Think for a moment about how special Calabria is: located in the geographical centre of the Mediterranean, it boasts 800 km of coastline and unexpected mountain heritage. All the great civilizations that lived in the Mare Nostrum basin from the Greeks to the Romans have passed through here, leaving indelible traces of their languages (just think that there are dialects derived from ancient Greek, called Grecanici) and of their food and wine habits. In this regard, we must know that the valley of the river Crati, the largest in Calabria, was already cultivated with vines by the ancient Greeks of the colony of Sybaris, the most developed city outside the Hellenic peninsula.
We have also mentioned the immense heritage of coastlines and mountains that offer surprising contrasts and bring with them a clear legacy in the field of cuisine, including dishes and preserves with many characteristic and intriguing flavours, which can only be enjoyed here. They called it “cucina povera“, the Calabrian cuisine, certainly because it derives from a tradition of simple ingredients that tend to be preserved, but today we could define it as rich in flavours that explode on the palate, leaving a trace of itself in the memory of those who try it.
Let’s make it clear, the Calabrians like to eat a lot and well. The quality of the ingredients in Calabrian cuisine is fundamental: maybe it’s because the sun beats on this land all year round, but fruit and vegetables grow in a luxuriant way and are very tasty: try to order a fresh fruit compote made with sweet raisins, prickly pear and melon. We are sure you will be surprised by the intense sugary taste of the local products.
But let’s get closer to the stove and see what is never missing in the Calabrian cuisine. Main protagonist, always present on every shelf is u diavolicchiu, the typical Calabrian hot pepper that many inhabitants of the region use with all dishes, except the sweet ones of course! The Calabrians love to eat spicy food and there is no tomato sauce that is not accompanied by an abundant amount of chilli pepper.
To start talking about dishes, a very typical one is black olives with dried tomatoes and fennel sautéed in a pan, to be eaten strictly spicy according to the preferred intensity. A dish like this gives an idea of what the cuisine of this region is: 0-km ingredients, wild flavours and lots of personalities.
Let’s try to follow the process of a potential lunch, to understand what we will face if we are invited to the home of a Calabrian friend. Let’s start with the appetizer, which will certainly immediately fill the stomach. In the dish, we will find many mouthwatering proposals, from homemade cold cuts typically from the mountains, delicious and really special (just think that the cold cuts of black pork of Calabria are recognized as DOP), such as capocollo, the famous soppressata and ‘nduja, the world-famous spicy spreadable salami, to dairy products that here are really a speciality, generally produced by the shepherds of Sila, Aspromonte or Pollino. There are excellent sheep’s milk cheeses from the area of Crotone, delicious caciocavalli, known nationally produced in the Sila mountains. Mozzarella and ricotta cheese, also smoked, together with vegetables in oil such as zucchini and aubergines complete the dish. Taste the Calabrian bread baked in a wood-burning oven, it has no equal. In some places, it will also be normal that you will be served tuna in olive oil, a typical speciality, like many other preserved vegetables, or dried meat and then preserved in salt and paprika. Not forgetting, among the preserves, also the wild onions, similar to the Apulian lampascioni.
The first courses are obviously based on pasta. And here there would be a book to write about, because even Fileja or Maccarruni a ferretto are homemade according to ancient traditions, with simple mixtures of water and flour, and manual processing that grandmothers, fortunately, passed on to their daughters and grandchildren. The condiments of the pasta are the most varied: in mountain dishes, pork meat ragouts are typical, while along the coast it is easier to find first courses based on fish. One of the most intriguing proposals is baked pasta alla calabrese, based on short rigatoni or paccheri pasta seasoned with meat sauce, meatballs and cold cuts, with boiled eggs and caciocavallo or provola cheese, and plenty of pecorino cheese. They are distributed between two or more layers of fried aubergines in a baking pan, completing the cooking in the oven. One of the most particular pasta sauces of the region is certainly the red pesto made with dried tomatoes. In addition to many proposals based on gnocchi and other types of pasta, if they propose the wild onion soup, face it with curiosity: lovers of strong flavours will not be disappointed.
Let’s come to the main courses. If they offer you meat, there will certainly be delicious meatballs in tomato sauce, spicy barbecued pork sausages that are really a speciality here, perhaps served with potatoes cooked in ash or turnips cooked in a pan, mixed roasts both pork and beef but also sheep meat. As far as fish is concerned, in addition to the whole tradition of Italian seafood cuisine, in Calabria, there is a strong preference for dishes based on roasted swordfish and grilled octopus caught in the local seas. But the real specialities are those based on cod. Baccalà alla cosentina is a really tasty dish made with potatoes, black olives, peppers, tomato sauce, laurel, parsley, salt and pepper. One of the most particular proposals of Calabrian cuisine is the famous Sardella, a creamy pasta made with sardines or whitebait (sardine baby) with salt, chilli pepper and wild finch. It is used by spreading it on bread, in which case it is customary to serve it with fresh onion, or as a condiment for spaghetti.
For second courses based on vegetables, you could find stuffed aubergines or peppers, eggplant meatballs (which often contain pecorino cheese and mint in the mixture), several very tasty omelettes such as N’ghiambara with onions, typical of Cosenza. Then there are the fried vegetables, among which the dish Pipi e patate, which is obtained by simultaneously frying local green peppers cut into strips and potatoes from the Sila mountains cut into sections.
Even desserts deserve a separate chapter. Those of the festivities are really unique in the world, like the pitta ‘mpigliata typical of Sila. But here we only dwell on Tartufo di Pizzo, the hazelnut ice cream with a heart of liquid chocolate that has made palates all over the world fall in love. We hope we have not filled you with words, because to sit at a table in Calabria, you need a really free stomach!