The town of Scilla overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea in southwestern Italy.

On the toe of the Italian peninsula, a second-generation Italian American finds striking landscapes, underappreciated cuisine, and warm hearts.

This was supposed to be a food story. It was supposed to be a story about eating baby anchovies in a stew of Calabrian chilies and spooning spicy, fatty ’nduja sausage onto crunchy bread. I pictured myself sampling this fiery, peculiar food while sitting beside the Tyrrhenian Sea, watching a horizon specked with Old World swordfishing boats. I saw myself tipsy on wines I’d never heard of and imagined myself drunk on a fresh love of Italian food, the food of “my people,” whatever that means for a second-generation Italian American raised in rural Northern California, far from the East Coast epicenters of Italian immigrant culture and farther still from Italy itself. But by my second night in Calabria, I already had a hunch this wasn’t going to be such a tidy story.

Fishing boats in Scilla harbor.

After landing in Naples, my husband, Tim, our two-year-old daughter, Roxie, and I drove south for four hours on the autostrada, a raceway in the shadow of Vesuvius, and arrived in Altomonte. The medieval town stands atop a hill in the northern interior of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot and among the country’s least touristed regions. We were staying at what turned out to be a surprisingly luxurious agriturismo. I had imagined a farmhouse surrounded by orchards and fields and grapevines, but Hotel Barbieri looked like a large, modern business hotel with world flags lining its driveway. Exhausted, we staggered to dinner at La Cantina, a stone tavern beside the town’s nearly 700-year-old church. The restaurant, also owned by the Barbieri family, didn’t offer us a menu. Instead, we asked for wine, and soon after, plate after plate began to crowd the table.

There were slightly pickled yet sweet Tropea onions, uncommonly delicious vinegar-doused zucchini, salty ribbons of uncooked eggplant, house-made bread with mulberry jam, salumi, and cheese. Every dish was delicious. What grabbed me, though, were the crispy, airy fried peppers called cruschi. They were sweet and smoky, slightly spicy, and a tad bitter, and, to my delight, they would be served with every meal during our time in Altomonte. At breakfast the next morning, which we ate on the patio beneath blooming linden trees, cruschi were served alongside an olive oil–fried egg, a simple pairing that made me want to never eat eggs any other way.

Our destination on our first full day was Lungro, a village seven miles north of Altomonte that the Barbieris urged us to visit. The isolated 2,500-person community is made up mainly of ethnically Albanian Italians. The Arbëreshë, as these Italo-Albanians refer to themselves, have lived in Calabria for 17 generations and developed a distinct food culture that the Barbieris insisted I experience.

To reach the village, we drove a one-lane road that curled along ridges of fragrant, canary-yellow Mediterranean macchia—or scrubland—and crossed an impossibly narrow stone bridge that looked like an ancient aqueduct. We wound down one hill and up another, as we would again and again in Calabria, a landscape that rewards visitors who are unafraid of heights and unfazed by shoddy infrastructure. Once we arrived in Lungro itself we navigated hallway-width streets as heads turned to stare at our rental car. I could feel the weight of being an outsider. We parked at a monumental 14th-century stone church, where a pack of elder Arbëreshë men were gathered in the haze of dusk.

Out of the near darkness popped Anna Stratigò. She smiled, waved, and tip-tapped the air with her finger like a disco queen. She was wearing black from head to toe, from her dyed hair and Elvira eye makeup to her synthetic leather miniskirt, black tights, and combat boots. Her look was so out of place here, deep in the hills of one the poorest pockets of the European Union, it took a minute to register: Anna was a rocker.

In Calabria's Cosenza province, the medieval town of Orsomarzo lies within the boundaries of Pollino National Park.

Learning to prepare a traditional Arbëreshë meal from a folk-pop diva of international renown was not how I thought this trip would start.

“What brings you?” wasn’t a question I’d expected to be asked. Does someone need a reason to go to Italy, a country so saturated with tourists that some cities are considering turning them away? But in Calabria people did ask. They asked everywhere we went. The typical answer, I was told, was almost always “I’m visiting family” or “I’m tracing my roots.” In contrast, my reason for coming felt embarrassingly flighty: a decade-old cookbook sent me.

