By Michelle Fabio
Southern Italy's food—or at least exported, re-created versions of it—is known the world over because so many southern Italians have emigrated elsewhere over the past century or so. But not every dish or dessert travels well. For certain foods, you simply must try them where they're made best: their land of origin, whether it’s Abruzzo, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Puglia, Sardinia, or Sicily. When you visit any of those places, you must try these southern Italian foods or you’ll be missing the full experience.
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana
Most mozzarella on the market is made from cow’s milk, but not the real-deal Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), which can only be labeled as such if produced under certain conditions from buffalo’s milk in Campania, southern Lazio, Puglia, and Molise. Yes, water buffaloes roam the southern Italian countryside, and fresh mozzarella made from their milk is extraordinary.
Many dairies invite visitors to watch the msermerizing cheese-making process in person. Here’s the quick version: Workers chop blocks of milk curd, knead the chunks with hot water and salt for about 15 minutes, and then twist them into various shapes such as balls, braids, and knots. The best way to taste authentic mozzarella di bufala is on its own with a drizzle of olive oil or perhaps accompanied by fresh tomatoes.
Gina Tringali/Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine
Sfogliatella Santa Rosa
The filled sfogliatella pastry is well-known in Naples, but its precursor was this cream- and raspberry-topped version from the Amalfi Coast. The Sfogliatella Santa Rosa was created in the early 17th century in Conca dei Marini’s Monastery of St. Rose of Lima, where a nun came up with the perfect mix of semolina, milk, lemon liqueur, and sugar to fill a white wine- and lard-enriched pastry shell folded into the form of a nun’s headpiece. She then topped it with cream and raspberries. A century and a half later, the nun’s secret recipe fell into the hands of Pasquale Pintauro, who tinkered with it to invent ariccia (curly) version—triangular, layered, and crunchy. Eventually, the frolla (round) sfogliatella arrived on the scene.
Meat kebabs are hardly unique to Abruzzo, but there’s just something special about the region’s signature arrosticini. This hearty treat comes from the shepherds of the mountains of Abruzzo, especially from Carpineto, Civitella Casanova, and Villa Celiera. As with so much of southern Italian food, arrosticini were born of necessity and the desire to leave nothing edible wasted.
For traditional arrosticini, 1-inch cubes of mutton are stacked on 4-inch skewers. Skewers may also be loaded with meat of different sizes interspersed with pieces of sheep or goat fat for tenderization and flavor. The meat skewers are then grilled over an open flame. Crusty bread and a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo are optional—but highly recommended.
Valerie Fortney-Schneider/My Bella Basilicata
Basilicata is home to the peperone di Senise, a sweet, thin-skinned pepper with IGP (Identificazione Geografica Protteta) status, which permits only those peppers grown in a specified area and under certain conditions to be called Senise peppers. They're used in many ways: stuffed, grilled, dried, and added to soups, eggs, or potatoes—but perhaps the most popular are peperoni cruschi.
In late summer, peppers are strung up on ropes outside to soak up the last of the season’s sun. The sun-dried peppers are then fried in olive oil and these salty, crunchy, puffy strips can be tossed with pasta and bread crumbs for a traditional, rustic, satisfying meal. Or you can simply snack on them with a glass of Basilicata’s DOCG Aglianico del Vulture Superiore, a local red wine.
Red Onions of Tropea
Calabria’s Tyrrhenian coast from Amantea to Nicotera (you can read our feature about that area) features some of Italy’s most picturesque beaches, and it’s also the zone that produces the Cipolla Rossa di Tropea IGP, the sweet red onion you didn’t know you were missing in your life. The Tropea red onion gets its name from its purplish skin; it stains your hands reddish-purple while chopping. The flavor is mild and sweet, perfect in a tomato and cucumber salad. For a true Tropea taste, red onion marmalade spread on bruschetta is divine.
Calabria’s open-air markets sell Tropea red onions by the bunch—either the small, barely purple cipollotti with green tops or the more robust, deep purple cipolle da serbo intrecciate with their papery tops. Buy more than you think you need. You’ll want them.
