An Overview of Southern Italian Cuisine, By Region

  • 01 of 07

    An Overview of Southern Italy

    The six regions of Southern Italy.
    The six regions of Southern Italy. Danette St. Onge/Creative Commons

    Southern Italy is a land of contrasts; on the one hand, it is the poorest part of Italy, and in the past much of the population subsisted on an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, eating greens and bread or pasta. On the other, the nobility of this area was extraordinarily wealthy, enjoying a rich and extremely refined diet.

    With respect to Northern and Central Italy, there is greater use of dried pasta (as opposed to fresh egg pasta), though people also enjoy vegetable-based soups as primi. In...MORE terms of meat, although there are cattle, historically the South is known for shepherding, and lamb and goat play a much more important role in the diet than they do in much of Northern Italy. Seafood also plays an important role in the diet, particularly in coastal areas.

    The growing season is much longer and hotter in the South; among the most popular summer vegetables are tomatoes (many of which go into red sauces) and eggplant, whereas in the winter months broccoli raab and cauliflower come to the fore.

    Southern cheeses are also worth mentioning; they tend to be firm, for example, caciocavallo and provolone, though there are a few exceptions, for example, Campania's fresh mozzarella and Puglia's burrata.

    Finally, Southern Italian Desserts tend to be much more elaborate than those made further north.

    [Edited by Danette St. Onge]

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  • 02 of 07

    The Cuisine of the Campania Region

    A classic Neapolitan pizza margherita
    A classic Neapolitan pizza margherita. Valeria Schettino/Getty Images

    Campania boasts one of Italy's most elegant and refined cuisines. It's also one of the best-known worldwide, thanks to the tremendous number of Neapolitans who emigrated in the last century.

    Pizza, arguably one of the best-known and most popular foods on the planet, is from the Campania city of Naples, as are many kinds of durum wheat pasta including spaghetti, and the red, tomato-based sauces (marinara, puttanesca, and so on) with which they're often served.

    Campania has also given us...MORE lasagna with ricotta, eggplant parmesan, Italian wedding soup, zesty carne alla pizzaiola, Christmas's struffoli, and the Easter pastiera tart, and it has contributed greatly to the popularity of the Christmas Eve Seven Fishes dinner.

    In terms of produce, the region is singularly blessed, with the rich volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius producing the San Marzano plum tomatoes that give the red sauces their richness, and there's much more too, from cauliflower through broccoli raab and greens to eggplant, peppers, and zucchini, all with unsurpassed flavor thanks to the volcanic soil.

    In terms of meats, though there is some beef, Campanian lamb and pork are better, and inland you'll also find water buffalo -- the animals are raised primarily for their milk, which gives buffalo-milk mozzarella a tangy richness and full flavor that cow's milk mozzarella simply lacks.

    The fish along the coast is superb, as are the walnuts and lemons from Sorrento, and when you want to relax after dinner, what could be better than a glass of well-chilled limoncello?

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  • 03 of 07

    The Cuisine of the Abruzzo

    Shepherd's milk cheese with bread and wine in the Abruzzo
    Shepherd's milk cheese with bread and wine in the Abruzzo. John Hay/Getty Images

    The Abruzzo region has a reputation of being something of a wildland; inland it is mostly rugged mountains and valleys, and until not too long ago, the primary economic activity was shepherding, which was even more important in the past.

    Following the unification of Italy in the 1860s, the new government passed laws hindering the migration of flocks, and as a result the Abruzzo region became more isolated, an isolation that has only ended with the increase in tourism after WWII: the region offers...MORE mountain climbing and skiing inland, and swimming and boating along the Adriatic coast.

    People also come to enjoy the food -- lamb and mutton, pecorino and goat's milk cheese, olive oil, wines, saffron (which has always been grown for use in medicines and dyes but is now being used in the kitchens too), hot peppers, and more.

    Like most peasant cuisines, it's simple, but quite wholesome, especially in more modern interpretations that allow the use of some meat or oil (back in peasant days there would have been little of either, nor much cheese for those who weren't well off). After lamb and mutton, pork was the meat of choice inland, with many people raising animals in a semi-wild state, allowing them to forage what they could find in the forests and butchering them in the fall. Along the coast, fish also plays a major part in the diet.

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  • 04 of 07

    Calabrian Cuisine

    'Nduja, a spicy fresh salame typical of Calabria
    'Nduja, a spicy fresh salame typical of Calabria. Aldo Pavan/Getty Images

    Calabrian cooking strikes a beautiful balance between meat-based dishes, featuring pork, lamb, vegetables (especially eggplant), and fish, all flavored with richly fragrant mountain herbs.

