Arm and arm, dressed all in black, an assemblage of elderly gentlemen solemnly circled Crotone’s central piazza speaking to one another in low, hushed tones. It was dusk, but in the distance you could still make out the deep blue waters of the Ionian Sea. My partner Paolo and I had just finished our evening meal and decided to get a little exercise before turning in for the night, so we walked from the restaurant to the nearest piazza, inadvertently joining this mysterious group as they shuffled though their after-dinner constitution. We nodded as we passed each group and they, in response, tipped their dark fedoras to acknowledge our greeting. So formal and respectful. It was a living echo of another age.
“Where are the women”, I asked. “Home. Cleaning up. Where they should be,” answered Paolo with an ironic grin on his face. “Don’t you know, we’re in southern Italy? The only women who venture out at night are women of an entirely different nature, and in an entirely different profession!”
I never knew when Paolo was kidding. “Oh, great, I said, so they think I’m one of them!”
“Without a doubt. But high class and in expensive heels”, he countered.
This truly was the Deep South.
I had nagged Paolo for months to join me on a trip here, arguing that I needed to visit all of Italy’s 20 regions if Convito was to label itself a “Regional Italian Market.” This night we were in Crotone, Calabria, our first overnight stop on a hastily planned weekend trip where we would visit the regions of both Basilicata and Calabria. Basilicata is described as the geographic “instep” of Italy, while Calabria is the “toe” and both were considered two of Italy’s poorest regions. Paolo never had much desire to visit either place. He was neither enamored of the south, nor did he have much experience travelling there, thus he would be exploring with fresh eyes like mine, not in his usual role as teacher “superiore.”
We began the journey flying to Bari, Puglia, where we rented a car and drove straight to Basilicata. Our first stop was the city of Matera, a dramatically situated town built into a canyon that is most famous for its ancient section, the “Sassi di Matera” (meaning “stones of Matera”). The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself. They are cavern-like dwellings and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in all of Italy. It all looked so biblical that I almost expected to see some character in a long flowing robe, tunic and rope sandals come out of one of the caves. Hollywood obviously agrees. “King David” starring Richard Gere was filmed here as well as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”.
In fact I learned later that Hollywood has partnered with the Italian government and UNESCO to aid in the restoration of these ancient cave-dwellings. Many of the caves have since been transformed into new cozy abodes, restaurants and even bars while (hopefully) still maintaining the integrity of this 9,000-year-old village. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Not only is Basilicata one of Italy’s poorest regions but it is also one of the least populated. Craggy and mountainous, I mostly remember this region as unspoiled and wild. Its cuisine is a rural one. Wanda and I had cooked many of the dishes from both of these regions back in her Milanese apartment the month before our trip. They were hearty and deliciously rustic – rooted in peasant traditions. The kind of cuisine I love.
Pigs are very much a part of Basilicata’s food culture and Wanda advised me to order something with the local pork sausage as a main ingredient. Stopping for lunch at a very plain looking restaurant in the newer section of Matera, I scoured the menu for a dish with sausages in it and took her advice. I settled on “Salsicce con Lenticchie” – lentils being another common ingredient of the region. The sausages were flavorful – just the right amount of spice – but the lentils were plain and lacked any kind of interesting flavor or point of view, much like the restaurant itself to be honest. I was certain our next restaurant choice would be different. I was determined that we would find the perfect southern menu in the perfect rustic setting before we left these two regions.
Paolo made what turned out to be a wise choice and ordered a simple plate of local cheeses and salami. Most memorable was the soppressata, a dry-cured salami, the caciocavallo, a type of stretched-curd cheese made out of sheep’s milk and a Cacioricotta cheese made with mostly goat’s milk and some sheep’s milk. Good crusty bread and a glass of the region’s most famous wine, Aglianico del Vulture, completed his lunch. We learned from our waiter that the wine was grown in the nearby rich volcanic soil of the now extinct volcano Mount Vulture. It was a dry red – harmonious and slightly tannic. I ordered a glass for myself and stole some cheese and salami from his plate and salvaged the meal for myself.
Convito chef Noe Sanchez and I developed a sausage and lentil stew based on a Basilicata recipe for this blog. The lentils in this dish are very flavorful unlike the ones I had in the Matera restaurant. We added kale to give it a more modern point of view.
