Calabria is the toe of Italy’s geographical boot. It borders Basilicata to the north and is otherwise surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. The tip of the toe is a mere 3 kilometres to the island of Sicilia (Sicily). Due to its strategic positioning with the two coastlines along the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, the region has been invaded time and again for centuries. Greeks, Romans, Teutons, Goths, Lombards, Franks, Sicilians, Saracens, French, and Spaniards have left a mark on the language and cuisine. Today it is known for its remarkable natural beauty, the mafia, a purple hued sea, Greek and Byzantine ruins, and agricultural tourism. Traditional local industries include silk, gold work, and textiles. From the woods and the meadows of the Sila and Aspromonte mountains to its beautiful white beaches, Calabria is a scenic place to visit.
The people are known for being fair and determined. In ancient times, Calabria was a place of great wealth. Today, like the other two southernmost regions, Basilicata and Puglia (Apulia), today, it is one of Italy’s poorest. The dialect spoken here is similar to the Sicilian dialect–not surprising considering that for centuries, Reggio has been the entry point for trade, cuisine, and ideas from Sicilia.
What to See
Along the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Coasts and the coastline at the toe of the boot, are splendid beaches, picturesque fishing villages, and well-preserved medieval towns, most notably Gerace, in the mountains of the eastern Aspromonte, and nearby Locri and Mammola. Don’t miss the Costa degli Dei, Capo Vaticano and Tropea and the the crystal blue sea of this spectacular part of the Tyrrhenian coast.
On the Ionian Coast of Reggio Calabria you can visit the ancient Greek colonies of Petedattilo, Crotone, Stilo, Rossano, and the ruins at Capo Colonna from the Magna Graecia period. Parco Nazionale della Sila (Sila National Park)–the treacherous Scylla of Homer’s Odyssey–is a plateau with forest, lakes, prairies, breath-taking towns along the slopes of the hillsides, remote mountain villages, birds and wildlife, and botanical gardens to visit. In Reggio di Calabria there is a good archaeological museum (Museo Nazionale Archeologico) where you can see the Riace Warriors (bronze warriors) from 5C BC and terracotta low reliefs.
Other scenic places to visit include: Altomonte (a hillside town with unforgettable Gothic architecture known for wild cardoons), Chianalea di Scilla (an old waterside fisher town known for zibibbo grapes, verdello lemons, and swordfish) and Morano Calabro (a stone town with a 15th century church (Chiesa di San Bernardino da Siena) that produces many cheeses).
Calabria has a rustic and fiery native cuisine based on local ingredients. But you can bring home fichi secchi ripieni / crocette / pallone (dried figs stuffed with lemon peel, almonds, and hazelnuts, sometimes covered with chocolate); pancilli (raisins with candied citron); mustaccioli calabresi (honey cookies); pastiddi or pastilli (dried chestnuts); cubbaita (nougat made from sugar and sesame seeds) or torrone gelato (chocolate-covered candied lemon, orange, and mandarin peel mixed with almond paste and sugar). There are also preserved tomatoes, olive oil, olives, dried chillies, ‘nduja (a spicy sausage), various spicy sauces, preserved wild artichokes, liquorice candies from Amarelli and honey.
Unlike most parts of Italy, spicy food is appreciated in Calabria. Chilli peppers (peperoncini) seem to find their way into most dishes. Just in case not enough chilli was added when the dish was cooked, a bottle of olio santo (literally, “holy oil,” but meaning, “chilli oil”) is present at the table so you can add it yourself. Seafood is enjoyed along the coast; pork and lamb in the interior of the region. Pork is a very important part of the diet here and is used in ‘nduja (a spreadable Calabrian salami). The slaughter of a pig is a cause for celebration, with all parts of the animal used.
Swordfish is also much prized here (as well as in Sicilia) and there is a swordfish festival in Bagnara Calabra in July. In this town, the men have erected a statue in honour of the female swordfish sellers (bagnarote) who historically travelled all over Calabria to trade the fish for oil, meat, wine, and cloth. Sadly, as swordfish swim in pairs, the tradition in swordfish fishing is to harpoon the female first as the male will not leave her side; he then becomes an easy second target. The fin of the swordfish is the most prized part and is eaten first. Tuna is also highly regarded and is expertly prepared fresh or preserved in jars and tins.