Alice Wiegand/Wikimedia Commons
‘Nduja (n-DOO-yah) is Calabria’s spicy, spreadable salami that has become trendy especially in foodie circles, but its origins couldn’t be simpler. ‘Nduja is from Spilinga in the province of Vibo Valentia and is traditionally made with meat scraps from a pig’s head, fat, skin, salt, and a whole lot of peperoncino—Calabria’s infamously hot chili pepper. The mixture gets stuffed inside part of the pig’s large intestine and then smoked.
’Nduja is mainly used as a spread on bread but can also accompany eggs or pasta or serve as a pizza topping—any way you like. Today, industrial ‘nduja makers, especially those outside of Calabria, use far more meat in the mixture, but if you want the only DOP ’nduja in the world, get thee to Spilinga!
Puglia’s most famous pasta is orecchiette, the "little ears" heard 'round the world. They are small and circular with thicker outer rims like ears and they taste best freshly made, though dried versions can be respectable as well.
As with all pasta-making, experience and ability make all the difference in quality, and that is why having a plate of orecchiette made by the pros in Puglia is highly advised. The most popular dish featuring these little ears is orecchiette alle cime di rapa (broccoli rabe). In certain parts of Puglia, you may also see orecchiette dishes with tomato sauce, little meatballs, or a dusting of ricotta forte cheese.
Tomislav Medak/Wikimedia Commons
To the naked eye, burrata may appear to be mozzarella, but your tastebuds will set things straight quickly. Burrata pugliese hails from the Andria area and was probably invented to use up its more famous cousin’s scraps. But what sets burrata apart from mozzarella is its soft, creamy interior made from stringy curd and fresh cream (called stracciatella) encased in a soft, spongy outer layer made with mozzarella curd. Then it’s all tied in a knot at the top.
Burrata is another southern Italian food that has become all the rage among international gourmands, but it doesn’t travel well. Yes, a version can be made outside of Puglia, but there’s just nothing like savoring a freshly made burrata as it melts in your mouth while you’re admiring the Adriatic.
Pana ca’ meusa
One of Palermo’s classic street foods is pana ca’ meusa, a beef spleen sandwich served with a slice of Sicilian lemon and caciocavallo cheese. If you like calf’s liver, you’ll probably also enjoy pane con la milza, as it’s known in Italian; the taste and texture are similar.
The origins of the sandwich are disputed, but one legend says that during the Middle Ages, Jewish butchers boiled offal with lemon and salt and sold the results on the street. Around the same time, the city’s Arab population was serving up ricotta-and-caciocavallo sandwiches. These two traditions combined, it is said, around the time of the Inquisition. Today you can find the best spleen sandwiches around the port of La Cala and Piazza Marina.
Pasta alla Norma
Sicilian cuisine uses eggplant in several delectable dishes such as caponata and parmigiana, but nowhere does aubergine star more prominently than in the island’s signature pasta dish, Pasta alla Norma. As is often the case in southern Italian cooking, the ingredients are simple: sautéed or fried eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, ricotta salata cheese, and basil—but the results are pure Sicilian comfort food.
Legend has it that the dish was created in Catania and named for the heroine in Catanian composer Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, Norma. You’ll find variations throughout Sicily, but one thing remains certain: Pasta alla Norma is a veritable diva in Sicilia.
Porceddu sardo—roasted suckling piglet—is a Sardinian tradition at large gatherings. If you know porchetta, this is a similar idea, but porceddu sardo PAT (Prodotto Agroalimentare Tipico) must be milk-fed and the preparation is different as well. Although some purists believe in seasoning porceddu sardo only with salt, others stuff the piglet with a mixture of meat and various herbs such as rosemary and fennel.
It’s then roasted on a spit over an open fire built with juniper, myrtle, olive, or oak wood, which may also include other aromatic accents such as thyme, oregano, bay leaves, apple wood chips, and more. Total cooking time is around three and a half hours. The truly traditional way, though, is to cook the pig in a pit covered with coals, myrtle, and juniper sprigs. Good luck trying this delectable preparation anywhere outside of Southern Italy.