Southern Italy

Tomatoes from these regions are canned and shipped all over Italy to be used for cooking.

Southern Italian Food vs. American Italian Food

Much of what Americans consider to be Italian cooking has its origins in Southern Italian Cuisine, having been brought over by immigrants from the South of Italy in the early to mid 20th century. Unfortunately, American excess has transformed the authentic versions of this food into something that little resembles its origins.

As Italian food became increasingly popular in the U.S., more and more "red sauce joints" began serving dishes with ridiculously large portions smothered in tomato sauce and cheese. In recent years, this has started to reverse course, with chefs and cookbook authors reintroducing Americans to authentic Italian food as a whole, including the diverse and elegant cuisine that is actually enjoyed throughout the South of Italy.

The Regions

Southern Italy is made up of six regions on the mainland: Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Puglia, Molise, and Abruzzo, plus the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The food of these regions has been heavily influenced by different cultures that have occupied them throughout history, such as the Greeks, Spaniards, and Arabs. Although Southern Italy was historically poor and a good portion of the food started out as cucina povera (peasant food), it has evolved and fused with the richer diet of the nobility into an ample cuisine that still retains the character of the land.

Properly Prepared Pasta

Unlike pasta in the Northern regions, Southern Italian pasta does not include egg. It is also not hand rolled. However, there are a few exceptions, such as ear-shaped Orecchiete from Pugila, Cavatelli from Campania and the Maccheroni alla Chitarra of Abruzzo. Tomato-based sauces are frequently used, including these classics: Spaghetti Puttanesca, a specialty of Campania, which includes tomatoes, olives, capers and anchovies, and Sicilian Pasta ala Norma, made with tomatoes, eggplant and Ricotta Salata cheese.

The most popular preparation for orecchiete in Puglia is tossing it with olive oil, garlic and broccoli rabe. Pasta con le Sarde is a typical Sicilian dish that showcases the Arab influence in the food: pungent with sardines, pine nuts, currants and anchovies.

Fruits, Vegetables and Olive Oil

The growing season is longer and hotter in the South, so fruits and vegetables are abundant.

Eggplant is ubiquitous; Eggplant Parmigianna may be the most well known preparation of this ingredient. The methods for preparing eggplant are endless, especially in Puglia. Olive trees dot the landscape and olive oil is the preferred fat for cooking (butter is used in the North). Great olive oil is usually associated with Tuscany in Central Italy, but Puglia, Calabria and Sicily produce extra virgin olive oils that rival any region. The volcanic soil of San Marzano in Campania is home to the finest tomatoes in the world for making sauce.

Tomatoes

The volcanic soil of San Marzano, in Campania, is home to world-famous tomatoes that are grown specifically to be used in sauces. The other main areas that produce tomatoes are Sicily, Calabria, Sardinia, and Puglia. These tomatoes are canned and shipped all over Italy to be used in cooking.

While a sauce made from the right variety of fresh tomatoes grown in one's own garden and plucked when just ripe would be ideal, most people don't have that luxury, and even if they do, it is only possible a few months of the year. Quality canned tomatoes are far superior for sauce than fresh tomatoes found in the supermarket aisles, which are grown for uniformity and long shelf life.

Southern Italian Meats

There are few cows in Southern Italy, so sheep, goats and pigs dominate these mountainous regions. Basilicata is known for its pork sausages -- both fresh, Lucanica and dry cured, Sopressata.

Traditional Cheeses

Sheep's milk cheeses are prevalent throughout the South, with some of the best examples coming from the island of Sardinia, including a larger percentage of Pecorino Romano than in Lazio, it's region of origin.

Seafood Dishes

You can expect to find an incredible array of seafood throughout Southern Italy. Naples and the beautiful Amalfi coast in Campania are known for incredibly fresh dishes including: Spaghetti with Vongole (tiny clams), Pesce all' Acqua Pazza (fish in crazy water), and sea bass gently poached in water flavored with garlic, herbs, tomato, salt and a pinch of hot pepper. As you would expect from an Island, Sicily contributes many unique seafood dishes including Involtini di Pesce Spada (swordfish rolls stuffed with typical Sicilian ingredients such as capers and olives or pine nuts and currants). Brodetto di Pesce (fish stew) is a specialty of Abruzzo.

Pizza, Southern Italy Style

Naples the capital city of Campania is the birthplace of pizza.

There are strict requirements for pizza to be truly authentic Pizza alla Napoletana. Among other criteria, the dough must be made with Italian type 00 flour, the pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven at over 900 degrees for no more than 90 seconds and if using cheese, fresh Buffalo Mozzarella, a specialty of the region, must be used.

In actual practice, pizzerias in Naples use cow's milk mozzarella, called Fiore di Latte, as a matter of course, but will replace it with Mozzarella di Bufala on request. Buffalo Mozzarella is more typically eaten fresh (within hours of being made) on its own or in a simple Caprese Salad with tomato, extra virgin olive oil and basil, a sublime example of how great food need not be complicated.

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