Calabria Culinary Food and Wine Travel Guide
Located all the way at the toe of Italy’s boot shape is region of Calabria. With picturesque mountains and a pristine coastline that stretches along three sides of the region, the land is largely untouched and fertile making the tradition of agriculture an important focus for its people. This pure form of agriculture and sea fare from the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas make Calabria cuisine truly a one of a kind experience.
Many vegetables are grown locally in Calabria, but the showstoppers are Calabrese tomatoes, eggplant, Tropea red onions, and mushrooms. Calabrese tomatoes and eggplant are beloved by locals and can be found in most vegetable based soups and dishes. Tropea red onions are a purple-hued, teardrop shaped bulb of intense flavor sought after by gourmet chefs both local and abroad for its uniqueness. It is used raw, boiled, or baked in most of the region’s traditional dishes.
Calabria is also a producer of wild mushrooms thanks to the heavily wooded forests of the mountains ranges of Pollino, Sila, and Aspromonte. With such an abundance of locally grown fungi, these treats can be served fresh, dried, or even pickled and they make an appearance on dinner tables typically once a day.
With much of the region bordered by coastal waters, sea fare is a delicious and popular source of protein. However, none is as popular as the swordfish. This fish is a common ingredient in many of the region’s main dishes. In fact, swordfish is such an integral part of the fare in Calabria that the people hold a festival in Bagnara Calabra every August in its honor.
Calabria is Italy’s second largest producer of olive oil, making it one of the area’s biggest exports. The most popular olive oils are Bruzio, Alto Crotonese, and Lamezia. Of these, Bruzio is often considered to be one of the elite. Currently produced in the province of Cosenza, this internationally renowned olive oil has roots that can be traced all the way back to the original ancient Bruzi tribes of Italy.
The region’s copious amounts of fresh vegetables and meats, combined with their own local production of olive oil, yield the perfect system for efficiently storing food. The people of Calabria do not waste a morsel of food and regularly preserve foods by packing vegetables and meat in olive oil, curing fish, and preparing cold cuts.
Calabrian cuisine is simple and based solely on what the people grow or catch from the land and water. However, do not let this simplicity fool you as the region’s dishes are steeped in tradition and flavored with incredible spices and a dash of local flare.
Dried Calabrese tomatoes are a regional favorite. These tomatoes are handpicked, dried and stored naturally without the aid of any preservatives, an homage to the simplicity and purity of local fare. After the tomatoes are dried, they can be preserved in olive oil along with anchovies, basil, and hot peppers for unparalleled flavor.
If more spice is what you crave, you will not have to look far for a dish boasting ‘nduja. Found on almost every table in Calabria, ‘nduja is a spicy and spreadable pork product commonly served on bread, with cheese, or added to pasta sauces. This spread gets its heat from added spices and peppers and is typically made with the belly and shoulders of a pig.
Caciocavallo cheese is made in much of southern Italy. However, several local versions made in Calabria use caciocavallo as simply a base and add various special touches to make it the region’s own. Calabria, and more specifically the villages in Aspromonte National Park, is known for Caciocavallo di Ciminà. Reggio Calabria and Catanzaro are known for a different version of this Italian cheese, Caciocavallo Silano, which takes several months for proper spicing and maturity. These cheeses are most often eaten with bread, in salads, or alongside vegetables.
Another popular appetizer that is cheese based is butirro. This cheese is made from other cheeses such as provola or caciocavallo and is filled with butter. Historically, the cheese was used to preserve butter, while today it is typically served as an appetizer.
As with other parts of Italy, several pasta dishes can be considered staples of Calabria's cuisine. Among these is pasta e patate ara tijeddra, which originates from Cosenza and combines ingredients such as pasta, potatoes, tomato sauce, herbs, and local cheeses. This layered dish is cooked in the oven to achieve a golden, crispy crust.
A typical pasta shape in Calabria is made by wrapping a sheet of pasta around a thin tube to form a long, hollow shape. Popular throughout Calabria, the shape can have different names depending on the part of the region, such as fileja, maccarruni i casa, and maccheroni calabresi. Made by hand in households throughout the area, this pasta is typically served with sauces made from goat, pork, or 'nduja.