    With respect to the inhabitants of some other Italian regions, Calabrians have traditionally placed a greater emphasis on preserving their foods, in part because the heat and dryness of the mountains inland make crop failure a distinct possibility -- people plan ahead, packing vegetables and meats in oil,...MORE preparing cold cuts, and, along the coast, curing fish as well, especially swordfish.

    Calabrian food is also known as some of the spiciest in Italy; one of the best-known local specialties is 'nduja, a soft, spicy fresh salame that can be spread on bread or used in pasta sauces. The "bomba calabrese" is another popular local specialty, a searingly-hot chile sauce used as a condiment and ingredient.

    One of the dishes that sums up the Calabrian philosophy of food is " caviale dei poveri," or "poor man's caviar," made by packing herring roe in oil and flavoring it with hot peppers. A rich, frugal peasant tradition that combines simple ingredients to make lively, tasty foods.

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  • 05 of 07

    The Cuisine of Puglia (Apulia)

    Orecchiette pasta with broccoli raab, a classic Pugliese dish.
    Orecchiette pasta with broccoli raab, a classic Pugliese dish. Brian Hagiwara/Getty Images

    If you visit Puglia and drive north from Bari towards the Gargano Peninsula, you will pass endless olive groves. It's little wonder that olive oil should play a major role in the region's cooking, as do cereals and grains grown on the flat, stony plateau that extends south from Bari, reaching all the way to Taranto. Some of the grain becomes pasta -- Puglia is especially known for orecchiette, pasta whose shape brings the human ear to mind -- and some becomes bread; the bread of the town...MORE of Altamura is renowned, and throughout the region you'll find friselle, disks of dried bread to be dipped in water and topped with olive oil, capers, and freshly cut tomatoes.

    What else is there to enjoy? Fine cheeses and excellent lamb and kid -- Puglia was once one of the major shepherding regions of Italy -- and superb fish: the region boasts hundreds of miles of coastline, the water is crystal clear, and the catch is both plentiful and varied. Among the preferred vegetables are fava beans, lampasioni (a type of bulb), and eggplant. And to finish up, Puglia boasts some spectacular almond cakes and has excellent fruit; especially figs.

    As for wine, though Puglia was in the past known for supplying powerful blending wines to winemakers elsewhere, the region's producers have begun to attract considerable attention with the wines they bottle themselves. In particular, look for Primitivo, Salice Salentino, Negramaro and Nero di Troia.

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  • 06 of 07

    The Cuisine of the Basilicata Region

    A spiral of luganega sausage from Basilicata
    A spiral of luganega sausage from Basilicata. Peter Anderson/Getty Images

    One might expect the traditional cuisine of Basilicata to include a fair amount of seafood, given the region's long stretch of coast along the instep of the Peninsular boot. Not so; the inhabitants of Basilicata are called Lucani, which derives from Lucanus, or forest: Because of its inviting coastline Basilicata was often visited by raiders and colonists, and the local population, as a result, moved inland to the rugged highlands.

    As a general rule, the cuisine is fairly simple, with fresh...MORE meats and seasonal vegetables, as well as sausages and such, in particular, the Luganega, a long, smooth-sided sausage that was well known and highly admired by the Ancient Romans and continues to delight today.

    Olive oil is the fat of choice, while the predominant spice is hot pepper, locally known as diavulicchiu (little devil), frangisello (saddle breaker), or cerasella. Dishes made with hot pepper are often referred to as farmers' or shepherds' meals because hot pepper was so important in the rural diet.

    As for wines, Aglianico del Vulture, a powerful red that can also display great finesse, is drawing considerable, well-deserved attention from the wine press. Do try a bottle with a thick, hearty steak.

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  • 07 of 07

    The Cuisine of the Molise Region

    Soppressata and coppa hanging
    Soppressata and coppa hanging. Alan Fishleder/Getty Images

    Molise, Italy's second-smallest region, is almost entirely mountainous, except for a thin strip of coastline. This situation is reflected in the cuisine, which, inland, is derived from farming traditions, and largely based on seasonal crops, while pork is the meat of choice. The region's fresh sausages, seasoned with local herbs and aromas, are eagerly sought out by connoisseurs, as are soppressata and ventricina, cold cuts made from the finest parts of the pig.

    Along the coast, as one...MORE might expect, seafood predominates, in association with soups and risotti.