Sausage and Lentil Stew
With sautéed Kale
1-cup lentils cooked in 1 ½ cups water until al dente – set aside
1# Italian sausage placed on a baking sheet with ½ cup chicken stock baked in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes – set aside
1-tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces pancetta diced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup diced onions
¾ cup diced carrots
¾ cup diced celery
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1-tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup red wine
1-½ cups chicken stock
In a large sauté pan, add olive oil with pancetta and brown well – approximately 8 minutes.
Add garlic, onion, carrots and celery. Sauté for another 5 minutes until soft. Add rosemary and tomato paste. Stir into mixture.
Add red wine and reduce – approximately 3 – 5 minutes
While the wine is reducing, slice the browned sausage into diagonal ½ inch pieces.
Add reserved sausage and lentils to the mixture with 1 ½ cups chicken stock. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
1 cup kale rinsed and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a small sauté pan, sauté the kale in the olive oil over high heat for approximately 3 minutes.
Place the stew in bowls with a dab of sautéed kale on top
After lunch we left Basilicata and crossed into Calabria, the deep, blue clear sea on our left and the wheat colored hills sprinkled with green underbrush on our right. The landscape reminded me of Greece. It was late afternoon and the light at this time of day was a happy light, soft but still strong enough to sparkle off the sea. As we drove further into the hills we passed several lakes and a heavily wooded area with a dense coniferous forest looking very much like Switzerland. Already I had been reminded of two entirely different countries. The scenery in this region I would find during our short stay to be very diverse and very beautiful.
Calabria is a long narrow mountainous region surrounded by two seas – the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian. Sections of rich agricultural land are interspersed with a combination of heavily wooded forests, wind swept barren plateaus and mountain ranges each with their own distinct flora and fauna. Its rugged terrain, frequent earthquakes, poor communication systems and lack of industrial growth have all hindered its economic development. For decades those factors – plus the widespread corruption of a criminal organization called ‘Ndrangheta – have prevented this region from flourishing. ‘Ndrangheta’s criminal activities include extortion, drug-trafficking, kidnapping and money-laundering. Though not as widely known as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra or the Neapolitan Camorra the ‘Ndrangheta has at times been the largest crime syndicate in Italy and today is considered among the most powerful in the world.
“Stay close”, Paolo would warn. “They don’t have many blonds in this region. You might be their next abduction!”
Crotone had seemed like a logical choice to stay the night: a centralized spot allowing us a day trip to Reggio Calabria and as well a drive around some of the stunning area lakes. We quickly found our hotel. It would be an understatement to say that our accommodations were disappointing. We considered searching for a new hotel as soon as we entered the lobby but it was too late and we really didn’t know the area. The dirty grey interior wrapped itself around us changing our mood immediately. We decided to take a quick shower and search for a place for a drink and dinner. This time, we hoped, with more luck!
As we headed to our respective rooms, we exited the elevator to see the floor of the hallway lined with dirty cups, saucers and plates outside of each room. “No room service here”, Paolo said. “Just floor service!”
We stayed in the hotel only as long as it took to change clothes and get cleaned up for the evening. My body tends to retreat in places like this. I found my toes curled completely under my feet while I was taking a shower. For some reason placing my whole foot on the shower floor seemed more risky? No logic there! We met in the dirty grey lobby. It was too early for dinner so we tried without success to find a bar. Neither of us had the slightest desire to go back to the hotel to rest and since it was too early for dinner we decided to take a drive out to the sea. We passed several big factories along the way their chimneys of smoke polluting the air and further dampening our mood.
Crotone was a harbor on the Ionic Sea. Although it did have a few historic monuments – Greek columns, castle ruins and of course a cathedral like every other town in Italy – it seemed to feature all the disadvantages of a big city (traffic, pollution, filth) but none of the advantages. Where were the good restaurants, bars, and culture?!
We did eventually find a restaurant – another plain, drab place like the one in Matera – and we, unfortunately, had another below average meal; lukewarm orechiette in a thick, pasty tomato and cheese sauce followed by a sadly wilted lettuce salad with limp, pale, flavorless tomatoes on top. Oh, for some good Calabrian food. I was sure it was here somewhere!
“This place,” said Paolo referring to the restaurant, “was built by an architect specializing in squalid buildings!” We were to see much of his work during this trip.
Amazingly Paolo discovered a piano bar following our after-dinner-constitution walk with the dark fedora strollers. Once again, the room was filled with men all wearing bored expressions – especially the piano player who was just simply awful. A few women sat at the periphery of the bar and I shuddered to think of why they were here (and what that meant for who everyone assumed me to be!). This whole day was feeding Paolo’s negative feelings about the south. At one point he lamented, “I should have listened to my father (a die-hard Northern Italian) who explicitly told me to never take someone you like south of Lodi! A little excessive, I thought, since Lodi was only 30 kilometers south of Milan!
