Calabrian food is one of Italy’s most distinctive cuisines, having endured centuries of invasions and colonisers and immigrants that have included Greeks, Romans, French, Arabs, and Spaniards, all of whom have had an influence on the spicy Southern Italian cuisine.
Every region of Italy has its own signature dishes and local ingredients that give something like pasta a regional bent, and none more so than Calabria, the southernmost region of Italy, which forms the sole and toe of the boot-shaped country.
Discovering Calabrian food is a highlight of a trip to Calabria. While there are many dishes that are ubiquitous across Italy, such as pasta and obligatory appearance of pizza, nearly every Italian dish can be traced to a region of Italy, and the food of this southern Italian region is some of the most distinctive.
Calabrian Food Guide – What to Eat and Where to Eat It in Southern Italy’s Spiciest Region
Central to Calabrian food and other cuisines of Italy’s south, is the notion of cucina povera or ‘peasant cooking’, where you make do with what you have, from making pasta from chestnut flour to utilising every bit of an animal that is slaughtered – which explains the popularity of dishes with tripe.
As with many great cuisines, the inventiveness borne from the necessity of nose to tail cooking, along with preserving, has made Calabria’s hearty and spicy cuisine distinctive from that of neighbouring Sicily and regions to the north, while all the time remaining quintessentially Italian.
This apparent simplicity disguises the creativity that the Calabrians have applied to Calabrian food, as well as just how healthy the Mediterranean diet is, with its fantastic olive oil and fresh vegetables and fruits as key components. But at its soul, Calabrian food is, above all, rustic, hearty and honest.
Foreign invaders have had a huge impact on Calabrian cooking, as well as the cooking of Sicily, just across the water. The Arabs brought spices, some fruits, and some argue, pasta, to the area. There are also traces of French, Jewish and Spanish influences evident in the cuisines of Calabria and Sicily.
Herbs, Spices and Chilli
The main thing that sets Calabrian cuisine apart is the use of spices and herbs. Aniseed is used to flavour desserts and liqueurs. Capers, preserved in brine or salt are staple ingredients. Fennel is used in cooking and to flavour sausages, as are black peppercorns.
Chillies – red, green and yellow chilli peppers – are eaten fresh, chopped up and tossed into salads, while peperoncini (hot red peppers) is ubiquitous. Every household has a good supply on hand.
Local chillies come in various shapes and sizes, but are generally very spicy. They’re used fresh, dried or preserved in olive oil, and flavour everything from cured meats to pasta sauces, and make a brilliant chilli oil.
While the sausages are hot, nothing quite compares to ’nduja, a fiery pork sausage paste generally spread on toasted bread with a drizzle of olive oil – it’s not for those who don’t like it hot. It’s also used in pasta sauces and spread on pizzas – often used sparingly as a little goes a long way.
The Bounty of the Sea and Land
Given Calabria’s long coastline, fish from the sea, typically swordfish (spada) and tuna (tonno), dominate plates in the region, from carpaccio to preserved and pickled in jars, tossed in pasta, or eaten simply grilled or as a ‘steak’, fish is on almost every menu.
Anchovies also feature, often used directly from the jars where they’ve been preserved in the wonderful local olive oil. Even fish roe is preserved and bottarga (dried tuna roe) is a specialty served as an appetiser or in pasta. Drying fish to preserve them is very popular and you’ll see dried cod (baccalà) on menus, often in pasta or as part of a salad.
The slaughtering of a pig is traditionally a big occasion in Calabria where throughout the region’s history famine was a constant companion. As a result, what can’t be eaten is preserved, either made into sausages or into types of hams.
Along with the usual cuts, soppressata, a dry cured pork sausage is a specialty, as is the Calabrian version of guanciale, made from cured pork cheek and pepper. It’s traditionally used in pasta dishes.
Aubergines or eggplants (melanzane) are omnipresent – once again preserved, as well as grilled and stuffed – and are a feature on nearly every menu. This is only matched in popularity by the onions of the Tropea region, which are sweet and tasty. Legumes such as beans and chickpeas are used for hearty soups and pastas.
Vegetarians can eat well in Italy, with menus featuring plenty of pizzas and pastas that don’t contain carne (meat) that are just as tasty as those that do. Grilled vegetables and salads, as well as bean dishes, are readily available and are delicious, however, vegans will find it harder going.
Preservation and Pickling
While Calabria is all sunshine and smiles at the beach during summer, for the farmers of the region it is a harsh place to grow crops. The unforgiving climate means that nothing goes to waste when nature is kind, so preserving food here is an art form.
