Southern Italy: Food You Must Eat in Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Molise
Author Katie Parla not only knows her Italian food, she knows her Italian history. Her deep culinary knowledge takes cookbook writing to the next level, with stories beautifully woven between recipes and lush photos.
In a previous episode of the Postcard Academy podcast, I interviewed Katie, an American expat living in Rome, about the rich history of Roman cuisine. She recently came back on the podcast to discuss her new cookbook, Food of the Italian South.
Subscribe to the Postcard Academy for free to hear all of Katie’s recommendations on what to eat in Southern Italy’s five regions: Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Molise. She also shares her favorite must-have experiences while traveling in Southern Italy, and explains how centuries of invasions, trade, and refugees have influenced Southern Italian cooking.
Italy is in the shape of a boot. When we’re talking about Southern Italy, we’re focused on the ankle and below. The five regions are Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Molise.
Naples, Amalfi, and Pompeii make up Campania’s most-visited towns. Of course, you’re going to want to eat pizza there. Katie recommends Pizzeria da Attilio for the best pizza in Naples. Interested in making a pizza pilgrimage? Drive to Pepe in Grani for the best in Campania. Looking for a souvenir to remember the best food in Italy? Buy pasta from Pastificio dei Campi.
People have been calling Puglia ‘the new Tuscany’ for awhile. Bari, Brindisi, and especially Lecce are beautiful seaside towns with plenty to do in the summer. Focaccia Pugliese is a must-try. When in Bari, head to Panificio Fiore for the best. Bring something to read because they like to take their time in this place.
This region’s town of Matera is the 2019 European Capital of Culture. Until the 1950s, people here lived in limestone caves. The men worked as shepherds and the women did all the housework. Cave living wasn’t pleasant (they actually lined the walls with animal dung for insulation), so the Materini lived life outside as much as they could. Women didn’t have stoves, so they brought bread to the public kitchen and marked the dough with their family stamp. In August, they make a fava bean soup, traditionally served cold to help them beat the heat. Katie says Matera isn’t famous for its cuisine but Stano is one restaurant worth going to.
Traditionally, Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays, so you’ll find other options, like vegetable calzones and fried porcini mushrooms instead. You’ll also find pockets of Albanian culture in Calabria, which dates back to when Albanians fled the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries. Sadly, the mafia is alive and well all over Italy, and is especially strong in the south. They’ve turned migrants into slaves working the farm land. In Katie’s book, she mentions that Gustiamo is an organization that certifies whether farms are using slave labor or not. If you’re a nature lover, check out the national parks here.
If you want to have an Italian experience that avoids other tourists, head to this
mountain region, which is about a two-hour drive from Rome. Italians joke that “Molise non esiste” — Molise doesn’t exist, because people ignore this region of Southern Italy. Katie says it’s a hidden gem.
Katie has kindly let me share a vegan recipe from her new cookbook Food of the Italian South. Crapiata is traditionally made in Matera in August to celebrate the end of the grain harvest. It’s traditionally served cold to help the Materani stay cool in the blazing sun.
Fava, Pea , and Cicerchie Soup
Serves 6 to 8
½ cup dried farro (emmer), soaked overnight and drained
½ cup dried wheat berries, soaked overnight and drained
½ cup dried fava beans, soaked overnight and drained
½ cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
½ cup dried verdolini or cannellini beans, soaked overnight and drained
½ cup dried cicerchie, soaked overnight, blanched, and drained
½ pound new potatoes, halved
2 small onions, diced
3 medium carrots, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Place the farro, wheat berries, favas, chickpeas, beans, and cicerchie in a large pot and add enough water to cover by an inch or two. Season with salt and bring to a simmer over low heat. When the beans and grains are almost tender, or three-quarters cooked through, about 1 hour, add the potatoes, onions, carrots, and celery and season with salt. Cook until the legumes and vegetables are cooked through, about 30 minutes more.
Season with more salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm or tepid with olive oil drizzled on top
NOTE Cicerchie (grass peas), a high-protein legume used mainly for animal feed in the United States, contains a neurotoxin that can be harmful if consumed in large quantities, as it has been in Europe following disasters and famines. To prepare cicerchie safely, simply blanch several times after soaking it. This ancient legume has been a staple in the south for more than two thousand years, thanks to its resistance to drought and floods. You can find it in specialty stores and online.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.