The soil in Calabria is excellent for growing many types of vegetables and fruit. The region is a major agricultural producer in Italy. Aubergine is the most iconic ingredient from Calabria, well loved by its inhabitants. Beans, such as lima beans and white beans, are also esteemed here and are typically cooked with vegetables. Red onions, a specialty of Tropea, on the Tyrrhenian Sea, are celebrated for their sweetness and are so mild, they can be eaten raw.
Various foreign rulers introduced new ingredients over time to Calabria. The Arabs first brought aubergine, artichokes, oranges, lemons, raisins, and spices. The Cistercian monks introduced dairy farming. The Calabrians have incorporated many citrus fruit into their cuisine, which are used to make marmalade, confectionary, and liqueurs, as well as perfume. Bergamot, used only in perfume, is a rare citrus grown here which makes a major contribution to the local economy. Calabria is a traditional producer of citron, venerated by Jewish people for use during the holiday of Sukkot, and perfect specimens can command up to hundreds of dollars.
Bread is very important in Calabria and historically, poor families depended on it to avoid starvation. Traditionally there are many religious traditions (pagan and Christian) intertwined with bread making to ensure that the bread turns out well. Small, flat rings of bread, called pitta, were added to the oven to bake at the same time as the loaves and these were offered to the gods. Today they are eaten with salt, olive oil, or filled with cheese.
Other local ingredients include tuna, garfish, sardines, anchovies, citron, mandarins, figs, prickly pear, watermelon, honeydew melon, sausages, pork, numerous cheeses (the most well-known being caciocavallo, provolone, mozzarella, and scamorza more detailed below), onions, dried olives, bay leaf, peppers, cipollizza / lampasciuoli (grape hyacinth bulbs), mushrooms (including porcini, ovoli, rosetti, and cantarelli varieties), trout, honey, cinnamon, cloves, anise, nutmeg, oregano, fennel, mint, snails, lamprey, olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, lamb, sambuco (elderberry), corbezzola (tree strawberries), chestnuts, liquorice, lupine (lupin seeds), and jujime (sea anemones).
The style of cooking in Calabria is simple but always very tasty. Traditional Calabrian cooking methods are roasting, grilling, baking, and skewering. The iconic dish of Calabria is melanzane alla parmigiana (fried aubergine layered with cheese and baked). Although originally from Campania, many southern Italian provinces make this dish, including Sicilia, Sardinia and Puglia. See Calabrian recipes here.
Calabria is one of the only regions in Italy where not only a big breakfast, but a savoury one is eaten. Most Italians famously have little more than a coffee and maybe some cookies or bread for breakfast and the thought of anything savoury would put them off. A traditional Calabrese breakfast dish is bread stuffed with murseddu (a spicy beef and pork liver and offal pate). Gelato is enjoyed all day long, including for breakfast, when it is sandwiched within brioche.
Other traditional Calabrian dishes include schiaffettoni (meat-stuffed rigatoni macaroni), sagne chine (a baked lasagne dish layered with meat and hard-boiled eggs), pasta cu’ ra muddica (pasta topped with flavoured breadcrumbs to imitate cheese), and capretto da latte allo spiedo (spit-roast kid goat). Desserts are not rich and usually consist of pastries, biscuits, or figs.
Suggested wines include red wine made from Galioppo grapes and Greco di Bianco, an extremely rare and ancient type of passito-style sweet wine. Look for Galioppo wine made in the DOCs of Cirò, Savuto, and Pollino by producers such as Librandi, Criserà, and Fattoria San Francesco. A good producer of Greco di Bianco sweet wine (careful as there is also a dry wine with the same name) is Cantine Viola.
What to Eat
A list of typical Calabrian dishes (the most classic dishes are in bold):
Salumi (Cold Cuts)
Many of the salumi are named after their place of origin and have been made since ancient times.