For years, I have regretted not learning to cook from my Grandma Maria. A southern Italian war bride, she met and wed a U.S. soldier, a dump truck driver from Oregon who married her, he once told my mom, because otherwise she would have ended up a prostitute on the streets of Naples. The family soon settled in Salem—my mother’s hometown, which she invariably dismissed as Oregon’s “three-penitentiary capital”—where Grandma Mongillo grew the most prolific home garden I’ve ever seen. Grandpa came and went, often reappearing only long enough to impregnate her again. “Daddy was always a carouser,” my mom told me recently, “a con-man type.” They had four children, three girls and a boy, before he was gone for good.

Grandma Maria never learned to read or write English. She worked as a domestic and, during the summers, as a farm laborer, picking berries and peaches alongside her children. It couldn’t have been easy. But her backyard was big enough to grow green beans, pickling cucumbers, and row after row of multicolored dahlias. She rarely spoke of Italy or the war, but my mom told me that Grandma and her seven siblings had spent months living in hiding in the countryside after the Nazi occupation. After moving to Oregon, she returned to her hometown only once, in the 1970s; she was horrified that the women still wore skirts exclusively, never trousers. Her life in Salem was modest, but she appreciated its comforts.

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After my mom left Oregon for California, she rarely returned to Salem, and I have few childhood memories of Grandma Maria. Among them: “You a’ so skinny” was always among the first things she would say to me, no matter how much time had passed since I’d last seen her. Only now do I realize how much her signature phrase, spoken in a gravelly, deeply accented voice, said about the relationship between love and food, deprivation and trauma, about my grandma’s wartime past and the future of abundance that she wanted for me, her granddaughter.

Last year, I went online searching for both recipes and insight into a grandmother I had rarely seen when she was alive and who had died nearly 15 years earlier. But there are relatively few English-language resources on southern Italian food. Through algorithmic happenstance, it was a book about Calabria that appeared most prominently in my search results. The book, My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino, wasn’t new. It wasn’t among the recent crop of fashionable, avant-garde cookbooks so beautifully crafted they’re practically high art. But its recipes, the ingredients it celebrated, and its devotion to the flavors of a faraway homeland captivated me.

Having grown up in a small, rural California town where the Pacific Ocean was the most glamorous thing in my tiny universe, I had my eyes perpetually trained on the perimeters of its vast, blue-black waters, my palate fixed on the spicy, funky, fishy flavors of the Pacific Rim—of Asia and Latin America. Red sauce staples held no emotional sway with me; they weren’t my comfort food. But after a lifetime of being lukewarm on Italian cooking, I believed that changing my relationship to the cuisine of my grandmother’s home country might offer some deeper form of sustenance. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that discovering Italian cooking would somehow connect me to a woman I’d never really known. But I did allow for the possibility that it might provide an entry into a culture to which I felt only a twinge of attachment.

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Calabrian red peppers are important ingredients for local cuisine.

In reading about Calabria’s defining ingredients—its prized chili peppers and spicy ’nduja sausage, funky wild mushrooms and salty goat cheeses, rosamarina (baby anchovy relish), sea urchin and salt cod, citron, bergamot, and licorice—I found myself excited in a way that, despite my grandmother’s eagerness to fatten me up, I had never been before by Italian cooking. Calabria, a dramatic, brutally beautiful landscape between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas, is filled with mountains rife with fragrant orchards and half-abandoned stone villages. With so little written about the region, I relished the idea of going to see what I would find. And now I had found Anna.

She led us through the maze of alleyways that climbed the hill to her home. The centuries-old house had low stone doorways and sloping floors. Anna had turned a back room into a museum to maté, the beverage commonly associated with Argentina that is also revered among the Arbëreshë of Lungro. She had turned the ground floor into a music studio and her small, hot kitchen into an informal culinary institute. After a quick tour, she tied on an apron, took a loaf-size piece of dough from the refrigerator, and tossed it forcefully onto an already floured marble tabletop.

