Southern Italy

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Southern Italy

For the purpose of this entry, southern Italy is defined as Rome and all areas south of Rome (see map). Many ethnic groups, such as the Greeks, Spaniards, and Arabs, have passed through southern Italy over the millennia and influenced its cuisines. Traditionally, southern Italians have been much poorer than their northern counterparts. The poverty of the south has resulted in unique regional cuisines that bear little resemblance to the dairy-based cuisines of the north. Rome, traditionally part of middle Italy, today has a cuisine more southern than northern in temperament.

Interestingly, the ancestors of most Italian Americans are from the South; the dire poverty of southern Italy led to large-scale emigration from regions like Campania, Calabria, and Sicily to the United States. It follows logically that Italian-American cuisine is mainly derived from the cuisines of southern Italy. Pizza, pastas with tomato sauce, organ meats, and eggplant-based dishes are all common components of both southern Italian and Italian-American cuisine. Southern Italy is a historically poor region, and so the population used what they had availableinexpensive ingredients like capers and olives, hot peppers, garlic, and anchoviesto create flavorful and unique dishes. Unlike the northern pastas from regions such as Emilia-Romagna, southern pastas are made without eggs and from harder flour and are often shaped rather than rolled, resulting in a chewier pasta like orecchiette ("little ears") from Apulia (Puglia) or conchiglie (shells) from Campania. These less-rich pastas need heavier sauces.

In the South there are few cows, so beef, butter, and cream are not part of the diet. The favored cheese is mozzarella di bufala, which is made here wholly or largely from buffalo milk (that is, the milk of the water buffalo, not that of the American bison), which has a distinctive taste. There are also goats and sheepyielding meat and cheesesand pigs and chickens. Lamb dominates mountain cooking. In the past, young spring lamb was reserved for important occasions such as Easter or weddings and baptisms, but today it is more common and often available year-round. Near the coasts, saltwater fish such as spigola (sea bass), orata (bream), and dentice (dentex, a fish related to the porgy), as well as a variety of shellfish and cuttlefish, are available.

Olive oil is produced around the Apennines and in southern Apulia, and is used all over the South. Suitable soil and temperature contribute to an abundance of vegetables and fruits, and many types of herbs are also produced. Eggplant is a major food item, as it grows better in the South than in the North and can be prepared in many different ways; melanzana, the Italian word for eggplant, derives from mela insana ("noxious apple").

Rome, Naples, and Sicily are places that non-Italians are familiar with; however, there are other regions in Southern Italy, and some of their food culture is also described here.


Rome is truly the Eternal City. Its rich and fascinating history includes the elaborate public and private feasts held by ancient Roman emperors. That said, modern Roman cuisine is actually quite simple and much influenced by other regions. Dishes are prepared simply with a few inexpensive ingredients. Antipasti are not elaborate, pasta sauces are quick to prepare, and there is a large variety of vegetables (especially leafy greens).

Historically, Rome was the place where cattle were butchered, and so Romans are famous for their use of the quinto quarto, or fifth quarter, the organ meats and parts of the cattle that were left over after butchering. Two famous Roman dishes, coda alla vaccinara, a stew of oxtail braised for a long time with celery, carrots, onions, tomatoes, herbs, and spices in white wine, and rigatoni alla pajata or pagliata, short, tubular pasta with beef or veal intestines in a tomato sauce, were born around the communal slaughterhouse in Testaccio.

A popular meat is lamb, which is usually roasted in the oven (abbacchio al forno ) and served with potatoes. Examples of other meat dishes considered very Roman are pollo alla Romana, chicken with red and yellow peppers; saltimbocca alla Romana (literally, jump into the mouth) made of thin slices of veal, prosciutto, and sage; and trippa alla Romana, which is tripe in a tomato and mint sauce.

Bucatini all'amatriciana (tubular pasta with bacon and tomato sauce) originated from country kitchens, where bacon, olive oil, and fresh tomatoes were plentiful. Fettuccine Alfredo is just pasta al burro (pasta with butter) from Alfredo's restaurant in Rome. Some other popular pasta sauces are cacio e pepe (pecorino cheese and pepper), carbonara (bacon, eggs, and pecorino and Parmesan cheeses) and arrabbiata (hot pepper and tomatoes). Gnocchi alla Romana are dumplings made of semolina, eggs, milk, and cheese. Spaghetti alla puttanesca (literally, spaghetti whore-style) is made with olives, anchovies, and capers.

There are also soups, all with some version of pasta in them, such as stracciatelle (literally, "little rags"), so named from the thin batter of egg, flour, and Parmesan that is poured into the chicken or beef broth used. Others feature herbs, such as lentil soup flavored with nepitella (wild mint) and bean soup flavored with rosemary. There are also minestra de ceci e pasta (soup with chickpeas and pasta) and zuppa di arzilla (fish soup).

