20 Steps to Becoming an Italian Foodie: Calabria

by Glenda Janssen and Maria Meyer

Calabria, the cradle of Magna Graecia and land of ancient settlements, is full of splendid churches, monasteries, castles, palaces and towns where age-old traditions still survive.

The region is well-known for its beaches, some paradisiacal white sand coves, others rocky outcroppings in a glittering sea. And the region’s gentle mountains start their ascent right at sea level, so you can get to a good altitude within a half-hour drive at times.

Cliff at Tropea (credits: Wikimedia - Blueshade)

Cliff at Tropea (credits: Wikimedia – Blueshade)

Calabria has a rich and complex history, with many invasions and occupations, and this is reflected in its dialects and culture. On top of that, some areas are isolated and hard to reach, and have developed parallel to the rest of the region. So, for instance, Calabria has towns where they still speak Greek–a language that developed from Ancient Greek independently from modern Greek, and is now its own unique language.

Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America, which was the largest nationality of “new immigrants.” These immigrants, mostly artisans and peasants, represented all regions of Italy, but mainly came from the Mezzogiorno, Southern Italy. Between 1876 and 1930, out of the 5 million immigrants who came to the United States, 4/5 were from the South, including the Calabria region. For this reason, many Italian-Americans have family roots from this region and may already be familiar with some of the food customs and preparations typical of Calabria. In fact, some of the “staples” of Italian restaurants in the US feature components that are readily found on any Calabrian table such as breads, cheeses and pastas with a hearty, meaty sauce.

What You Should See There

One of the most beautiful places in Calabria is Capo Vaticano. Its name may come from the fact that people were transfixed by the beauty of the cape to the point of having transcendent experiences. The cape itself is made of white rocks jutting into the sea, and creating little grottoes, coves, and beaches with light sand. It is a great place to snorkel–due to its proximity to the island of Stromboli (an active volcano), the water sparkles with tiny bits of pyrite and mica, fish and algae are plentiful, and the rocks create interesting underwater formations. Many of the beaches also have particularly warm water due to the fact that the rock formations protect the bays from cold currents.

Mt. Stromboli has been in almost continuous eruption for the past 2,000 years

Mt. Stromboli has been in almost continuous eruption for the past 2,000 years

Tropea is another gorgeous beach destination of Calabria. It is also known for its particular type of red onion which many locals take great pride in. When traveling in the region, you can find these onions in savory jams, pickled in jars and some gelaterie even offer gelato made from them.

The largest and most contemporary towns of the region are Reggio Calabria (at the very tippy toe of the boot and near the mainland gateway to Sicily, Villa San Giovanni), Catanzaro (the Capitol city of Calabria, near the Ionian Coast) and Cosenza (once known as the “Athens of Italy” and today home to the largest university campus in the country).


Aspromontano Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What You Should Eat There

With farmland sparse in Calabria, every viable plot is typically cultivated to its greatest advantage. Tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, artichokes, beans, onions, peppers, asparagus, melons, citrus fruits (particularly the arancia calabrese, also known as bergamot, a very fragrant orange grown only in Calabria), grapes, olives, almonds, figs and mountain-loving herbs grow well in the area. Calabrians tend to focus on the high quality of their ingredients so that virtually everything picked from a garden is useable and worthy of praise.

Bring Calabria to Your Kitchen Table

Calabria produces a fourth of the country’s olive oil. It is used extensively, not only for Calabrian cooking but also for preserving food such as mushrooms, vegetables and fish. So while the onion and hot peppers of Calabria get plenty of justified praise, I wasn’t surprised at all to receive a bottle of olive oil as one of my assignments for the region. The Aspromontano Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a great oil for everyday use – I’ve been pairing it with balsamic vinegar on salads – but it went especially nicely in this recipe for roasted cauliflower with capers and olives. I cut back on the capers a bit because I find them to be a bit overpowering but upped the level of red pepper flakes because I like a fair amount of spice. And since Calabria is famous for its hot peppers, a little extra heat seemed appropriate.


Amarelli Liquirizia all’Anice

Many an abandoned field in Calabria is overgrown with licorice plants. In itself, the plant is unassuming and uninteresting, but its roots have a delicious sweet flavor in the same family of anise and fennel. Pure licorice is about 30 to 50 times sweeter than sugar, and has a complex taste that is heightened by anise. Not surprisingly, the Amarelli Liquirizia all’Anice I picked up from Eataly contains anise flavor. These tiny candies are made of pure licorice, without the addition of any sugar or other ingredients we are used to find in American licorice candy, and the flavor is intense and slightly bitter. You definitely want to taste these one at a time, and the flavor will pleasantly linger for quite some time.

@ItalyFoodies: Join Our Discussion-What’s Your Take

1. Which authentic Calabrese ingredients are a staple in your kitchen, and why are they irreplaceable?
2. Why do you think Calabrian cooking is so simple and unfussy?
3. How does Calabria’s rough and varied terrain affect the flavors of its foods?



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