Driving off the ramp of the ferry after crossing the Straits of Messina, we entered the mysterious land of Calabria. Tales of the “miseria” (an era of hardship and famine) propelling the expulsion of entire families across the Atlantic made us think the landscape would be dry and infertile. What lay between Naples and Sicily had long been a mystery even since the days of the Grand Tour as this land was off the maps of most travellers. Whispers of bandits and mafia in this ancient land had historically frightened many off. Even today, guidebooks in Italian and English both are remarkably mute on the subject of Calabria.
Calabria is one of the two regions I had not yet spent any time in in Italy. We had been motivated to visit by one of my readers who had told us of cristalline waters and white sandy beaches and of the wonderful people. Our interest was further aroused by Calabria’s curious global dominance in rare citrus fruits such as bergamot (used primarily in Earl Grey tea and perfumes) and citron (hugely important for Jewish religious services at Sukkot and perfect specimens can command hundreds of dollars).
We were delighted and relieved to find a green landscape filled with kiwi vines growing in pergola style, ancient gnarled olive trees, cacti and mandarin trees. Passing the names of towns familiar in ancient mythology, we edged closer towards our destination, Tropea.
While Tropea is famous for its gleaming red onions which have a peculiarly delicate, sweet flavour and crunchy texture, the town is also known for its stunning scenery. There is one restaurant in particular that we enjoyed with an unparalleled view of the Santa Maria dell’Isola church called Pimm’s. Despite the British name, it serves upscale modern dishes making the most of local ingredients.
Many of the other restaurants we tried were more rustic in preparation but all featured fresh fish (particularly tuna and swordfish) and seafood flavoured with locally grown Tropea onions, citrus, oregano and chillies. In May and June, shoals of tuna swim past this part of the coast of Calabria and the area around Pizzo has been historically known for its high quality tuna processing and bottarga production (salted, cured and matured tuna roe). The local pasta shape, fileja, is served with everything from onions, tomatoes, tuna, bottarga, aubergine/eggplant and ricotta salata to ‘nduja.
At the end of October, we were lucky to find deserted beaches but we had also just missed the end of the ferry season with boats carrying people to see the Aeolian Islands in Sicily, including night tours of Vulcano‘s live volcano. We had been keen to see Panarea, which we were assured was a secret paradise. Alas, we must return. We did take a boat out along the Capo Vaticano coast for a morning and we had the pleasure of an animated captain and extraordinary scenery. Captain Anthony was quite an old sea dog but prepared the most delicious homemade pickled vegetables and insisted the only ‘nduja for him was the one by Caccamo.
Calabria is not only famous for its onions and citrus fruits but is the undisputed king of chillies (sometimes referred to jokingly as Calabrian viagra) on the peninsula. The Calabrian predilection for spice is unusual in a country with a relatively low threshold for spicy food. An iconic Calabrian product is ‘nduja, a spicy spreadable salami made in Spilinga, not far from Tropea. (See my previous post on my visit to the king of ‘nduja, Luigi Caccamo.) I also wanted to see the production of the local pecorino cheese, Pecorino di Poro, made with sheep and goat’s milk but did not manage to on this visit. More reasons to return. Mushrooms are another local product, particularly porcini, Caesar’s mushrooms, Red pine mushrooms and chanterelles. We saw men park their cars and sell crates of mushrooms out of the back of their car.
Delizie Vaticane makes various sauces and spreads combining the best of local peppers, onions, mushrooms and ‘nduja. We popped in to see what they were making and found some fiery concoctions which perfectly preserved the deep flavour of local ingredients.
We ventured further north along the coast to see one of the major historically important tuna production areas, where in May and June every year the tuna swim near the shore. We wanted to taste the wares of the artisan yet surly Rosa Fanulla and the more industrial Callipo. On offer were tinned and bottled prime cuts of cooked tuna in olive oil, including the highly prized ventresca (tuna belly) and tonnina (tuna fillet)) and bottarga (salted and cured tuna roe) for grating over pasta.
In nearby Pizzo Calabro, an attractive seaside town of some historic military importance, we sampled their famous “tartufo“, meaning “truffle” but is a ball of hazelnut and chocolate gelati with its core filled with chocolate and rolled in cocoa powder.
Aside from the dried oregano, dried chillies, jarred sauces, ‘nduja and jarred or tinned tuna to bring home, there are traditional sweets such as braids of dried figs, biscuits, ancient sweets and liquorice candies made by the prestigious Amarelli company. Need any more reasons to visit?