Romans say it takes four people to make a proper salad: a spendthrift for the oil, a miser for the vinegar, a wise man for seasoning, and a madman for mixing. Panzanella is bread salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, basil, and dressing. A classic Roman winter salad is puntarelle, shoots of a particular variety of chicory with a bitter undertone, tossed with a dressing made with olive oil, anchovies, garlic, and lemon juice. Some salads are a mix of greens sometimes called misticanza, preferably with the addition of rughetta (also called rucola, rocola, and, as it is in English, arugula ). More recently tomatoes, shredded carrots, and even canned maize (corn) may be added to salads.

Artichokes are also seasonal and popular as in carciofi alla Romana (Roman style), which are stood upright in a pan as they cook with garlic, mint, parsley, and an abundant drizzle of olive oil. Another famous preparation is made from romanesco artichokes, which are round and lack a spiny choke. These reach gastronomic heights when prepared alla giudia (Jewish style), in which the artichokes are flattened and deep-fried to look like golden sunflowers and their leaves have a delicious nutty crunchiness. This dish has contributed to the fame of the restaurants in the Roman ghetto.

Also popular in Rome are such stuffed vegetables as tomatoes stuffed with rice and mozzarella, or zucchini stuffed with chopped meat. Then there are vegetables, mainly greens, that are prepared all'agro (with a lemon-juice dressing) or in padella (stir-fried).

Rome is partial to frying: fritto misto (mixed fry) can contain shrimp and calamari (squid); or artichoke and brain; or different cheeses; or a mixture of vegetables; or supplì al telefono, a croquette of rice with mozzarella cheese in the middlewhen one bites into it the mozzarella flows out in long threads, as in a telephone cord. The famous fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers) are stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy and dipped in batter before frying. Cod is also batter-dipped and fried (baccalà filetti).

Pecorino romano and ricotta are the most favored cheeses. Ricotta, a soft sheep's milk cheese, is prepared inside wicker baskets.

Rosette (hollow, very crisp rolls) are very characteristic of Rome, as is casareccio, a chewy, peasant-style bread.

Favorite desserts in Rome are fresh fruits, especially strawberries from Nemi (a town on the outskirts of Rome), or macedonia (fruit salad). Many other popular desserts have originated elsewhere, such as tiramisu (literally, "pick me up"), made of mascarpone (a very creamy, soft cheese, typically made from cow's milk), ladyfingers, coffee, and other ingredients specific to the home or restaurant; torta de la nonna (cake with custard and pine nuts); panna cotta (boiled cream), served with a variety of toppings, such as berries, chocolate, and caramel; profiteroles (mounds of little cream puffs drizzled with chocolate); and gelato (ice cream) in flavors such as lemon, coconut, orange, and pineapple, frozen and served in a container made of the skin or shell of its source.

Examples of foods reserved for specific festive occasions in Rome are lentils with cotechino and zampone (varieties of pork sausage), served on New Year's Eve; porchetta (roast stuffed pork), traditional at the festival of Noantri in Trastevere; pan giallo, a fruit-and-nut cake served at Christmas; bigne di Giuseppe (fried doughnuts), filled with cream or chocolate eaten for Father's Day; and maritozzi (raisin buns), traditional for Lent.

Campania and Naples

Naples has long guided the gastronomy of the region and its cooking has had the most influence on the way non-Italians regard Italian food. It is said that the true Neapolitan is poor, but likes to eat well and is proud of the invention of three of the tastiest food items: pizza, tomato sauce, and macaroni. Poor immigrants exported Neapolitan cuisine, rich in tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, and black olives, to the United States and elsewhere. As meat and seafood were out of reach for the poor at home, the transported cuisine used more meat but fewer vegetables; the classic Italian-American dish, spaghetti with meatballs, for example, is not common in Italy. Immigrants also used more garlic and oregano.

But Naples was a kingdom that in the households of the nobility also had a refined cuisine that required extensive effort; a simple ragù (sauce), for example, took many hours to prepare. The master of the kitchen of the noble palaces was the monzu (a term derived from the French monsieur ), a combination of cook and artist, revered and respected by all. He was responsible for the preparation of elaborate and rich court cuisine with dishes like braciolla (stuffed beef roll), mozzarella in carozza (fried mozzarella sandwich), and timballi of pasta or rice with eggplant, cheese, and tomato. Desserts like baba (a cake made of yeast dough with syrup) and sfogliatelle (literally, "little sheets"flaky pastry wrapped around sweet items) were lavish and unusual. Spumone, an ice-cream confection in strips of colors, is also native to Naples.