The shelves of delicatessens in Calabria are crammed with jars of vibrant preserved peppers, olives, eggplants, dried tomatoes, red onions, capers, and fish such as tuna and anchovies.
One of the reasons these taste so fantastic is the local olive oil used to preserve them, however, ask any Calabrian and they’ll say the best preserves are the ones made by their mothers, but you’ll need to score an invitation to try those.
Calabrian Cheeses, Sweets and Desserts
Cow cheeses are wonderful, such as the delicious caciocavallo, which is excellent fresh, but also fabulous grilled. Figs and nuts feature heavily as well, as do all types of melons.
Calabrian desserts also feature local figs, as well chestnuts. Don’t miss Calabria’s gelato as well as its famous tartufo – chocolate and hazelnut gelato sprinkled with cocoa powder, with a chocolate fudge or sauce centre. Also look out for fried pastries and baked biscotti-style biscuits abound, such as ’nzudda.
The Most Delicious Calabrian Food Destinations
Camigliatello Silano’s local specialties include mushrooms, particularly the local truffles and porcini mushrooms, which come in all forms, from truffle pastes and oils, along with smoked cheeses, prosciutto, preserves, and Calabrian wine. The town is home to a 50 year-old October wild mushroom festival, Sagra del Fungo, held in October each year and one of Calabria’s finest restaurants, La Tavernetta in Camigliatello Silano, which serves up a tasting menu of heavenly truffles and porcini mushrooms during the season.
Along with beautiful beaches, the unique local cuisine and great dining scene are reasons to linger in Tropea, if you don’t make it your base for exploring Calabria, that is. No other town has so many superb restaurants, from cheap family pizzerias with rickety wooden tables set up in the alleyway, to more elegant trattorias serving freshly caught swordfish and other exquisitely prepared regional specialties.
In the hills above Tropea, you can learn how to cook authentic Calabrian food with Marianna in her charming country home, a few minutes from town, and then enjoy eating the meal you’ve cooked washed down with local wine. Hotel pick-up and drop-off included. See www.initalytours.com.
Catanzaro is not short of eateries – there are numerous trattorias and pizzerias (several set in gardens) along the waterfront, oodles of gelato places, and countless café-bars – there’s just nothing that is outstanding, and many offer up the same unadventurous menus.
Being by the sea, fishing has always been a mainstay of the economy at Amantea and foodies will love Amantea’s fantastic shops specialising in preserved treats, such as anchovies in different types of olive oils.
Altomonte and the surrounding fertile valley has become an important centre for agriturismo and farm stays. Make sure to buy some of the award winning olive oil and wine from here, both of which are fantastic and are easily among Italy’s best.
The northern Tyrrhenian seaside town Diamante has a grey-sand beach and grand pastel-coloured buildings and a weekend market that sprawls along the pleasant waterfront. Diamante is famous for its spicy peppers and sausages and the stalls here sell delicious preserves in jars. Also popular with the locals is a van selling hot panini with spicy aniseed-tinged sausages, potatoes and mayonnaise.
Calabrian Food Guide – Where to Shop, What to Buy and Where to Feast
Shopping and Markets
Compared to the rest of Italy, Calabrian food markets are bit more modest, but you’ll still find Calabrians are frequent shoppers of local markets and also like to pick up fresh produce at a roadside stall or their favourite local fruit and vegetable shop.
There are superb delicatessens and wine shops, especially in popular destinations such as Tropea, where you’ll find wonderful local wines and specialty products.
Preserves and wines make the best gifts and souvenirs and are the least likely to cause problems with overzealous customs officers on your return home – unlike the delicious cheeses and cured meats, which can be a problem.
Calabrian Food Souvenirs – What to Buy
Peperoncini or chilli peppers are a typical product of which all Calabrians are justifiably proud and you’ll see handicrafts markets bearing the red chilli pepper, from vibrantly painted ceramic plates and chilli-shaped ceramic salt and pepper holders, to extravagant Murano-like glass chandeliers dripping with tiny red peppers and decorative bunches of red glass peppers.
If there’s one Calabrian souvenir you’ll see all over the region it’s that of a ceramic figurine of a Calabrian woman in a long traditional skirt covered in red peppers, holding a red pepper-shaped plate upon her head as she might have held a basket. It makes a cute memento.
The best Calabrian souvenirs are without a doubt the edible ones, and all over region you’ll find fantastic shops specialising in Calabrian products. Look for shop signs that say Prodotti Tipici Calabresi.
These include vegetable preserves (sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers), peperoncini (dried, preserved in olive oil, and in paste and sauce form),’nduja (Calabria’s unique, spicy, chilli sausage paste), red Tropea onions (hanging in pretty bunches, or as a jarred relish or mousse), fungi porcini (Porcini mushrooms), miele (honey), biscotti (typical crunchy Italian biscuits), and of course, dried pasta.