We left our hotel and Crotone early the next morning and drove along the sea (the other side now) on the Tyrrhenian coast and saw some lovely scenery but Paolo convinced me to skip Reggio-Calabria and head back to Puglia for the night. The next day we would fly back to Milan from the Bari, Puglia airport. He had lost interest in trying to navigate another southern city he did not know and I was hard pressed to try to convince him otherwise. So many times before Paolo and I had just set off on our travels without much of a plan and discovered wonderful food, scenery and culture, but this time we had been burned. To this day I think about this journey when I obsessively plan a trip, especially one to a part of the world that was not (at the time) a big tourist destination with tourist centers or a plethora of restaurant and hotel guidebooks!
We did stop for lunch in a little town along the way and were finally rewarded with the best meal of our trip – a wonderful Eggplant Panini. Eggplant is a basic ingredient of Calabrian cooking. They use every bit including the skin. The following recipe (and other versions) we have served in our restaurant. With Parmesan and Provolone cheeses, it is exquisitely delicious. We also ordered a glass of Calabria’s flagship wine, Ciro, one of the oldest names in the wine world. It is a red wine densely flavored with fruit and spicy overtones. We were just beginning to roll – but sadly, this charming café would be our last stop on our southern journey.
Panini Eggplant di Parmigiana
1 large firm eggplant
4 thin slices provolone cheese (4 ounces)
¼ cup cream
salt and pepper
½ cup grated parmesan
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ cup olive oil
1 cup prepared tomato basil sauce
Slice the eggplant into 8 slices about ½ inch thick, make slices as consistent in width as possible. Salt each slice on both sides. Fold over the provolone slice and place it on an eggplant slice. Top it with another eggplant slice making a sandwich. Assemble the remaining 3 “sandwiches”
Whisk the eggs, add the cream and salt and freshly ground pepper.
Mix the breadcrumbs with the parmesan, basil and cornstarch.
Dip the eggplant slices one at a time into the egg mixture. Then dip each into the breadcrumb mixture covering well. Set aside. Discard the remaining egg mixture and breadcrumb mixture.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan (add more during cooking if needed). Add the breaded eggplant slices to the pan and cook until you begin to see the eggplant become translucent, about 5 minutes. Be careful not to burn. When well browned, turn the eggplant onto other side and cook 2 minutes more until eggplant is tender and crispy.
Remove from skillet and place onto paper bowels to blot any excess oil.
These can be done ahead of time and re-warmed in a 350-degree oven for 5 – 10 minutes. Serve with tomato basil sauce.
“I think we did it all wrong”, said Paolo at the end of the weekend. “We should have flown into Reggio-Calabria.” He was probably correct but still it was a great adventure and seeing Matera, Basilicata was worth even staying the night in that drab, dirty grey hotel. And the landscape was spectacular. Maybe one day I will return, well versed in the very interesting history of these two regions – the layer upon layer of invasions, conquests and ancient kingdoms in two of the oldest regions in all of Italy with possibly the first evidence of human presence. But if I do return, it will be with a plan and several guidebooks in hand! Since then I have heard people rave about restaurants they have discovered in Calabria – out of the way places serving dishes featuring the incredible taste of the region. I will find them!
Even though I didn’t get to experience true Basilicata and Calabrian dishes during our journey, I was very familiar with its rustic and robust taste having cooked it often in Wanda’s kitchen as well as at Convito. It’s not quite the same as experiencing it in a local regional restaurant which, in my travels, has often inspired me, but non-the less, I have grown to love it. Today we feature Calabrian dishes in both our market and our café. One market dish I especially love is Torta Calabrese, a lasagna recipe I developed in the early eighties based on a recipe I found in the cookbook “Italian Regional Cooking” by Ada Boni. It is called “Sagne Chine”. Basically, it is this region’s signature lasagna. Traditionally served on Easter, the original recipe is far more labor intensive, making tiny sausage meatballs for each layer. Convito’s version contains most of the ingredients of the original – artichokes, hard-boiled eggs, sausage, mushrooms and cheese.
