Getting a Boot
Out of Italy:
A Culinary Journey from Heel to Toe
Story and photos by John Blanchette
eggio Calabria, Italy - One of the most neglected destinations in Italy
is the lower boot. But things are changing as tourists discover the
remarkable beauty of the rugged hill towns, Mediterranean influenced
cuisine and travel bargains the south affords. Greek influences are
felt here and a dialect of the language is still spoken in some areas.
Southern coast of the boot and sight of Scylla and
Charybdis in the Strait of Messina separating Italy from Sicily.
In summer the little lanes that run through the towns
and the beautiful beaches on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas get a lot
of European tourists and recently Americans have been discovering their
With more and more restaurants in America featuring
the tasty foods of Puglia (on the heel and pronounced "poolea"),
the instep of Basilicata and toe of Calabria, gastronomic tourism is
becoming more important as well. Cuisine changes with the land in this
area, depending on what the earth provides and tradition demands.
Olive and tomato focaccia
The stigma thrust on the South by the wealthier North
as a land of peasants, has preserved the area and its agricultural economy
and the new rush of tourism is bringing money and new self-esteem to
its inhabitants. Many Americans trace their family roots to this part
of Italy; where over the last 160 years poverty and internecine warfare
forced Italians to leave the "Old Country," fleeing to America.
My plane descended into Southern Italy on a wet January
day, landing in the Adriatic port city of Bari, which lies on the Achilles
tendon of the boot in northern Puglia. Southern Italy is not particularly
warm in winter if you're a spoiled Southern Californian. But the temperatures
are moderate, reaching into the mid 50s, and you get as many rainy days
as sunny. We even saw a little snow. In summer temperatures can soar
well above 100 degrees.
Puglia is an abundant agricultural area, flat and lush,
producing the hard durum wheat that makes the best bread in the country.
The tomatoes are sweet and tangy and when sun dried spectacular. Citrus
is abundant in all forms and often served at the end of meals. Forty
percent of Italy's olive oil comes from the region and the primitivo
grape makes the best red wine.
Produce vender sells her
fruit in village alley
I also liked several of the whites, especially the Librandi
from Calabria. Other excellent southern wineries are Cantina di Venosa
and Il Conte di Melissa. Cantina Sociale in Venosa has a tasting room.
Wine has been made in Italy for more then 4,000 years.
The Ancient Greeks arriving in Southern Italy named the countryside
Enotria - land of the vine. Matera is the home of Amaro Lucano, my favorite
new discovery. The name means bitter and it is usually served as an
after dinner digestivo.
Because of the area's long seacoast there are many picturesque
fishing villages and great fresh seafood. The southerners are also fond
of hot peppers and they can surprise an unwary diner. The Spanish introduced
potatoes to the area and one of the best dishes I had was potatoes roasted
over an open wood fire until soft and smoky, then sprinkled with a mixture
of salt and rosemary and drizzled with olive oil. Simple but sublime.
Fishing village along the coast
This is primarily a cuisine of poverty and you won't
find a lot of beef, cream based dishes or eggs in the pasta, but the
simple combinations of scavenged greens, seasoned breadcrumbs, fruits,
and vegetables of the season, all sorts of seafood, lamb, rabbit, chicken,
pork sausages and occasionally wild game, creating a delicious and healthy
cuisine. Orecchiette (little ears) pasta has its origin here. One of
my favorite meal endings was orange segments and thinly sliced fennel
dressed with olive oil, a touch of vinegar and lightly salted.
I hop scotched between Puglia and neighboring Basilicata,
before heading to Calabria, with its breathtaking coastal vistas and
its romantic Strait of Messina, which separates the boot from the soccer
ball of Sicily, the island kicked off the toe into the Mediterranean.
Basilicata is a rugged land full of stony fields and
rocky terrain. As a result there's a lot of herding including goats,
sheep and cattle, which thrive on the herbal grasses that grow among
the sedimentary rock and gives the cheeses and meat a special flavor.
