With an incredible amount of local dishes to choose from in southern Italy, ordering at a restaurant or shopping at a local market can be rather overwhelming. So I have narrowed down the typical cuisine choices and local products you should focus on when traveling throughout the South. Naturally, I could have written a book about each region's cuisine, but here are the most popular.
Located just south of Lazio, the region of Campania is known for it's vertigo-inspiring cliffs and winding roads of the Amalfi coast, the island of Capri, and of course the Gulf of Naples--home to Italy's third-largest city and Campania's capital, Naples. The majestic beauty of Mount Vesuvius creates an awe-inspiring backdrop to the city of pizza. Ah yes, pizza. Pizza should be first thing your list to eat while traveling throughout Campania. Simply made with flour, water, olive oil, yeast, salt and baked in a wood-burning oven, la pizza napoletana is even safeguarded in the European Union as a Traditional Specialty Guaranteed dish. Once you take a bite of a pizza napoletana you'll understand why the stuff you order from Pizza Hut is not real.
The next food item not to pass up is fresh mozzarella di bufala. Made from the milk of domestic water buffalo, mozzarella di bufala is so creamy and tasty you'll want to take it home with you. Unfortunately, you can't, so eat as much of it as you can and deal with the extra pounds later. Typically served Caprese style with sliced tomatoes, fresh basil and a sprinkle of extra virgin olive oil, mozzarella di bufala makes for a perfect antipasto.
Since the region of Campania is kissed by the sea, it is rich in seafood with typical dishes like spaghetti alle vongole (pasta with clams), spaghetti con le cozze (pasta with mussels) and dishes of raw seafood delicately treated with lemon and olive oil.
To wash it all down, don't forget to sip on the sweet delight of limoncello. Made from local lemons and served chilled, this liqueur is the perfect completion to any meal. This is one food product that you are allowed to take home with you.
Known as "Italy's heel", Puglia is another center of culinary masterpieces. Well, to come to think of it, everywhere in Italy is. While eating your way through the stiletto heel, you won't want to miss the pasta dish of orechiette con le cime di rapa, or rather ear-shaped pasta with rapini. The typical dish can take on different forms with sausage or with anchovies.
Typical to Puglia is the burrata. Similar to mozzarella di bufala, burrata is made from mozzarella and cream from either buffalo or cow's milk. The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the soft inside contains soft mozzarella and cream. Burrata is heaven in your mouth, served fresh at room temperature with either prosciutto crudo or simply with olive oil and fresh tomatoes and of course with a side of bread.
Like Campania, Puglia offers a variety of fish and seafood dishes due to its location. One of the more popular sea creatures served on a plate is the sea urchin or riccio. If you've never tried these spiny sea animals, Puglia is the perfect place for an introduction. Just a heads up, they are not for the faint of heart, since ricci are best served fresh aka alive and still moving. If you purchase them at the market, the fisherman will show you how to open them or do it right there for you. In that case, once it's opened, tip the shell to drain it (you can rinse it with water if you'd like) and start eating the orange part of the urchin with a spoon. At restaurants they are served immediately after they're opened with a piece of bread.
Also, don't forget to pick up a bag of taralli to bring home with you. The breadstick like snack shaped like circle is a typical product of Puglia made simply with wheat flour, yeast, water and olive oil.
Basilicata is embedded between Calabria and Puglia. Although one of Italy's smallest regions, Basilicata has a lot to offer in the kitchen. Starting off with a little spice, Basilicata is known for a spicy pepper known as Peperone di Senise. Grown in the small town of Senise, the local spicy pepper is a berry about 10 cm long and 5 cm in diameter and is a green-red color. The pepper can be used fresh or left to dry. This famous pepper is used in the process of making salami, other meat dishes and soups. Peperone di Senise is sold in bags as a powder or even in necklaces like garlic and onions. The pepper has been awarded the DOP mark which guarantees its territory of origin.
Staying on the spicy theme, another popular food product in Basilicata is the Lucanica Salame. The spicy sausage typical of the region is produced in Latronico in the province of Potenza. The salame is made of the finer parts of the pig and is seasoned for a month with salt, pepper and wild âfinocchio' or fennel.
Another food product typical of the region is Fagioli di Sarconi IGP or Sarconi Beans. Harvested in the Val D'Agri in Sarconi, these beans are taken very seriously in the local cuisine. The beans are able to flourish so abundantly in this area thanks to the moisture from the nearby lake. The beans are excellent in soups or tossed with pasta or served alone as a side dish.
Lastly is the Amaro Lucano--a typical after-dinner digestivo. This amaro or bitter is actually less bitter than some other Italian bitters and somewhat sweet. Be sure to buy a bottle or two because it is impossible to remake since the recipe, consisting of herbs and roots, is absolutely top secret. Amaro Lucano is made in the small town of Pisticci Scalo in province of Matera.
Known as "Italy's toe", Calabria is a region that does not disappoint. Famous for its "Costa Viola", the Violet Coast, named after the rock coloration under the water, Calabria is a fascinating region of beauty, history, culture and cuisine.
Like its neighbor to the north, Basilicata, the region of Calabria is also famous for a pepper, the peperoncino. This spicy chili pepper is used in many dishes from pasta to dessert! In fact if you love spicy, you can eat peperoncino in each dish of your meal, including gelato. Grown just about everywhere in Calabria including in pots on balconies, peperoncino is a staple in the Calabrese cuisine. It is also the main ingredient in ânduja, a type of salame made of pig's fat and other parts, making it a soft-textured bomb of spice spread to be enjoyed on a piece of bread or mixed in sauces for pasta. âNduja is originally from the town of Spilinga in the province of Vibo Valentia.
