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 one hand, it is the poorest part of Italy; 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 an extremely luxurious 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. The South is known for shepherding, and lamb and goat meat are more common than in much of Northern Italy, though beef is also used. Seafood also plays an important role in the local diet, particularly in coastal areas.

    The growing season is much longer and hotter in the South. Popular summer crops include eggplant and tomatoes, many of which go into red sauces. In the winter months, broccoli raab and cauliflower come to the fore.

    Southern cheeses tend to be firm, such as caciocavallo and provolone, though there are a few exceptions, like Campania's fresh mozzarella and Puglia's burrata.

    Additionally, 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 Campania

    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 have emigrated in the last century. The Campania city of Naples is the home of pizza, as well as many kinds of durum wheat pasta (including spaghetti), and their accompanying tomato-based sauces.

    The region has also given us lasagna with ricotta, eggplant parmesan, Italian wedding soup, carne alla pizzaiola, struffoli, and pastiera Napoletana. Many local specialties are tied to holidays, and the area has contributed greatly to the popularity of the Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes.

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

    Though beef is sometimes used, lamb and pork are more common in Campania. 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. 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 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 for being something of a wilderness. Inland, it is mostly rugged mountains and valleys, and the primary economic activity has historically been shepherding.

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

    Local specialties include lamb and mutton, pecorino and goat's milk cheese, olive oil, wines, hot peppers, and saffron, which has always been grown for use in medicines and dyes but is now being used in the kitchen.

    Like most peasant cuisines, it's quite simple and 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

    The Cuisine of Calabria

    '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, vegetables, and fish, all flavored with richly fragrant mountain herbs. Pork, lamb, eggplant, and swordfish are common ingredients.

    Calabrians have traditionally placed a greater emphasis on preserving their foods, in part because the heat and dryness of the inland mountains make crop failure a distinct possibility. People plan ahead, packing vegetables and meats in oil, and preparing cold cuts. Along the coast, locals cure fish as well.

    This region's food is also known as some of the spiciest in Italy. One of the best-known local specialties is 'nduja, a soft, spicy fresh salumi that can be spread on bread or used in pasta sauces. Bomba calabrese, a searingly-hot chile sauce used as a condiment and ingredient, is another popular local specialty.

    One of the dishes that sums up the Calabrian philosophy of food is caviale dei poveri, which translates to "poor man's caviar." It's made by packing herring roe in oil and flavoring it with hot peppers, a peasant tradition that combines simple ingredients for lively, tasty results.

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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 plays 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 that grain becomes pasta–Puglia is especially known for orecchiette, or ear-shaped pasta–and some becomes bread. The town of Altamura is renowned for its bread, and throughout the region you'll find friselle, disks of dried bread rehydrated in water and topped with olive oil, capers, and freshly cut tomatoes.

    Puglia was once one of the major shepherding regions of Italy, leading to a reputation for fine cheeses and excellent lamb and kid. The hundreds of miles of coastline generate superb fish, with a catch that is both plentiful and varied. The preferred vegetables include fava beans, lampascioni bulbs, and eggplant. The area also boasts some spectacular almond cakes and has excellent fruit, especially figs.

    Though Puglia was previously known for supplying powerful blending wines to winemakers elsewhere, the region's producers have begun to attract considerable attention with those 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 Basilicata

    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. Conversely, because its inviting coastline led to visits from raiders and colonists, the local population moved inland to the rugged highlands. The inhabitants of Basilicata are called Lucani, which derives from Lucanus, or forest.

    As a general rule, the cuisine is fairly simple, with seasonal vegetables and fresh meats, some of which are turned into luganega, a long, smooth-sided sausage dating back to ancient Roman times that is still popular today.

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

    The local wine of choice is  Aglianico del Vulture, a powerful red that can also display great finesse. Try a bottle with a thick, hearty steak.

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  • 07 of 07

    The Cuisine of Molise

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

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

    Along the coast seafood is more predominant, used in soups and risotti.