author of Flavors of Southern Italy (Wiley, 2004), points out, "People were poor, and using eggs in pasta was considered kind of extravagant." Spaghetti and its cousins, including bucatini (long like spaghetti but tubular like a drinking straw), were first shaped in the south, along with short pasta cuts such as orecchiette, ziti and rigatoni.
Olive trees and tomato plants flourish in the brilliant sunshine and rocky soil of Southern Italy, so it’s not surprising that, alone or in combination, olive oil and tomatoes form the base of most pasta sauces. A Bolognese-style ragu is a meat sauce with a little tomato, but here it’s all about the tomatoes. "You simmer meat or meatballs in the sauce to add flavor, and then they’re removed. Ground meat in the sauce—to us, that’s not a ragu," says Nicola Marzovilla, owner of I Trulli, a New York restaurant specializing in the foods of Puglia.
To create their pasta specialties, Southern Italian cooks reach for ingredients like creamy mozzarella, aged pecorino cheese, tangy salt-cured capers, citrus fruits such as lemons and blood oranges, piquant olives, soppressata and other savory cured meats. Often-neglected veggies like cauliflower and eggplant show up in one Southern Italian pasta recipe after another. The frequent use of dandelion greens and broccoli rabe in conjunction with pastas displays regional predilection for bitter flavors that also accounts for the popularity of the after-dinner drinks called amari.
If you’re thinking that a heavy hand with garlic makes a dish Southern Italian, think again. "Garlic is a beautiful flavor but it shouldn’t be the main actor," says Giuseppe Naccarelli. His preferred method is to sauté whole cloves, discarding them once they’ve yielded their flavor to the oil. As for the fiery flavor of the skinny red peppers called peperoncini, it shows up in some pasta sauces, but not as often as you might imagine. In a pasta dish from Basilicata or Calabria, yes. In one from Sicily, probably not.
Sunday Dinner Traditions
Regional differences aside, the baked pasta dishes called timballi help bind Southern Italians together. "We were all raised the same way. Come Sunday, there was a big dinner after church, and almost invariably it started with something like baked ziti," says Marzovilla, who sometimes can’t remember whether he first tasted a dish in Puglia or the Bronx, where his family moved when he was 10. His mother works at I Trulli during the week, turning out seven kinds of handmade pasta, but every Sunday, she cooks dinner for three generations of the family. And, yes, it usually begins with pasta.
These days artisanal pasta, single-estate olive oils and salt-cured capers from the south of Italy are more widely available, but don’t fret if you don’t find a particular product. Instead, wing it to create a dish that’s partly traditional, partly "alla fantasia."
"Cooking in America, you have to do what feels right, and use the best ingredients available," says De Mane. For instance, she substitutes cockles for the tiny "veraci" clams that go into a classic Amalfi Coast white sauce for spaghetti.
The ideal accompaniment for a festive Southern-style pasta dish is, of course, a wine from the land of sea and sun. Traditionally, the grapes from the south, notably Puglia and Sicily, have been shipped north to blend anonymously into prestigious wines such as Chianti and Barbaresco. That’s changing, as producers turn out a growing number of carefully made wines in both traditional and "modern" styles, made in part or whole with indigenous varieties such as Primitivo, Aglianico and Nero d’Avola grapes. They’re winning favor not only because of their moderate prices but because they partner in the most amiable way with food, as you’ll discover when you sit down to a convivial dinner celebrating the flavors of Southern Italy.
BAKED RIGATONI WITH EGGPLANT AND SAUSAGE
Baked pasta dishes take a little longer to assemble but the payoff is a made-ahead casserole, perfect for holiday gatherings. This recipe adapts well: You can choose hot or sweet fennel-flavored sausage, mellow black olives or tart green ones, fresh mozzarella or the ordinary supermarket kind. When you’re ready to bake: The secret to crisping the top without drying out the filling is a high temperature.
1 pound hot or sweet Italian sausage links
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium eggplant, halved lengthwise and cut in 1/2-inch rounds
Kosher or sea salt
2 small, lightly crushed garlic cloves
1 can (35-ounce) whole plum tomatoes in their juices
1/2 cup flavorful pitted black or green olives, slivered
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound rigatoni
1-1/2 cups coarsely grated mozzarella
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 400Â°F. In a broiler pan, cook the sausages until browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Cool on paper toweling and angle cut in 1/2-inch slices. Blot the eggplant with paper towels. Heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat in a skillet (or two) large enough to hold all the eggplant in a single layer. Fry the slices, turning once, until browned and tender. Transfer to paper toweling and sprinkle lightly with salt.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the garlic until golden; remove and discard. Add the tomatoes and their juices crushing the tomatoes with your finger. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer briskly until fairly dense, about 10 minutes. Add the olives and black pepper to taste. Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts cold water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the rigatoni, stir well and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and return to the saucepan; mix in the tomato sauce.
To assemble: Spoon half of the sauced pasta into an oiled baking dish (about 8" x 12"). Arrange the sausage and eggplant slices on top. Sprinkle with the mozzarella and half of the pecorino. Spoon the remaining pasta on top. Combine the remaining Pecorino with the bread crumbs and sprinkle evenly over the top. Cover the with aluminum foil. (At this point, the dish can be held an hour or two at room temperature or, refrigerated, up to 12 hours.)
