Southern Italian Cuisine

Southern Italian cuisine originates in the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia:

The Mainland – Southern Italian Cuisine

The mainland regions of southern Italy share a similar history and therefore exhibit some overlapping influences in their cuisines. Yet there are many distinctive features as well.

1. Abruzzo

Abruzzo has a long history which it shares with neighboring Molise, as the two were part of the same region until 1963. It has been known by a number of names since Roman times but the name Abruzzo has been used since the region became part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Abruzzo-Molise became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

The cuisine revolves around meat, vegetables and pasta, with lamb being a popular ingredient. Favorite spices include saffron and chillies, and the locals drink a spicy herbal liqueur known as 'centerbe'.

2. Molise

Like Abruzzo, Molise has been populated for thousands of years, and features a number of well-reserved Roman-era ruins, including an arena that rivals the Colosseum. The people are descended from the Samnite and Frentani tribes who successfully battled the Romans, but fell to the Germanic Goths in 535 AD and the Lombards in 572. They were annexed to the Duchy of Benevento, then invaded by the Saracens in 860 AD. After a period of incorporation by Apulia and later Abruzzo, Molise joined a unified Italy in 1861.

Agriculture is an important industry, producing broad beans, olives, potatoes, wheat and wine. Sheep farming is a traditional occupation, but there is little fishing. A high percentage of the population has university degrees. The cuisine is similar to that of Abruzzo.

3. Campania

The original inhabitants, members of three ancient Italian tribes, were colonized by the Greeks during the 8th century BC. By the 4th century BC, the region was part of the Roman republic. In the Middle Ages, Campania was ruled by the Byzantine Empire and Lombards, until 1130 when the Normans unified the small independent states of southern Italy into the Kingdom of Sicily. In 1282 French-ruled Campania became the Kingdom of Naples, but was later reunited with Sicily as part of the Two Sicilies under the Bourbons. It became part of unified Italy in 1860.

High-quality produce of Campania includes artichokes, citrus fruits, fennel, peppers, potatoes, spring onions and tomatoes. Fresh fish and seafood are plentiful. The region's pastas are made from durum wheat.

Neapolitan cuisine was transported to the New World with its immigrants. Popular Neapolitan dishes include pizza, calzone and spaghetti. Neapolitan cheeses include caciotta, mozzarella (buffalo), provolone and ricotta. Babà, pateria, sfogliatellae struffoli, and zeppole are popular desserts, and Campania is famous for its wide variety of wines.

4. Basilicata

The region was known during Roman times as Lucania, after invaders of the 5th century BC. The Greeks occupied both coastlines during the period of Magna Graecia but later allied themselves with the Romans. Eventually the Lucanians rebelled against Rome, were subdued for a period of time, then rose up again and contributed to its eventual fall in 88BC.

Basilicata was one of the least developed regions of Italy but has become significantly richer in recent times due to the discovery of oil.

Key ingredients of Basilicata's cuisine include pork, either roasted or made into sausages, mutton, lamb, pasta from durum wheat and spicy peperoncini. Amaro Lucano, a bitter digestif, is from this region, but consumed throughout Italy.

5. Apulia

Apulia was originally colonized by Illyric (Balkan), Italic and Greek settlers. It was later conquered by the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Goths, the Lombards, the Byzantines and the Normans. Under the Normans, Apulia became a province of the Kingdom of Sicily, then of the Kingdom of Naples. From the late 12th century, it was controlled during various periods by the French, Spanish, Austrians, Turks and Venetians. It became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Agricultural products include almonds, cereals, figs, grapes, olives and tobacco, and livestock (sheep, pigs, cattle, and goats). Fishing is plentiful and the region produces a large range of manufactured products. Like much of Italy, services and tourism are fast becoming the main industries of the region.

In the north, garlic, onions, fresh vegetables and legumes feature heavily in the diet. Dried pasta made from durum wheat flour is a specialty of the region. Apulia is also Italy's largest producer of olive oil. 

6. Calabria

The original inhabitants of Calabria were Oscan-speaking Italic tribes. But Greeks soon settled in the region and it later became part of Magna Graecia in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, during which time it prospered. Calabria was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, then by Goths, Byzantines and Arabs. In the 1060s the Normans incorporated Calabria into the Kingdom of Sicily. Calabria was then ruled from Naples until unification with Italy.