Capocollo di Calabria DOP (Cured, aged, rare-breed, pork salami with black peppercorns)
‘Nduja (sausage of spicy pork belly, cheek, and back fat)
Scarafuogli / Ciccioli (pork cracklings)
Soppressata di Calabria (cured, coarse-grained pork salami)
Frittelle di anemoni di mare (sea anemones, battered and deep-fried)
Frittelle di bianchetti (tiny whitefish, battered and deep-fried)
Involtini di melanzane sott’olio (grilled aubergine rolls filled with breadcrumbs, capers, anchovy, oregano, pennyroyal, wild fennel, and vinegar, sometimes with tuna, soaked in oil)
Parmigiana di melanzane alla calabrese (fried aubergine layered and baked with basil-flavoured tomato sauce, mozzarella, and pecorino or parmigiano-reggiano cheeses)
Primi (First Courses)
Brodetto di capitone (eel soup)
Brodu chinu (beef broth enriched with pecorino cheese, parsley, and breadcrumbs)
Bucatini con la mollica (bucatini pasta tossed with breadcrumbs, anchovies, pepper, and olive oil, sometimes with capers and olives)
Fileja alla ‘nduja / Filei alla ‘nduja (twisted hollow pasta combined with spicy sausage tomato sauce, topped with pecorino cheese)
Lagane al latte (tagliatelle pasta boiled in salted milk and served with the milk)
Lagane e ceci (chick-pea soup flavoured with garlic, rosemary, and chilli)
Licurdia (soup of Tropea onion, potato, carrot, and greens, such as escarole, chard, or lettuce, or can be made with only Tropea onion flavoured with chillies and parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino cheese)
Maccheroni alla calabrese (zite or tubular-type dried pasta baked with tomato sauce, prosciutto, parsley, basil, and pecorino cheese)
Maccheroni alla toranese (rigatoni pasta served with pancetta, onion, olive oil, chilli, and pecorino cheese)
Maccheroni con le sarde (dried tubular pasta with fresh sardines, garlic, raisins, and breadcrumbs)
Macco di fave (broad bean stew drizzled with olive oil and served with grated pecorino cheese and black pepper)
Mariola (lamb broth with lozenge shaped cuts of omelette made with eggs, parsley, basil, breadcrumbs or flour, and pecorino cheese)
Millecosedde (soup with porcini mushrooms, onions, celery, Savoy cabbage, chickpeas, grass peas, broad beans, lentils, pasta, and pecorino cheese)
Minestrone di fagioli, cavolo e patate (bean, cabbage, and potato soup)
Pancotto calabrese (sliced stale bread rolls in vegetable broth with pecorino cheese, sometimes served with egg)
Pasta con le melanzane (penne pasta with tomatoes and aubergine)
Pasta con stocca (bucatini pasta with stockfish [dried cod])
Pasta col tonno (spaghetti pasta with garlic, anchovy, chilli, parsley, and preserved tuna)
Pasta con l’uovo fritto (spaghetti pasta with fried egg)
Pasta cu’ ra muddica / Pasta con la mollica (bucatini pasta served with breadcrumbs flavoured with garlic and oregano)
Pasta della scozzetta (penne pasta with swordfish neck)
Penne all’ arrabbiata (penne pasta with a spicy tomato and garlic or onion sauce)
Perciatelli e lumache / Rigatoni con le lumache (rigatoni pasta with snails stewed in garlic, onion, chilli, and tomato, served with parsley)
Pitta arriganata con l’origano (flatbread with fresh sardines and oregano)
Pitta chicculiata (flatbread stuffed with preserved tuna, olives, capers, anchovies, and tomato)
Pitta coi pomodori (flatbread with tomatoes)
Pizza con ciccioli e uvetta / Pizza con ciccioli e uva passa (bread ring topped with pork crackling and raisins)
Pizza con fiori di sambuco (pizza with elderberry flowers)
Pizza con rosa marina (pizza with spicy fresh baby anchovy or sardine spread)
Pizza di maiyu (bread stuffed with pork cracklings, salami, ricotta and mozzarella or provola cheeses, and eggs or roasted tomatoes)
Rigatoni alla pastora (rigatoni pasta with ricotta, pecorino, and sausage)
