Four Dishes That Explore the Cuisines of Southern Italy
As difficult, and incorrect, as it may be to address Italian cuisine as a whole, it’s true that simplistic, rustic fare can be found all over. In the mainland south of Italy, this means meals inspired by ingredients that thrive in a range of geographies. From turquoise shores with a plethora of seafood to grain fields atop sunbaked plateaus and seasonal-herb-dotted mountains, the food of the south is as vibrant and varied as its scenery.
The regions of Campania, Puglia, Calabria and Basilicata each have their own unique culinary story, and no single dish can speak for an entire locale. And as varied as the narratives may be from one region to the next, so too is the diversity from town to town.
What unites them is the intent of the food: to highlight the best local ingredients and satisfy both body and soul.
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Courtesy Nicholas Stefanelli, chef/owner, Masseria, Washington, D.C.
Puglia is home to a bread called Pane di Altamura, which is the only Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) for bread. These rustic loaves from the Murgia plateau are made from specific varieties of durum wheat, and their crusts must be at least three millimeters thick. With a constant flow of crusty pane, the resourceful denizens have found a delicious alternative to tossing stale loaves: bread soup.
“The ability to use something that is left over and turn it into something that is delicious and soul satisfying is really special,” says Chef Nicholas Stefanelli, of Masseria in Washington, D.C. Some versions call for seasonal greens, while others add potatoes for a heartier outcome. This recipe is a stripped-down take that highlights the savory bread.
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, sliced
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 3 celery stalks, diced
- 1 large tomato, fresh or canned, rough chopped
- 3 quarts chicken stock
- 3–4 thick slices rustic day-old bread, cubed
- Salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 small bunch parsley, chopped
- ¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano
Warm large pot over medium heat. Add ½ cup olive oil and garlic. Once garlic begins to sizzle, add onion, carrot and celery. Cook vegetables until soft and translucent. Add tomato, and cook for 5 minutes. Add chicken stock, and bring to boil. Add bread, and reduce to simmer. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add parsley, and divide among bowls. Top with Pecorino Romano. Serves 4.
No single flavor takes over this dish, so it’s best to find a pairing that acts as a complementary backdrop. Tormaresca’s Pietrabianca Chardonnay is a mildly oaked offering that will integrate with the bread, cheese and savory broth elements in the soup. It will also highlight the rest of the dish with its delicate, citrus-driven acidity. Serve this medium-bodied white slightly warmer than usual, at 50–55°F.
Courtesy Angelo Cuppone, chef, Roma, Houston
Surrounded by the Mediterranean, Calabria has a strong relationship with the sea. The cuisine along the 500 miles of turquoise coastline is based heavily on seafood, with the area surrounding the city of Reggio Calabria known particularly for swordfish.
Angelo Cuppone, chef at Houston’s Roma, created this recipe as an ode to his mother. Cuppone says that she often made dishes that were “simple, with pure flavors inspired by the ingredients that were available to her in her native Calabria.”
- 2½ cups unseasoned breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons capers
- ½ cup black Cerignola olives, pitted and chopped
- Salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste
- 1 pound swordfish, sliced into ¼-inch-thick filets (10–12 filets)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ small onion, fine chopped
- 1 large tomato, peeled and seeded
- Parsley, fine chopped, for garnish
- Lemon, thin sliced, for garnish
In mixing bowl, combine breadcrumbs, capers and olives. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Mix well, and let sit until breadcrumbs soften. Spread thin layer of breadcrumb mixture on each filet. Rolland secure with toothpick. Set aside.
In large frying pan, warm olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, and sauté until translucent. Add tomato, and cook until liquid has evaporated. Add swordfish rolls to pan. Cook until golden brown, turning rolls gently to cook on all sides. Garnish with parsley and lemon slices. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
There’s a particular heft to swordfish that could overpower some white wines, while it can also be completely overshadowed by a red. The strawberry-hued rosatos of Calabria offer a fine middle ground. Options like Librandi’s Ciró Rosato carry bold red-berry and herb flavors bolstered by a grip of tannins, which makes it perfect alongside seafood.
Mention Campanian cuisine and many might envision Neapolitan-style pizza. However, the region extends beyond the well-known city into the foothills and peaks of the Apennines. This dish from Irpina highlights the fare of interior Campania and traditionally accentuates the puleggio herb that grows wild in the mountains. Stateside, you’ll use mint as a substitute (the wilder, the better).
- 4 garlic cloves
- Pinch of salt, plus more to season
- 1½ cups loose-packed mint
- 1½ cups loose-packed basil or parsley, plus more for garnish
- 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 can (12-ounce) whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
- 1 cup Roma or other plum tomatoes, halved
- 1 pound cavatelli
- Chile oil (optional)
With mortar and pestle, crush garlic and pinch of salt. Add mint and basil in stages, crushing until incorporated. Add olive oil to hydrate, no more than 3 tablespoons.
Warm 4 tablespoons olive oil in large pan over medium heat. When oil begins to shimmer, add pesto. Cook, stirring frequently, until hot. Add red pepper flakes, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, and season with salt, to taste. Simmer until tomatoes begin to fall apart and sauce thickens, about 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring large pot of heavily salted water to boil. Cook cavatelli for about 2 minutes less than package indicates. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water, and drain cavatelli. Add cavatelli to sauce, and mix well. Adjust sauce’s consistency with reserved pasta water, as needed. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce clings loosely to pasta, about 1 minute. Season with salt, to taste. Garnish with basil leaves and drizzle with chile oil, if desired. Serves 4–6.
From one of Campania’s many volcanic wine-producing areas, La Sibilla’s Piedirosso from Campi Flegrei is a savory, medium-bodied red that will hold up well alongside this dish. Its supple tannins and tangy acidity match well with the tomatoes, while delicate herbal and fresh mineral nuances echo the mint and basil.
Adapted from La Cucina (Rizzoli Publications, Inc. 2009)
The Vulture region of Basilicata is most well known for its bold, earthy red wines made from Aglianico. Chestnuts, specifically of the Marroncino variety, are another specialty that thrive in the volcanic soils of this area. It garners such praise for its size that the town of Melfi throws a festival in its honor, called Sagra della Varola.
During the second to last week of October, hordes of hungry locals and tourists feast on recently harvested roasted chestnuts. Sweet treats, like these calzoncelli cookies, abound.
- Olive oil
- 3½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1½ cups sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 6 ounces lard or shortening
- 1⅔ cups fine-chopped chestnuts
- 1⅔ cups chopped bittersweet chocolate
Heat oven to 375˚F. Grease baking pan with olive oil. Combine flour, sugar, eggs and lard in a bowl and mix with hands until incorporated. Move to flat surface and knead until dough is smooth and homogenous. Let rest for about 20 minutes then roll out a sheet about ⅛ inch thick. Using a thin-rimmed glass or circular cookie cutter, cut into disks. Mix the chestnuts and chocolate in a small bowl and place small mound in center of each disk. Fold disk over to form half-moons, crimping the edges. Place on baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
While a simplistic pairing of roasted chestnuts and Aglianico di Vulture is a match made in heaven, the sweetness in this cookie calls for an equally luscious wine. There are sweet reds produced in Basilicata called Aglianico dolce, however the bottlings rarely leave the region. Looking a little farther north into the bordering region of Puglia, try Polvanera’s 21 Primitivo. This naturally sweet red is deep and concentrated in rich berry tones that will sing alongside the nutty, chocolaty filling of the cookie.
- 1Savory Pancotto Soup
- 2Pan-Fried Swordfish Involtini
- 3Cavatelli with Tomato & Wild Mint Pesto
- 4Calzoncelli Cookies