The cuisine of Campania and of Naples is rich in vegetables and pasta, often layered in casserole dishes. But the Neapolitans also prepare refined seafood dishes such as zuppa di vongole (clam soup), or spaghetti con le vongole in salsa bianca (with clams in white sauce), or cozze in culla (tomatoes stuffed with mussels and a mixture of capers, chopped parsley, oregano, and bread crumbs). A Neapolitan dish still eaten at home is minestra marinata, made with pork fat and boiled greens. The richness of the soup depends on the economic conditions of the family; this was the basic daily meal until the arrival of pasta.

The people of Naples were the first to accept the tomato from the New World, at a time when other Europeans believed it to be poisonous.

Arguably, Naples's biggest contribution to world cuisine is pizza. Royalty played an important role in the development of pizza: For example, pizza Margherita reflects the three colors in the Italian flag (basil for green, cheese for white, and tomato for red) and was created specifically for King Umberto I's consort, Queen Margherita. Queen Maria Carolina, the moody and autocratic wife of King Ferdinando I of Naples, offered pizza to her entire court.

In the towns of Campania, including Naples, life takes place in the streets. In the working-class districts of Naples, the streets seem to consist of one long outdoor food shop. This tradition has roots in the past when people spent most of their days outdoors. Housing was cramped and uncomfortable, but the weather was warm, very conducive to outdoor living. Even today, one can observe that people spend much time in bars or in piazzas or just sitting on chairs in front of their doors. Until 1800, all kinds of food were eaten outdoors, including macaroni, pizza, and seafood. There was the macaroni vendor, for instance, who scooped out pasta from huge cauldrons and for a few pennies more offered it with tomato sauce or with boiled polpi (octopuses) served in a cup with their steaming fragrant broth.


Sicily, the Mediterranean island in the sun, close to North Africa, enjoys strong Greek and Arab influences. Its cuisine, specifically its cooking style, has influenced the food culture of Italy and of other parts of the world. On the eastern side of the island, the cuisine is sober and mild, avoids sweet and sour tastes, and is less generous with sugar in sauces; whereas in the western part of Sicily, the influence is Saracen, with strong contrasts and flavors. It is thus not surprising that one of the specialties of Trapani, a seaport in northwestern Sicily, is cuscusu (couscous).

The dish more people associate with the island than any other is caponata, a cooked eggplant delight consumed cold and made with a number of ingredients such as celery, capers, anchovies, chilies, olives, tomatoes, and vinegar. It comes in many varieties; some are purely vegetarian, whereas the Palermo version can also contain fish.

Eggplant dishes are definitely favored in Sicily, as are tomatoes and pasta. Pasta varieties are abundant and are often baked into timballi (timbales); the most famous of these is timballo di anellini, made with ring-shaped dried pasta, balsamello (béchamel sauce), ground beef, chicken, peas, and vegetables, all wrapped in lettuce leaves and baked in a mold. A local specialty is spaghetti con sarde (with sardines), often prepared with raisins and nuts as well. Sicilian pizza is usually thicker than other varieties, and has anchovies. The fish of the Adriatic Sea are different from those of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and in Sicily there are swordfish from the warm water.

Sicilian cuisine has its own terminology: arancini (literally, little oranges) are fried balls of rice, meat, and grated cheese; quaglie (quails) are eggplants sliced open and fried in oil; and falsemagre (false thins) are meatballs made with salami, hard-boiled eggs, parsley, and other ingredients. Eggplant dishes are often given the appellation Norma, as in spaghetti alla Norma.

The cheese-making tradition in Sicily is very important. Cheese is a nourishing food that can be processed at the household level and is easily transported and preserved. That is the reason for the heavy reliance on cheese by poor people. Some of the favorites are pecorino Siciliano, a cheese with a hard consistency that is made from the ewe's milk and is aged and salted; Ragusano, a pear-shaped cheese made from cow's milk, which received its name from the practice of suspending the cheese from a beam with a cord; caciocavallo Palermitano, similar to Ragusano but having a pungent odor and a piquant flavor due to the type of grass eaten by the cows; tuma, pecorino before it has been salted; and primosale, salted only once (provola is a smoked version).

Ricotta is made from fresh ewe's milk and is extensively used in Sicilian cooking. Salted and baked ricotta cheeses have been developed in response to the need to preserve them. Canestrato owes its name to the pattern created by the wicker baskets in which it is pressed. It is made from ewe's or cow's milk and probably originated from attempts to make pecorino, for which it can be substituted in cooking.