Risotto alla calabrese / Riso in tortiera (baked rice mixed with meat sauce and layered with meatballs, mozzarella, hard-boiled eggs, pecorino cheese, and meat sauce)
Sagne chine / Pasta chijna (sheets of lasagne pasta layered with hard-boiled eggs, pork meatballs, roasted boneless pork chops, mozzarella, pecorino, and scamorza cheeses sometimes mushrooms, artichokes, and peas are added)
Schiaffettoni / Maccheroni ripieni / Maccheroni al forno (pasta tubes stuffed with a pork filling and topped with tomato sauce)
Vermicelli aglio e olio (vermicelli pasta served in an olive oil, preserved anchovy, garlic, breadcrumb, parsley, and chilli sauce)
Secondi (Main courses)
Alici a beccafico (fried fresh anchovies or sardines stuffed with pecorino cheese, breadcrumbs, oregano, parsley, and garlic)
Braciole di alici (breaded and fried fresh anchovy roll ups stuffed with pecorino cheese, breadcrumbs, oregano, garlic, and parsley
Capretto alla civitese (kid goat stew flavoured with chilli, tomatoes, herbs, and red wine)
Capretto alla silana (kid goat stew with onion, potato, oregano, pecorino cheese, and tomato)
Capretto da latte allo spiedo (spit-roasted kid goat)
Capretto ripieno (kid goat stuffed with pasta, lamb’s intestines, and herbs)
Carne alla pecorana (pork, veal, chicken, or lamb baked with onion, pecorino cheese, and garlic)
Cinghiale all’Aspromonte (roast wild boar saddle with bay leaves from the Aspromonte mountain province)
Frittata pasquale (Easter omelette with wild greens)
Involtini di pesce spada (swordfish rolls in tomato sauce)
Mursiellu alla catanzarese / Soffritto di maiale (pork stew with liver, tomato, chilli, and oregano)
Murseddu / Torta di carne (bread pie filled with a hash of veal liver, pork liver and offal, tomato sauce, and chilli)
Ova chi curcuci (fried eggs with fried pork skin)
Panzarotte (deep-fried or baked turnovers filled with chicken innards, parsley, egg, and pecorino cheese)
Pesce spada alla bagnarese (swordfish slices with olive oil, capers, lemon juice, oregano, parsley cooked in a bain-marie, sometimes with Tropea onions and sweet peppers)
Pesce spada in salmoriglio (swordfish with a sauce from lemon, parsley, oregano, garlic, and olive oil)
Stocco ammollicato (stockfish with capers, oregano, and breadcrumbs)
Stocco alla calabrese (stockfish cooked in a tomato, onion, and parsley sauce with potatoes, basil, and olives)
Stocco a ghiotta (stockfish with potatoes, basil and tomato sauce)
Tonno alla cosentina (fresh tuna with tomato, pickles, capers, and parsley)
Tonno alla reggitana (fresh tuna with onion, garlic, anchovy, tomato and parsley)
Tortiera di alici / Alici alla fuscaldese (fresh anchovies baked with breadcrumbs, olive oil, lemon juice, capers, green olives, garlic, and parsley)
Uova ca ‘nduja (eggs poached in tomato and ‘nduja sauce)
Contorni (Side Dishes)
Carciofi in tortiera (baked artichokes layered with potatoes, pecorino cheese, garlic, and olive oil and topped with breadcrumbs)
Ciambrotta / Ciambotta (a stew made from aubergine, potatoes, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, onions, celery, olives, parsley, basil, oregano, saffron, and sometimes, eggs)
Funghi grigliati (grilled mushrooms drizzled with olive oil and black pepper)
Insalata calabrese (a mixed salad of sliced green pepper, finely chopped Tropea onion, and sliced baked potato tossed with olive oil and salt)
Melanzane sotto sale (pressed aubergine preserved with salt, garlic, pepper, and fennel seed)
Melanzane fritte in umido (fried aubergine with tomato covered with pecorino cheese and scrambled eggs)
Melanzane alla finitese (breaded and fried aubergine sandwiching caciocavallo cheese and basil)
Pipi e patate (potatoes and peppers fried together)
Peperoni alla calabrese (fried sweet peppers with olive oil and raw tomatoes)
Pomodori ripieni (tomatoes stuffed with short pasta dressed in oil, parsley, and mint)