Next on the list are the red onions of Tropea. Also found in the province of Vibo Valentia, Tropea is a beach town with Caribbean-like beaches and dramatic rock cliffs. Not only is ânduja and peperoncino heavily used in this area, so are red onions that are grown along the coast. Eaten even raw or served as an antipasto with a touch of olive oil or made out of a spread for a piece of bread, the red onions of Tropea can also be found throughout Calabria. With three distinct varieties, the cipollotto, the cipolla fresca, and the cipolla da serbo, the red onions of Tropea are a typical delight not to pass up.
Another rare Calabrian find is bergamot, also known as bergamotto. A fragrant fruit the size of an orange but yellow like a lemon, this citrus fruit is unique to Calabria and only Calabria since 1400. How the fruit arrive in Calabria is still up for interpretation, but many believe traders from Spain or Turkey brought the fruit to the southern region. Either way, the fruit has been grown for its essence since the very beginning. The fruit grows on trees in the southern end of the province of Reggio Calabria from Villa San Giovanni to Roccella Jonica. In Calabria you can find the essence of bergamot in many sweets, teas, juices and liqueurs--it serves as a great digestive. The actual fruit is not eaten, but be sure to purchase a bottle of it to bring back home with you to use as a perfume as well.
Lastly, Calabria is home to Vecchio Amaro del Capo, a famous digestif or digestivo. Created from an ancient family recipe by the Caffo family, this after-dinner bitter is produced with 29 different Calabrian aromatic herbs and roots. The delicious amaro boasts intense, earthy notes of fresh herb and quinine. Drink it chilled to enjoy the variety of aromas and flavors. It is produced in the the province of Vibo Valentia near Capo Vaticano, hence the name.
The island of tastes and sights has a lot to offer to the tourist. Given its geographical location, fish is of course the "must" to eat when dining on the island. But besides the vast fish dishes, there are other local specialties found on the island.
Starting off with something sweet, pasta di mandorla, is the base for many desserts and drinks. Also known as almond paste, this sweet paste made of almonds is used in cookies to give them a gooey-soft center, colored and shaped like fruit and other objects--typical of Sicily for marzipan, or even mixed with water and served as a cool beverage on a sweltering Sicilian summer day.
Next on the list are the citrus fruits and not just any--blood oranges of Sicily. Famous in all the world, the blood oranges of Sicily offer a unique flavor of tart and sweet all while offering an intense crimson-red color. You can find blood orange juice anywhere from the hotels to the supermarkets and of course on your plate. A popular dish is a Sicilian salad, consisting of sliced blood oranges, sliced fennel and olive oil. The blood oranges are also popular in the use of marmalade, vinaigrette and even beer. Grown in the eastern provinces of Catania and Siracusa, the Sicilian blood orange is IGP, meaning Indicazione Geografica Protetta (Protected Geographical Statues).
Not to pass up are pistachio nuts of Bronte, known as the âordo vede della Sicilia', green gold of Sicily. Originally brought to the area by the Arabs, the nuts can be found in traditional dish of pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines), couscous (another food product brought to Sicily by the Arabs) and of course gelato. Pistachio is also used in fillings and sauces.
Lastly, you won't want to leave this island without tasting an arancino. Found just about everywhere--even on the ferry back to the mainland where it is said the best arancini are found, this fried rice balls are a Sicilian favorite. Made of risotto with and either a meat sauce center, plain cheese, or pieces and ham, then rolled in bread crumbs and fried to perfection, arancini make for the perfect snack in-between meals or for lunch.
Last but not least is the beautiful island of Sardegna. The island region of Sardegna offers up some of the most interesting and unique history in Italy's already culturally diverse repertoire. From very early on, Sardegna has been a location of sustained and indeed thriving human settlement, and the plants and animals nurtured there for centuries remain staples of the contemporary Sardegna table.
The island of shepherds couldn't produce anything else other than the best cheeses of Italy. Cheeses hold special sway in Sardegna, being the island's most exported food product. Pecorino sardo, Fiore sardo, ricotta, caprino, pecorino romano, and the famous casu marzu are all made within the region. Casu marzu, which starts its life as a delightful local Pecorino sardo cheese, is actually illegal now in Italy due to its bizarre additional culturing and aging process involving the introduction of live cheese fly larvae into the equation to bring about a potentially poisonous stage akin to decomposition. Though obviously a wildly risky gastronomic health adventure and definitely not for the timid of palate by any stretch of the imagination, casu marzu is nonetheless a very popular black market commodity and is considered a distinctive delicacy by many locals.
Bottarga, also known as Sardinian caviar, is considered one of the most authentic, delicious examples of the island's gastronomic tradition. Bottarga is made from eggs or roe pouch mugine fish (grey mullet fish), which are carefully extracted from the fish, with great care being taken to avoid rupturing the sacks that hold them. Similar to tuna roe, but with a more delicate flavor, bottarga is often served in fine slices, alongside slices of celery drizzled with good olive oil. Combining bottarga with artichoke hearts is another popular way of serving it, poetically uniting two Sardinian food products from the land and the sea.
Not to forget are the traditional breads of Sardegna that tend to be hard and dry, and prepared only once a week. Pane carasau, a crisp, very thin bread that is made from durum wheat semolina and wheat flour, can keep for weeks at a time due to its very low water content; traditionally, it was the bread that shepherds and herdsmen could carry with them during their months in the mountains. In recent years, this bread has increasingly been called carta da musica by visitors from the mainland, because it resembles sheets of parchment-like music manuscript paper.
Wherever you go, be sure to try to the local delights and enter each restaurant with a sense of adventure--your taste buds will thank you later!