Calabria is traditionally an agricultural region, and crops include wine, citrus fruits, olives and chestnut, as well as the imported prickly pear cactus. Calabrian cuisine is typically southern Italian/Mediterranean, with an emphasis on protein (pork, lamb, goat and fish), pasta, fruits and vegetables. There is also a tradition of curing and preserving foods. Calabrian desserts are typically fried or baked. Some Calabrian vineyards have the distinction of dating back to the ancient Greek colonists.

The Islands – Southern Italian Cuisine

Italy's two large islands have likewise suffered tumultuous histories. Their experiences are similar yet the islands remain unique, in both their cultures and their cuisines.

7. Sardinia

Sardinia, the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, has been inhabited for many thousands of years, with human remains dating back to 250,000 BC. The Nuragic civilization dates back to 1500 BC and continued until the Roman era. The Shardana people from the eastern Mediterranean also settled in Sardinia and gave the island its name. Beginning around 1000 BC, Phoenician mariners established several ports of trade on the Sardinian coast. In 509 BC, the island became a province in the Carthaginian Empire and in 238 BC was annexed by the Romans.

During the Roman period, Sardinia was inhabited by the 18 distinctive peoples. Later it was conquered by the Vandals of North Africa, then reconquered by the Byzantines and settled by Iranian Alans. During the eighth century, Arabs and Berbers began raiding. After the Muslim conquest of Sicily in 832, the island was divided into four separate districts, which eventually became four independent monarchies. At various times, these fell under the sway of Genoa and Pisa. In 1297 James II of Aragon became the King of Sardinia and Corsica and many Sardinians still speak Catalan as a result. Sardinia was incorporated into the newly created Spain, joined a united Italy in 1861, but in 1948 was granted a constitutional autonomy, with its own regional government.

Rock lobster, scampi, squid, tuna, sardines and other seafood and fish figure prominently in Sardinian cuisine, along with suckling pig and wild boar, hearty stews of beans, vegetables and thickened with dry bread, and fresh herbs. Sardinians favor dried bread, which is served with tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic and strong cheese.

8. Sicily

The original inhabitants of Sicily are thought to be three distinct groups: the Sicani in the east (possibly from Spain), the Elymians in the northwest, thought to be Aegean (Greek-Turkish), and the Sicels (from Liguria) who forced the Sicanians to the middle of the island around 1200 BC. About 750 BC, the Greeks began to colonize Sicily, followed by the Romans, the Germanic Vandals and Goths, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the German Hohenstaufen Dynasty and the French Angevin Dynasty.

In 1282 an insurrection known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers resulted in the deaths of the entire French population. In 1302, Sicily was ruled by Spain, then the French House of Savoy, and the Austrian Habsburg Dynasty. Next came Charles of Spain and Napoleon's Bourbon Kings, until Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. 
All of these invaders contributed to Sicilian cuisine. The Greeks introduced varieties of olives and grape vines, and the Arabs brought oranges, lemons, pistachio and sugar cane.

The island produces a variety of noted cuisines and wines, to the extent that Sicily is sometimes nicknamed God's Kitchen. The ingredients are typically tasty yet affordable. Healthy savory dishes utilize locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, including apricots, citrus fruits, raisins, artichokes, aubergines, beans, olives, onions and tomatoes, eaten with fresh sea foods like tuna, sea bream, sea bass, cuttlefish, swordfish, sardines and octopus.

As in other regions of southern Italy, pasta plays an important part in Sicilian cuisine, as does rice. Sicily produces some unique cheeses, such as pecorino (from sheep's milk) and caciocavallo (from sheep or cows). Popular spices include saffron, nutmeg, clove, pepper, and cinnamon, some of which were introduced by the Arabs. Meat dishes include goose, lamb, goat, rabbit, and turkey, which gained in popularity during the Norman and Hohenstaufen periods.

Sicily is also famous for its sweets, ice creams and pastries. Cannoli, biancomangiare, biscotti ennesi, braccilatte, buccellato, ciarduna, pignoli, bruccellati, sesame seed cookies, cubbaita, frutta martorana, cassata, pignolata, granita and cuccìa are all Sicilian delicacies.

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