Places to visit:
Largo Vaccari, 51, 89861 Tropea VV
Tel: +39 345 589 6475
Located next to the top of the steps up from the beach, the terrace offers a great seaside view.
Recommended dishes: calamaretti penna alla griglia con crudité di pomodoro (grilled calamari with fresh tomato), ricotta calda con cipolle caramellate (hot ricotta with caramelised onions), pomodori secchi ripieni (stuffed dried tomatoes), orecchiette con vongole e broccoli (orecchiette pasta with clams and broccoli), filej con cipolla di tropea, ‘nduja e pecorino (filej pasta with Tropea onions, ‘nduja and pecorino cheese), tagliata di tonno pinna gialla tagliata con cipolle rosse e mentuccia (sliced yellowfin tuna with red onion and Roman mint)
Largo Migliarese, 2, 89861 Tropea VV
Tel: +39 0963 666105
A very elegant restaurant which serves dishes with a modern presentation using local ingredients. Reserve a table next to the window which overlooks the island and church. The wine list is quite good.
Recommended dishes: ravioloni di pesce con ragu di branzino al limone (fish ravioli with a fish ragout with lemon), tortino di bufala e gamberi con olio alle mandorle (timbale of buffalo mozzarella, prawns with almond oil), tonno con sesamo e puree di pisellli (tuna with a sesame seed crust on a bed of pureed peas), paccheri con vongole, calamari e cozze (paccheri with clams, calamari and mussels), tonno piccolo alla griglia (grilled whole baby tuna)
Pizzeria Vecchio Forno
Via Caivano, 20, 89861 Tropea VV
Tel: +39 340 297 4085
This pizzeria is very popular with locals and serves a Calabrian-style pizza (thick crust and generous with the toppings).
Fame Da Lupi
Largo Vaccari, 89861 Tropea
Tel: +39 347 074 0598
This is a fantastic pub with a passionate owner. They feature artisan beers and include really interesting southern Italian microbrews from Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily. Don’t miss the the Sicilian Timili brewed from ancient grains and the beer on tap from Basilicata.
Via Umberto I – 89861 Tropea (VV)
Tel. +39 0963/372653
Cell. +39 345/9809894
email: [email protected]
Boat tours to the Eolian islands can be arranged including visiting the live volcano on Vulcano at night.
Trattoria il Vagabondo
Contrada Marina Vescovado, Tropea
See the colourful Capitano Antonio at his restaurant on the marina for boat excursions along the coast.
Piazza della Repubblica, 18, 89812 Pizzo VV, Italy
Tel: +39 0963 531149
Sit back and enjoy the views over the sea to the left and across the vast piazza in front and to the right of you. Bar Ercole is famous for its tartufo (hazelnut and chocolate ice cream with a liquid chocolate core). They also have cakes, granite, spumoni and other flavours of gelati and tartufi.
Strada Provinciale 5, 21, 89812 Pizzo VV
Tel: +39 335 817 3379
Recommended dishes: gnocchetti con pesto di basilico, gamberetti e vongole veraci (gnocchi with pesto, prawns and clams), fileja con ventresca di tonno, bottarga e pomodorini del Pendulo (fileja pasta with preserved tuna, bottarga and baby plum tomatoes)
Via Provinciale S.Domenica di Ricadi
Tel: +39 0963 669523
Delizie Vaticane offers an amazing array of local ingredients as well as homemade sauces, braided Tropea onions, sweet and sour Tropea onion jam, biscuits, ‘nduja, pasta and more.
SS522, 11, 89812 Vibo Valentia VV
Tel: +39 0963 532304
This is a family run producer of tinned tuna (yellowfin and red), bottarga (dried tuna roe) and other local specialties (chillies, olives, fennel seeds, dried oregano, preserved aubergine or spicy anchovies) located on the road just south of Pizzo. They don’t seem enthusiastic to have visitors but do have a shop.
Lisa DeNunzio says
Calabria looks nothing short of exotic, fantastic and mysterious. My grandparents came from that area and I long to discover it. Thanks for such a detailed overview
You are very welcome Lisa. It’s definitely worth a visit. We are already planning to go back but this time further south.
Sabrina Martinez says
I love Tropea!!!
My friend Antonio, Trattoria Vagabondo!!!!
Amei Tropea!!! Lugar mais lindo do mundo!
Me too! Antonio was great- every part the capitano.