“It’s semolina flour, water, and work,” she said with dry humor as she began rolling the dough with both hands. Jazz on the stereo, sweat on her forehead, she rolled and stretched, rolled and stretched, pulling the dough lengthwise. “Patient,” Anna said, as much to herself as to me. “Patient.”

I felt like I was watching someone carve an ornate statue from a single piece of stone. Finally, after a half hour of hard labor, an infinite loop of pasta hung from Anna’s hand like a coil of rope on a hook. To me, it seemed miraculous. But Anna paused only briefly before casually tossing the pasta, anticlimactically, into a tall pot of boiling water. The fresh noodles cooked almost instantly before Anna scooped them from the water and tossed them with plump pinkish-brown Borlotti beans, olive oil, and flecks of peperoncino.

A typical and beloved Calabrian dish, filega con la 'nduja–handmade pasta in a sauce made with tomatoes and Tropea onions–at Ristorante da Nico e Lilly, in Tropea, Calabria.

The four of us sat outside in Anna’s tidy, flower-filled courtyard, sharing a simple and hearty meal. This was not the spicy, fragrant, flavorful food I had come for. Instead, it was the comfort food of an ethnic group I never knew existed—the unglamorous food of poverty and sustenance, of migration and assimilation, of strangers opening their home to strangers.

After dinner, Anna disappeared back into the house, then reemerged holding in one hand an Arbëreshë tart decorated with glazed strawberries and a pale green maté cream sauce and, in the other hand, her guitar. She serenaded us with a bouncy pop tribute to maté that, it turns out, was something of an international hit as far away as New York City and Argentina. But it was another song, a soulful Arbëreshë ballad sung with such anguish it brought me to tears, that has stayed with me longer than any meal. No, this was not the food story I had imagined.

The next morning we were eating breakfast back at the Hotel Barbieri in Altomonte when the family patriarch, Enzo Barbieri, arrived at our table with a wild artichoke. Having heard I was interested in Calabrian food, he wanted me to see the dangerously thorny plant, which he gripped like a venomous snake, pinching its stem between his thumb and forefinger, a show of authority and respect. Enzo had deeply etched skin, workman’s hands, and a weathered, unshaven face covered in a salt-and-pepper shadow beard.

That afternoon, Enzo and his daughter Laura loaded Tim, Roxie, and me into the hotel’s van and drove us down a steep gravel road to the terraced farm at the foot of Hotel Barbieri’s hilltop perch. “It’s organic,” Enzo said proudly. “You can eat under the tree with the kids.” For emphasis, he plucked a Ferrovia cherry from overhead and hung it over Roxie’s ear like an earring, a grandfatherly gag.

Hotelier Enzo Barbieri and his son Michele pick tomatoes.

As we walked through his garden, it became clear that Enzo was as invested in each fruit tree, each humble zucchini plant, as he was in the wild artichoke whose hearts sell for 12 euros a jar in Northern Italian marketplaces. He told me the secret to the deceptively simple dish I’d marveled at during our first dinner: zucchini alla scapece, thin strips of salted zucchini tossed in a vinaigrette of mint, garlic, and pepper. The key, Enzo insisted, is to use only the outermost flesh of the fruit. “The interior is for the chickens,” he said, “for the pig.” I flashed on my grandma’s garden, which always smelled of fertile earth and the funky, vegetal decay of a heaping compost mound, and I reflected on how something as modest as a zucchini could be transformed into a delicacy, no part of it, from its flowers to its seedy interior, wasted.

When we left Altomonte, the Barbieris sent us off with a basket of white mulberries and shiny red cherries for our “long drive” to Rossano, an hour south.

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As we cut east toward the Ionian Sea, the temperature rose and the air became drier. We passed roadside prostitutes sitting beneath umbrellas in the midday heat. We puzzled at the miles of odd, Soviet-esque concrete block condos along the low, sandy shoreline. We slept at an agriturismo hidden in a vast expanse of orange groves. And we visited the famed licorice company Amarelli, which has operated out of the same stone factory since the 1700s, where the gnarled roots of the licorice plant are boiled, their juices extracted and reduced to a black tar before being flavored and shaped and packaged in elegant tins and pastel-hued boxes. In a region whose cuisine receives so little respect compared to that of other parts of Italy, Amarelli—its beautifully packaged gourmet products worthy of export—is a point of pride among Calabrians.

