Southern Italy, Sicily & Sardinia
a brief guide and regional dishes
The regions of Italy’s Mezzogiorno or south often seem an entirely different country from the green and tidy north. In the kitchen, dishes are often spicier, seasoned with capers, anchovies, lemon juice, oregano, olives and fennel, and the desserts sweeter and richer.
For more detailed information on local specialities, scroll down the listings under each individual region's heading.
Campania: This is the region of Naples and its famous bay including Pompeii, Vesuvius, Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. Naples itself, famous for pizza and animated italianità, is the best antidote to the decaffeinated control-freak Europe. Try spaghetti alle vongole, anything with mozzarella di buffala, and limoncello.
The name derives from the Latin Campania felix, or 'Fertile Countryside'.
Calabria: Once one of the most backward corners of Italy (being clobbered by earthquakes over the centuries, that have left it relatively bereft in the art and architecture departments) now struggling gamely to catch up. The source of the bergamot in your Earl Grey tea, the region has great seafood (alalunga, pesce spada, and the more unusual sardella). The Calabrese like it spicy hot; among the meats, it's best known for its pepper red 'njduja.
The name Calabria comes either from the Greek kala ('beautiful' or 'good') or an Italic word for rock. In the 5th century AD it was the Byzantine name for the Salentine peninsula in Puglia, but the name 'migrated' west with the Byzantines when they were pushed westward by the Lombards; by the time the Normans occupied the toe of Italy in the 12th century, the name Calabria had stuck.
Basilicata: Like its neighbour Calabria, the 'instep of Italy has suffered from earthquakes that destroyed the once-mighty Greek cities of the Ionian Coast; striking Matera with its cave dwellings is the prime destination for visitors, and home of the unusual pane di Matera. The region produces a wide range of sausages such as lucanica; you may even find some of the more rarefied dishes such as lampascioni.
The name means 'imperial' (basilikos) and dates from the 6th century AD Byzantine conquest of the region.
Puglia (Apulia): The heel of Italy is rich in culinary delights; the flat wheat fields of its Tavoliere are one of Italy's breadboxes, and it produces a lion's share of the country's olive oil. The seafood includes unusual shell fish such as fasolare and taiedda. Pugliese cooks make good use of vegetables and pulses; the classic pasta dishes are orecchiette con le cime di rapa and ciceri e tria. Also look out for the strongly flavoured ricotta forte.
The name is derived from the Latin Apulia, meaning the 'land of Iapudes', the Italic tribe that inhabited the northern part of the region.
Sicily (Sicilia): It's hard to know where to start with the big island, where ancient and Byzantine Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards have left behind culinary delights, with plenty of aubergines, olives, pine nuts, anchovies, and especially capers. Just to scratch the surface: pasta con le sarde or pasta alla Norma are popular starters; sweet-sour caponata goes with fish. The island makes great street food, from arancini to sfincione, and shows its sweet tooth in cassata, cannoli and frutti della martorana.
The name is derived from the Sikels, one of the big island's ancient tribes.
Sardinia (Sardegna): Nearly as big as Sicily, yet much further than the mainland, Sardinia over the centuries evolved its own language and cuisine. Traditionally an island of shepherds, it's famous for cheeses (including pecorino and the notorious larvae-filled casu axedu), lamb, suckling pig (porceddu) and exotic breads (notably the paper thin pane carasau and ornate pane delle feste.
The name comes from sard, a pre-Roman word, perhaps linked to the island's native religion and its hero god, known in Latin as Sardus-Pater 'Father Sardus'.