1 # lasagna noodles (no-boil noodles recommended)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 # sausage (bulk – mild Italian)
1 – 28 ounce can Italian peeled tomatoes
1-teaspoon rosemary – broken into pieces
½ teaspoon marjoram
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon chili peppers
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
1-tablespoon olive oil
½# mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 large carrots, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
4 hard boiled eggs, chopped
1½ cups artichoke hearts (canned in water), chopped
¾ # shredded mozzarella
1½ cup grated parmesan cheese
You first need to make two simple sauces.
In one pan brown the sausage over medium heat. Cook until it has lost its raw red color and is broken into small pieces. Drain excessive fat. Add the can of peeled tomatoes, breaking them up into small pieces as you add them to the sausage. Bring that to a simmer. Mix well. Add the rosemary, marjoram, oregano and chili peppers. Simmer over low for 30 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.
In another pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the onions and cook until they are translucent and the carrots begin to get soft. Add the mushrooms (you may have to add more olive oil if the mixture seems too dry) and simmer for approximately 10 minutes until the mushrooms are soft and cooked through. Add salt and pepper to taste.
If you are not using no-boil noodles, boil the lasagna noodles (check package), a few at a time, in a large pan of salted water. When al dente, drain them and place on a damp cloth, well spaced apart.
You will be making 3 layers of lasagna finishing with a layer of noodles on top topped with the sausage sauce and grated parmesan so divide the mushroom mixture, the chopped eggs, artichokes and mozzarella into 3 batches and the sausage and parmesan into four.
In a 9”x13” baking dish, moisten the bottom of the dish with a little of the sausage sauce, spread thin. Cover with a layer of lasagna noodles overlapping slightly. Spread the sausage sauce on top of the lasagna noodles. Dot with the sautéed mushrooms, followed by the chopped gglggs, the artichokes the shredded mozzarella then the grated parmesan. Continue with 2 more layers assembling in this manner until all of the ingredients are used up except for the reserved sausage sauce and grated parmesan. Top the final layer of noodles with the sausage sauce and parmesan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes. Slice and serve.
Another Calabrian dish we serve in our café as a special is a chicken dish using one of Calabria’s most famous ingredients – nduja, a very unique, soft, spreadable spicy sausage, which I have only recently discovered in New York and Chicago restaurants. I’m sure it was there in Calabria when I was visiting – probably hiding behind closed doors in one of the restaurants we never discovered or stocked in the kitchen cupboards of many a Calabrian home. Recently, this ingredient has gained popularity in America. It brings true heat and marvelous flavor to any dish whether it be pasta, meat or poultry. We have used it in all three. The heat comes from a blend of Calabrian chili peppers mixed into the other ingredients. Following is my favorite Convito special using nduja.
Pollo alla Calabrese
Serves 4 – 8
A half chicken is ideal for two when you are not interested in leftovers*
4 half chickens – approximately 6 pounds total
2# Yukon Gold potatoes (unpeeled) cut into chucks
1# ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into chunks
1 large onion chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons dried oregano
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup nduja
2 cups chicken stock
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Put the potatoes, tomatoes and onions in a baking dish large enough the hold the chicken in one layer. Place chicken on top skin side up
Mix together the garlic, oregano, parsley, olive oil and nduja
Smear the mixture on the chicken – tucking some under the skin – reserving ¼ cup of mixture
Add chicken stock to remaining mixture, mix well and pour into baking dish mixing with the vegetables
Add salt and freshly ground pepper
Bake in the oven for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes until the chicken is golden brown and the skin is crisp.
* nduja is a spicy, spreadable pork sausage from Calabria
*If you are splitting each half chicken, split and serve on a plate with the cooked vegetables. Serves 8. Otherwise serve half chicken – serving just 4 people.
When I think back on this experience, it most certainly was a strange one – but one filled with beautiful scenery and much laughter. And as it is with unusual experiences, most often they are the very ones we tend to relive. A master story teller, Paolo certainly got more mileage out of our stay in Crotone then any other Italian journey I can think of – including sojourns to great cities like Rome, Florence and Venice. His description of the drab grey hotel and the piano bar became mythic.
I am grateful that we made this journey and even though my experience with the regional food there was disappointing, I did get a different kind of taste of these two unspoiled regions. I still have vivid memories of wild, rugged Basilicata and picturesque, diverse Calabria. But the world keeps shrinking and culinary culture keeps expanding so its becoming hard to find any city without at least one great restaurant that hasn’t tried either to honor culinary traditions or invent new flavors. I am certain these two regions will soon beckon hoards of people – maybe they already have. I hope to one day be able to return to search and find the great rustic food that I know must be there somewhere.