Diamante, Calabria sets the stage for a wider view onto the cuisine of southern Italy. Each year, this lazy beach resort hosts the popular Peperoncino Festival in honor of one of the area’s most inexhaustible culinary ingredients: hot chili peppers. The spicy condiment is given a homecoming parade in which townsfolk and outsiders gather to celebrate with racy cinema, cabaret, spicy satire and creative cooking over a long weekend in September.
A culinary ingredient becomes the symbolic mascot of a geographic region that identifies with its message of prowess, potency, individuality and strength. The cult of the chili pepper proves that, in southern Italy, epicurism is one shade from religious conviction.
This pagan approach to food is evident across southern Italy where even the smallest towns dedicate the largest portion of their municipal funding to celebrations of swordfish, sausages, porcini mushrooms, red beans, suckling pig, ciammaruchidd (land snails) or whatever else they grow or gather locally. Each of these sagra festivals is accompanied by all-night singing, tarantella dancing and a cleansing Catholic mass the morning after.
These traditions are appropriate. In the millennia following its ancient glory days, much of southern Italy fell onto hard economic times spurred by wars, deforestation, earthquakes, geographic isolation and poverty. Harsh conditions helped evolve the concept of country cooking in which each identifiable edible ingredient is held in the highest regard and entire meals are staged in tribute to a single divine flavor. In many ways, southern Italy is the model for a postmodern cuisine based on local, seasonal and organic foods.
Fave: These broad beans are puréed and served with chicory in the classic dish from Puglia called macco. It gave farmers a generous serving of protein during fieldwork.
Mozzarella di Bufala: The single most elegant food in Italy, this soft buffalo milk cheese is stretched, kneaded and left with a seam on the side. No self-respecting Neapolitan pizza is complete without.
Polipo: An iconic image of southern Italy is that of fishermen beating small octopuses (polipi) against a rock to soften the flesh. Chopped into insalata di mare, octopus pairs perfectly with Campania’s Falanghina.
Porcini: Although porcini mushrooms are found almost everywhere in Italy, Calabria is a particularly prolific producer hunting ground for the spongy fungus.
Ricci: Sea urchin roe is scooped out of the shell and the orange-colored flesh is served raw over a heaping plate of pasta. Beachside shacks in Puglia sell them as roadside snacks.
Pasta with Sardines
16 ounces angel hair or thin linguine pasta
½ cup wild fennel (feathery green tops and stems of fennel bulbs), roughly chopped
1 pinch saffron
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
¼ cup raisins or currants, chopped
6 ounces boneless sardines, roughly chopped
¼ cup dry white wine
1 cup reserved cooking liquid
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Add pasta to large pot of boiling salted water, and cook 3–6 minutes, until pasta is cooked half-way. Strain pasta. Save cooking water and add back to pot. Set pasta aside.
Bring water back to a boil. Add wild fennel and cook 2 minutes. Strain fennel from pot and set aside, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Add saffron to reserved cooking liquid.
In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, add olive oil, garlic, raisins and fennel and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Add sardines, white wine and reserved cooking liquid with saffron to skillet.
Add pasta to skillet, tossing until liquid is almost absorbed, and pasta is cooked through, about 3–5 minutes. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve. Serves 4.