To bake: Preheat the oven to 425Â°F. Bake the pasta until heated through, about 15 minutes. Remove the foil and cook until the topping is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Serves 6 to 8.
Wine recommendations: Montesole 2001 Sannio Aglianico, is smooth but full-bodied. This lightly oaked 100% Aglianico wine stands up to robust flavors. The Tormaresca 2001 Rosso is an international-style Antinori blend from Puglia that brings enticing berry and spice aromas, medium body and pleasant acidity to the table.
ORECCHIETTE WITH DANDELION GREENS AND CHICKPEAS
Serve this rustic pasta dish as a first course, if you like, but bear in mind that it’s nutritionally well balanced enough to make a great one-dish meal—just serve with bread and wine. The dish captures the Southern Italian delight in balancing assertive flavors: the bitterness of dandelion greens, heat of crushed red pepper, sharpness of ricotta salata and subtle sweetness of currants. Chickpeas are included whole; once puréed, they help thicken the sauce. A potful of boiling water also does double duty, blanching the greens and then cooking the pasta. By the time it’s done, the skillet sauce is ready.
2-3 whole canned plum tomatoes with their juice (about 1 cup)
14-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, sliced
4 slices (about 1/3 cup) pancetta, cut in 1/4-inch pieces
Kosher or sea salt
1 bunch dandelion greens, stemmed*
1 pound orecchiette
Crushed red pepper
2 cups ricotta salata, crumbled
2 tablespoons currants
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or almonds
Combine the tomatoes and half of the chickpeas in a food processor bowl with 1 cup water; process until smooth.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the onion and pancetta, stirring often, until lightly browned. Add the rest of the chickpeas and cook a minute or two longer. Stir in the puréed chickpea mixture. Reduce heat until the mixture is barely simmering.
Meanwhile, combine 6 quarts water with 2 tablespoons salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook the dandelion greens a minute or two until limp; remove with tongs and cool under running water. Add the pasta to the boiling water, stirring well. While it cooks, roughly chop the dandelion greens (makes about 2 packed cups). Stir the greens into the chickpea sauce. Add salt and crushed red pepper to taste.
When the orecchiette are al dente, drain, reserving about a cup of the water. Return the pasta to the saucepan and mix in the sauce, adding pasta water as needed for a saucy consistency. Stir in half of the ricotta salata and all of the currants. Spoon the pasta into shallow soup bowls, and sprinkle the remaining ricotta salata and the pine nuts on top. Serves 6 to 8.
*If you can’t find dandelion greens, substitute broccoli rabe.
Wine recommendations: Luccarelli 2001 Primitivo from Puglia has soft tannins, black fruit and spice notes, which will make peace with the bitterness of dandelion greens. Vallone 2000 Vigna Flaminio Rosso Riserva (from Brindisi DOC) is an elegant Negroamaro, Montepulciano and Malvasia Nera blend that harmonizes with the challenging flavors of this dish.
SPAGHETTI WITH COCKLES AND PARSLEY
This variation on the classic spaghetti alle vongole is adapted from a recipe in Erica de Mane’s splendid The Flavors of Southern Italy. In her Italian-American home, De Mane grew up eating some version of the dish on Christmas Eve. Regardless of the occasion, make sure it’s a gathering for family or friends willing to hang out in the kitchen with you. While they pour the wine and slice the bread, you can concentrate on preparing this sublime dish.
3 pounds cockles or Manila clams
3/4 cup dry white wine
Kosher or seasalt, to taste
1 pound spaghetti or linguine
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
Scrub the cockles, cover with cold water and soak about 20 minutes. Lift out the cockles; if any sand remains, repeat. Place the cockles in a large saucepan and add the wine. Turn the heat to medium and cook, covered, until the cockles open, 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of cold water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the spaghetti, stir and cook until al dente.
In a large skillet, heat 1/3 cup olive oil over medium-low heat. Sauté the garlic until faintly golden. Pour half of the cockle cooking liquid into the skillet. Add the lemon zest and juice, and let the sauce bubble for a minute or two.
Add the cockles with the remaining liquid to the skillet or, if it is not large enough, pour the sauce over the cockles. Taste and add salt if needed; season to taste with pepper.
Drain the spaghetti and return it to the saucepan. Give it a generous drizzle of olive oil and add the parsley; toss well. Place the pasta on a platter or divide among shallow soup bowls. Top with the cockles and their sauce. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.
Wine recommendations: Delicate seafood dishes of Naples and the Amalfi coast marry well to the crisp acidity and minerally finish of the Vesevo 2004 Greco di Tufo wine. The Aminea 2004 Fiano di Avellino is another palate-cleansing white from Campania, light bodied with an intriguing honey scent, nut and mineral flavor. Tasca d’Almerita 2002 Regaleali Bianco is a well-structured Sicilian, with a ripe fruit bouquet—it is a natural partner for shellfish.