You’ll also see radice di liquirizia (raw liquorice), which is liquorice in its natural form – it looks like a bunch of small dried twigs – as well as Amarelli’s famous flavoured pastels in retro tins, liquorice syrup-centred chocolates and liquorice liqueurs. While many shops sell Amarelli’s delicious products, the gift shop at the factory and museum in Rossano has the widest range of liquorice products.
Other alcoholic souvenirs include Greco di Bianco, a famous liqueur made from the Greco grape from Bianco near Reggio di Calabria, Passito Moscato, a very sweet dessert wine, and Limoncello, which is more typically associated with the island of Capri and the Amalfi coast.
The citrus fruit bergamoto or bergamot is another Calabrian specialty that comes in many different forms, including bergamot-flavoured cake and biscuits (berghiotti), Bergamot liqueur, and of course, Bergamot perfume. Look for the classic Bergamot cologne in the retro packaging – it’s an old-fashioned fragrance in the style that our grandmothers used to dab on their wrists.
Calabrian Food Souvenirs – Where to Shop
The narrow cobblestone streets of Tropea and Pizzo are crammed with shops overflowing with these delectable goodies. The best in Tropea, if not the region, is Pane e Sale meaning Bread and Salt (Via Stazione 1).
The knowledgeable English-speaking staff will offer you tasty morsels to try of some of the most mouthwatering and most interesting treats you’ll find in Calabria including biscotti flavoured with pepper and chocolate and fragrant honey scented with pepper, acacia or Fiori della Calabria (Calabrian flowers).
In Pizzo, the shelves of Museo del Peperoncino (Via San Francesco) are crammed with similar typical products, as is the tiny shop in Reggio di Calabria called Pizzimenti (Via Giulia 13) and in Morano Calabro, Sapori e Gusti Mediterranei (Via Martiri della Liberta 2/1).
In Camigliatello, the long main street is dotted with shops selling preserves, wines, cheeses and cold cuts, the latter of which you’ll find vacuum-packed for safe transportation home. Rossano, Gerace, Cosenza, and Crotone are also terrific places to shop.
Harvest and Seasonal Gastronomic Festivals
As you’d expect in a region that is agriculturally rich and where food is such an important part of everyday life, seasonal gastronomic festivals to celebrate the harvest of a certain crop – called sagre in Italian – feature heavily on Calabria’s calendar.
Seasonal festivals celebrate every kind of produce, from mushrooms to potatoes, swordfish to strawberries, and also celebrate the slaughter of an animal. Following the slaughter of pigs in January, for instance, many towns celebrate La Sagra di Maiale, the Pork Feast, where families prepare whole roasted pigs and other pork-based dishes that the village community enjoys together.
During Calabria’s seasonal harvests even the sleepiest villages come alive with food festivals, community celebrations and street processions.
Calabria Food Festival Calendar
Calabria’s calendar is crammed year-round with festivals, as well as other traditional holidays and events. While summer is the busiest time for the region, when the beaches are crowded with Italians taking advantage of Calabria’s splendid beaches, it’s also a great time for food festivals.
Dates can shift and events can be postponed from one year to the next, so check with the town’s ProLoco tourist office before planning a trip around an event.
Sagra del Maiale (Festival of Pork), a Bocchigliero
Sagra della Salsiccia e delle Polpette (Festival of Sausage and Baby Octopus), Acri
Pasqua (Traditional Easter processions), Catanzaro, Gerace
Sagra della Sguta (Festival celebrating Sguta, local sweet pastries), Siderno
Sagra delle Arance (Festival of Oranges), Trebisacce
Gran Fest del Pane (Festival of Bread) Altomonte
Festival della Birra (Festival of Beer), Marina di Gioiosa Jonica
Pasta Festival, Vibo Valentia
Swordfish Festival, Bagnara
Festival del Nduja (Festival of the Spicy Sausage Paste), Spilinga
Sagra della Cipolla Rossa (Red Onion Festival), Tropea
Sagra del Pesce Azzurro (Blue Fish Festival), Cirò Marina
Sagra del Pesce Spada (Swordfish Festival), Bagnara Calabra
Festival del Peperoncino (Festival of Peperoncino), Diamante
Festa del Cioccolato (Chocolate Festival), Cosenza
Sagra del Fungo (Mushroom Festival) and Chestnut Festival, Camigliatello Silano
Sagra dell’Uva e del Vino (Wine Festival), Donnici
Potato Festival, Camigliatello Silano