Sicily exceeds all the other regions of Italy in its abundance of sweets, fruits, and ice creams. Candied fruits, sweets made with almond paste, and ice cream are available everywhere. Cassata (brick-shaped sponge cake filled with ricotta, candied fruit, and marzipan) may be the most famous of Sicilian desserts. Many of the recipes for Sicilian sweets come from monasteries, and until the turn of the twentieth century their entire production went to the clergy and to Sicily's aristocrats. Some recipes remain a mystery: the nuns of Santo Spirito, for example, refuse to reveal their secrets for making the sweet dessert they sell at their convent in Agrigento, or at the orphanage in Erice. Fortunately, these traditional sweets live on during the religious festivals such as Easter, when desserts made from almond paste in the form of fruits, sheep, and patron saints are sold.


Apulia is a region in southeasternmost Italy producing wheat and a variety of vegetablestomatoes, artichokes, lettuce, fennel, peppers, and onionscitrus fruits, olives, almonds, figs (some dried with almond flavoring), and grapes. Add to this a sea full of fish, as well as fields for grazing, and the result is a variety of ingredients that can easily be combined into a sumptuous cuisine.

Homemade pasta is found in unusual shapes like the orecchiette traditionally paired with broccoli rabe, or cavatelli (literally, little plugs). For Sunday dinner a favorite is maccheroni al forno (baked macaroni), a pie filled with little meatballs, sliced hard-boiled eggs, pieces of artichoke, salami, and cheese. Ciceri e tria is composed of fried pasta strips with chickpeas.

Since the sea surrounds three-quarters of the area of Apulia, seafood products are abundant and popular. Sea turtle, oysters, mussels, cuttlefish, and octopus are cooked in simple ways, sometimes even eaten raw in the markets. The dominant meat is lamb, roasted, stewed, or even fried. Gniumerieddi are lamb innards cooked with pecorino cheese. Beef is used for either meat sauce or small meatballs, possibly because in poorer times the only cattle to be slaughtered were old and produced tough steaks.

Due to the popularity of lamb and the enormous flocks, cheese made from sheep's milk is very popular, including fresh ricotta and pecorino. A typical snack of this region is the calzone (literally, big sock), pizza dough spread with onions, black olives, capers, tomatoes, pecorino cheese, anchovies, and parsley; closed and pinched around the edges; and baked in the oven.

Homegrown yellow and white melons, sweet watermelons and grapes, and cotognata, a quince concentrate, are considered appropriate choices for ending a meal.

Abruzzi e Molise

Most of the great cooks of Italy come from the region of Abruzzi, where the fame of the local cooks, who were often highly sought-after by nobles living in other parts of the kingdom, began in the sixteenth century. This geographical area is known for strong flavors: peperoncino (hot red pepper) is used to flavor many dishes, and a favorite sauce for pasta is aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil, and hot red pepper), which can be heavy going for those not accustomed to spicy food. Alla chitarra (guitar-style) is a well-known pasta named after the utensil used for cutting it.

Ideally, the cuisine of Abruzzi is divided between that of the sea and that of the mountains. The first has the classic brodetto (fish stew of many different fish) as a principal dish. Other dishes include fried fish and fish in sauces served with pasta, as well as freshwater fish, such as mountain trout and river shrimp. Lamb is the popular meat: agnello all'arrabbiata (literally, angry lamb) is a favored spicy entrée. Pizza sette occhi is a dessert in which the pastry strips resemble seven eyes.

Among the unique dishes of Molise is p'lenta d'iragn, a white polenta made with potatoes and wheat, and served with tomato sauce. Scamorza (a cheese similar to mozzarella) is a popular item from the region and is usually served grilled.

Basilicata and Calabria

Basilicata is known for spicy cuisine: as its inhabitants were poor, they made their fare more interesting with the use of spices, such as ginger. Sausages in some parts of northern Italy are still called by an old name for Basilicata (lucania or licanica or luganega ), and so are some pasta dishes, such as cavatelli alla lucana with mushroom and sausage, or cavateglie e patate, pasta and potatoes with a ragù of rabbit and pork. Pasta dishes are often named after towns, such as orecchiette alla Materana (a town in Basilicata), which has a sauce made of vegetables and arugula. Other pasta dishes are frequently served all'arrabbiata.

In Calabria, pizza is called pitta (flat) and is served without tomatoes; ciambotta (big mixture) is a vegetable stew of eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions; morseddu (little morsel) is a traditional breakfast dish of pork-tripe stew with liver and herbs served in a pitta; licurdia is onion-and-potato soup; and millecosedde (thousand things) is a soup of dried beans and vegetables with pasta.

See also Pasta; Pizza.


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Cuoco Napolitano. (New York, Pierpont Library, MS Buhler 19). Critical Edition and English Translation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Judit Katona-Apte

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Southern Italy

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Southern Italy