Southern Italy on a plate


A few years ago we took a trip around Southern Italy and from that was born a book: Just a Little Italian. It was named this because that's all we had - just a little of the language and only a relatively small amount of time to see this large part of Italy, almost half of the country, stretching south from Rome, including Sicily and following the 'boot' around to about the back of the' knee' in Abruzzi.

Four weeks, we gave ourselves, to do all this. That's if we lasted the distance. What if it's true that the locals aren't too fussed about tourists? we asked ourselves. Or if we find it is unsafe?

For a while there, my mood turned as black as a Calabrian widow's dress.

Yet underneath our grumbling uncertainties we were still curious to know if the myth was pure rubbish - the product of ill-advised bigoted claptrap. Other books had told us that not only are the people of the south warmer and more hospitable, but that the food was better, the roads quieter, and the scenery more spectacular. There had to be some truth in that, surely.

It was an experience all of which is told in the book, but for now let's look at one part of the south - the food!


The people of the south, or Mezzogiorno (the midday) love colour. Strings of crimson chillies hang outside homes and on roadside stalls. Tomatoes, basil, oranges, lemons, prickly pears, grapes, eggplant - all these foods are richly coloured and add to the appeal (and nutrition) of dishes at every meal. 


Seafood is integral to many dishes too. Southern Italy has hundreds of kilometres of coastline and although the beaches are often grey and gritty, the wealth of seafood is enormous. Many coastal ports of the south are well-known for the seafood that is landed here by fishing boats - in particular swordfish, tuna, anchovies, sardines, and mackerel (or blue fish). Tropea is noted for its whitebait.



Chillies, especially in the south, feature in many dishes and capsicum (peperone) are popular. These grow exceptionally well in the Mediterranean climate. Eggplant, capsicum, chillies are the holy trinity of many dishes.


The Amalfi Coast is known for its great scenic beauty, treacherous cliffs, winding roads, crazy drivers - and chillies that seem to popup unexpectedly!


Pasticcerie are found in every Italian town, their curved glass fronted display cabinets sparkling and filled with pasticcini (small cakes), crostate or tartelette (jam or fruit-filled tartlets), and heaps of biscotti. A tall cabinet may hold a multi-tiered wedding cake, or some other celebration cake; another will have shelves, revolving sometimes, for greater effect, on which are placed larger crostate, torte and large creations that you may be tempted to take as a gift when visiting a friend - or simply purchase just to take home for your own furtive enjoyment.




Because the Mezzogiorno, as the name suggests, has a hot Mediterranean climate, much of life can be enjoyed out of doors. Italians are sociable and family-oriented, so it follows that dining is more than just refuelling. Almost any meal can readily become a celebration. While most locals like to eat in their own homes there are many options if they wish to eat out.


The Hotel Santa Caterina on the Amalfi Coast south of Naples is one of the most beautiful places to stay. Just beyond that terrace there is a sheer drop to the water many storeys below. But no, the water is not the Mediterranean. The south of Italy is washed by several seas, and here it is the Tyrrhenian Sea.


And here we have so many of the components of the southern diet. Chillies (of course) lemons, oranges, onions, and granita which is an icy lemon slush, perhaps the ultimate palate cleanser and refreshing drink, Italy's answer to citron presse.


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