The south's most famous cow's milk cheese, caciocavallo, which rivals
Parmesan as the king of Italian cheeses, is produced in these aromatic
fields. The lactic heaven of oozing buffalo mozzarella comes from the
damp, soft grassy fields around Foggia, which the water buffalos prefer.
Shepherd with his flock in the stony hills near
The old town of Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Carved out of sedimentary rock, it is quite beautiful. In this town,
one man's floor is another's roof, with houses cascading down narrow
serpentine streets and walkways. Not a good place to be a postman or
Stone town of Matera featured in Mel Gibson's
"The Passion of the Christ"
Matera is one of the oldest inhabited human settlements
in the world. Mel Gibson set "The Passion of the Christ" here
because of the terrain's similarity to Mount Golgotha. From the first
century, early Christians practiced Mass in the caves of the surrounding
hills and escaped persecution from Romans and others who worshiped pagan
gods and Orthodox Old Testament religions.
Because of the areas deep and long spiritual history
there is a great deal of religious tourism in the south, especially
with the Canonization of Padre Pio a few years ago. The formally agrarian
town of San Giovanni Rotondo, site of the hospital where Padre Pio recorded
490 miracles, recently completed construction of a 5,000-seat cathedral.
More than seven million pilgrims now visit the town every year and the
farmland has been converted into new hotels, restaurants and shops,
and street venders sell everything from giant statues of the Virgin
Mary to holy water; and the biggest seller, items featuring Saint Pio.
Unfortunately as you ride through the rich farmlands
of Southern Italy, deserted and crumbling lovely old stone buildings
and estates loom, haunting the fields like the skeletal bones of animals.
Deserted buildings haunt the fields
Lying on the tip of the toe, Calabria offers dramatic
landscapes as you cross from the Ionian Sea on the south over the high
Apennine ridge, where we encountered snow, and descend to the Tyrrhenian
Sea side and view the steep coastline that shelters little fishing villages,
especially the charming Borgo Marinaro and Costa Viola. The seaside
resort town of Crotone gets the fame or blame for the invention of fruitcake.
Calabrian town after a shower
The city of Reggio Calabria is the largest in the area
and has a lovely promenade facing the Strait of Messina that many consider
the most beautiful in Italy. Just two and a half miles across the Strait
is the island of Sicily. The town has been talking about building a
bridge to the island for 40 years, and it looks like it may finally
be happening as architectural plans are being submitted.
If you go:
Hotels and Restaurants:
In the stone city of Matera, the modern hotel Locanda
di San Martino is carved out of the rock and features an underground
pool. A rustic local restaurant, Le Botteghe, cooks food over an open
wood-burning pit. Try the potatoes and lamb here and the pasta at nearby
In Foggia, stay at Palazzo Sant'elena or Hotel Rossemi,
which serves excellent seafood.
Agriturismo Carpe Diem in Venosa is a working farm with
eight guest rooms, great breakfasts and food from the farm. La Casa
di Gianna is a friendly restaurant serving local cuisine and in Potenza
the Tourist Hotel serves regional cuisine.
In the city of Crotone in Calabria, dine at Ristorante
Il Conte di Melissa, Don Pedro or La Taverna del Borgo. The best hotels
are Palazzo Foti, Baia degli Dei and Lido degli Scogli. In Reggio Calabria,
Stay at the Montesano Hotel, either downtown overlooking the promenade
or outside of town on a magnificent property facing Sicily and the Strait
On the last day of my visit I enjoyed the best pizza
in the region at Pepy's in Reggio Calabria, a proper end to my culinary
If you want to get a boot out of kicking around Southern
Italy, the Italian
Tourist Office, publishes a number of free pamphlets and maps, information
on special events, festivals, museums, churches and castles, religious
tourism, guided and self-guided tours, and places to stay and dine in
all price ranges.