Another local favorite is lagane e ciciari ara cusentina. This pasta is made without eggs and consists only of flour and water. Once the noodles are formed and cooked in salted water, they are seasoned with sautéed garlic, chickpeas, hot peppers, and of course, olive oil.
Licurda, a soup historically available to Calabria’s poorest areas, is vegetable based. While the primary ingredient is the region’s red onion of Tropea, the dish usually features a variety of other ingredients including potatoes, celery, tomatoes, caciocavallo, and stale bread. After the vegetables are cooked in water, the caciocavallo is placed over bread and red peppers, then covered with the soup and topped with pecorino cheese.
With Calabria’s proximity to the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas, it is no surprise that fish is a staple of the cuisine. Hands down, swordfish, often called piscispata by locals, is the front runner in the region and can be cooked a number of different ways. These include pesce spada alla bagnarota, swordfish cooked with tomatoes, capers, and olives, and pesce spada alla riggitana, swordfish flavored with garlic, parsley, and olive oil.
Other popular fish dishes in the area may feature stockfish or salted cod. One example is baccalà alla cosentina, which is salted cod prepared with potatoes, black olives, hot peppers, tomato sauce, and fresh herbs. Stockfish, on the other hand, can be served with a variety of vegetables, beans, or mushrooms. Additionally, in the Aspromonte area, stocco alla mammolese is composed of pieces of stockfish served with potatoes, tomato sauce, olives, and hot peppers.
Traditional Calabrian flatbread known as pitta china or pitta chjina is commonly served at fairs, holiday festivities, and even street side. The soft bread with a crunchy outer crust is typically stuffed with tomatoes, herbs, sausage, hot peppers, and caciocavallo cheese. Whether stuffed or plain, pitta china is sometimes served with a sauce called piccantino that is flavored with herbs, salt, olive oil, vinegar, and hot peppers.
For those desiring sweeter street side fare, mostaccioli calabresi (also known as 'nzhudda, or mastazzolu) are the perfect treat. These crunchy cookies are made with flour, honey, and anise liqueur. Notably, the surprise is not in the ingredients, but rather in the cookie’s shape. Bakers often shape the dough into unique forms such as flowers, animals, or humans and then decorate them with brightly colored foil.
Much of Calabria’s treats are sweetened with fig syrup, honey, or even mulled wine. Pignolata consists of small balls of pastry that are fried in lard and then tossed in honey, making them come together in one delicious clump. One local variation features the same small balls of pastry that are ultimately covered in a lemon, chocolate, or bergamot glaze.
Other favorite cookies in Calabria are called petrali. Known for their distinctive half-moon shape, petrali that can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients including figs, chocolate, coffee, almonds, and more.
Artisanal gelato also features prominently in Calabria with a number of flavors enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Notable examples include tartufo di Pizzo, hazelnut and chocolate gelato that is shaped to resemble a truffle, as well as gelato alla crema reggina, a pink, rum flavored gelato that is a specialty of the province of Reggio Calabria, hence its name of crema reggina.
The region of Calabria is known far and wide for its wines. With such fertile land, the area is perfect for growing grapes and producing wine. While Calabria’s red wines may be more prominent than white wines, there really is not a wrong choice to be had.
The most sought after wines are those with a controlled origin or DOC label. In Calabria, these wines include: Cirò, Melissa, Lametia, Savuto, Donnici, Graco di Gerace, and Sant’Anna. Cirò is generally described as one of the oldest wines on earth.
Other non-DOC wines of excellent reputation from the region include Pellaro, which is known for its robustness, and Kalipea, which known for its golden color. Furthermore, Limbadi is considered an exceptional table wine and Rossano is a ruby colored wine with a high alcoholic content.
Whether strolling along the white sandy beaches or hiking through the mountain villages of Calabria, stop to enjoy a slower paced meal that isn’t just food and wine, but a complete experience. Savor every bite and try to distinguish each spice in between sips of world famous and locally grown and produced wines. The region’s rich traditional fare will both capture your heart and seduce your taste buds.
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