Sursuminata (scrambled eggs with tomato)
Bocconotti (mini pies filled with jam or custard)
Cannoli calabresi (crisp fried pastry tubes covered with honey)
Chinulille / Chinuchille / Chinule (deep-fried sweet ravioli filled with ricotta, lemon zest, and chocolate dipped in honey, sometimes with cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, chestnuts, candied fruit, and nougat; served at Christmas)
Cicirata (sweet deep-fried ravioli stuffed with chickpeas, honey or cooked wine must, liqueur, and spices)
Cuzzupa / Dolci Natalizi (Easter cake garnished with hard-boiled eggs)
Fichi ripieni alla Sibarita (dried figs stuffed with nuts and chocolate and preserved in sugar and spices)
Mostaccioli / ‘Nzudda / ‘Nzudde (pastry flavoured with honey, orange juice, and liqueur; said to bring luck)
Muccellato (Easter cake flavoured with lemon and orange zest)
Nepitelle (baked ravioli filled with raisins, almonds, chocolate, cooked wine must, cinnamon, and citrus fruit zest)
Pignoccata / Pignolata (honey-orange cookies)
Pitta ‘mpigliata (spiced fruit and nut pastry rolls)
Pitta della Madonna (orange, raisins, and nut cake)
Scalille / Scaledde (honey- or juleb-soaked fried spiral shaped pastries, served at Christmas)
Susumelle (chocolate coated gingerbread biscuits)
Torrone gelato (chocolate-covered candied lemon, orange, and mandarin peel mixed with almond paste and sugar)
Torrone di semi di sesamo (sesame candy)
Turdriddi / Gnocchetti ricoperti di miele (fried gnocchi covered in honey and orange)
Zeppole calabresi (doughnuts topped with icing sugar, cinnamon and sugar, honey and limoncello, or honey and raisins, traditionally served on Christmas eve)
Zeppole di S. Giuseppe / Cuculi (yeasted fritters topped with pastry cream and a cherry, a typical Italian dessert sold on the street on March 19th for St. Joseph’s day)
Butirro (soft cow’s milk cheese filled with butter)
Caciocavallo silano DOP (a cow’s milk, stretched curd cheese shaped like a bowling pin) This cheese has been made since the Middle Ages and is produced all over southern Italy in Calabria, Campania, Molise, Puglia, and Basilicata. This cheese is an important ingredient in pasta china.
Mozzarella (a soft, fresh, mild cow’s or buffalo’s milk stretched curd cheese found throughout the region that is eaten fresh and especially prized for its melting qualities in cooking)
Musulupu (fresh ewe’s and goat’s cheese from Reggio-Calabria during Easter time and is Greek-Albanian in origin)
Pecorino crotonese / Canestrato crotonese (a hard cheese made in Crotone and Rossano and Catanzaro Lido in the Sila area from a combination of ewe’s and goat’s milk) This cheese has been made since the second half of the eighteenth century. It is traditionally eaten at Easter with raw broad beans and red wine.
Pecorino della Vallata Stilaro Allaro (a hard ewe’s and goat’s milk cheese) This cheese is produced in the Upper Ionian area of Reggio Calabria.
Pecorino Monte Poro (a hard ewe’s milk cheese flavoured with olive oil and chilli made in Monte Poro as it has an abundance of grazing land for sheep)
Provolone (originated in Basilicata, it is a dried mozzarella shaped like a long sausage)
Ricotta affumicata di Mammola (a creamy, smoked, goat’s milk cheese produced in Mammola in a cylindrical shape with a knot at the end)
Scamorza (a dry cow’s milk curd cheese used in cooking or as an eating cheese, can be smoked or not)
Amaro del capo (liqueur made from mandarin oranges, anise, oranges, chamomile, juniper berries, liquorice, mint, and hyssops)
Bergamotto (bergamot liqueur)
Liquore di limoni (lemon liqueur)
Liquore di mandarini (mandarin liqueur)
Liquore di zagara (orange blossom liqueur)
Liquore di liquirizia (licorice liqueur)
Licurdia (a garlic, onion, and chilli spread often spread on toasted bread and covered with onion soup)