As we passed through Cirò, Calabria’s underappreciated wine region, at midday on a Sunday, the entire area seemed to be shuttered, and I was wilting in the southern Italian sun. But once we were greeted by Susy, the impossibly glamorous eldest daughter of winemaker Roberto Ceraudo, at their family’s winery just south of Cirò, the rough Ionian coast took on a new character.

Susy grew up here, went away to school in Pisa, and returned to help run her father’s business. Including her brother and her sister, a 29-year-old chef who presides over the family’s Michelin-rated restaurant, the Ceraudo clan has grown their winery, Dattilo, into one of the most prestigious in Calabria. Ceraudo’s wines are now sold in Eataly emporiums in New York and Rome. The winery, surrounded by millennia-old olive trees, has a backyard garden with a swimming pool and terra-cotta patio where metallic blue-green lizards hop at your feet and red dragonflies skim the water. We stayed in one of a handful of lodgings that the family makes available to visitors, apartments where wide balconies look out over the vine-covered hills.

The next morning, Susy and I climbed into the back seat of a tractor and were driven through the vineyards and amid the gnarled olive trees with thick trunks. Afterward, we sat for a 10 a.m. winetasting. These were the wines I had imagined, made with unfamiliar indigenous grapes, such as gaglioppo, mantonico, and greco bianco. But what struck me most was how much a wine I thought I knew, chardonnay, tasted new and thrilling, with more mineral and less oak. “The chardonnay is our story,” Susy told me. It was one of the first grapes they planted, in the 1970s, when having an international grape was important to establishing a winery’s reputation. But even an international varietal such as chardonnay becomes distinct, Susy said, when you make it the traditional way, without outside yeast or enzymes. The Ceraudo family made a name for itself outside Calabria by embracing what sets their region apart, celebrating a place that the rest of Italy, and the world, has long seen as unworthy.

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I had been looking forward to our time on the Tyrrhenian coast, where the mountains seem to fall into the sea, an ever present reminder that this is earthquake country. Each town has its own culinary specialty: swordfish croquette in Scilla, sweet red onions in Tropea, the elaborate ice cream dessert tartufo in Pizzo, and Diamante’s peperoncino. But it was Belmonte Calabro, another medieval fortress village set high above the coastline, that I fell for the hardest.

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To get there, we drove up a series of switchbacks and into a village built of river rocks that had been carried hundreds of feet up the mountain on the heads of local women. Once home to some 6,000 people, Belmonte today has only 40 year-round residents, and hundreds of the town’s structures are abandoned and crumbling. For $75 a night, we stayed in an albergo diffuso made up of two dozen of these once neglected buildings, which have been laboriously renovated into artful hotel apartments with mosaic tilework, rough-hewn wooden beams, and terraces shaded by reed awnings. From our terrace, we looked out over the ocean, which was silver in the late afternoon light.

The project, called EcoBelmonte, is the work of Gianfranco, a former plumber, and his wife, Gabriella, a Venezuelan whose Italian parents sent her to Italy each summer to visit her grandparents. On one of those trips, when she was 15, she met Gianfranco, who was born in the home where the couple now lives with their seven-year-old daughter, Luciana.

That night, for our 10-year wedding anniversary, Tim and I sat outside in the albergo’s enclosed stone patio, where Gabriella cooked in the open kitchen and Luciana entertained Roxie. There was a warm, dry wind that made my skin feel as though it had been soaking in clay. There were fresh anchovies, clean and delicately seasoned, a fried doughnut filled with salty anchovy paste, bread topped with rosamarina—the spicy, briny newborn anchovies that had initially drawn me to Calabria—and a basket of fried zucchini flowers, the dish Grandma Maria made whenever we visited her during my childhood summers.

Altomonte resident Teresa Capparelli.

It may have been the wine—an anniversary gift from Gabriella and Gianfranco—but I began to feel that this meal, this place, was everything I didn’t know I had come to Calabria for: the dark night and the hot wind; the sea and the mountains; the ancient, nearly abandoned town and the young family working to resurrect it, serving vibrant, industrious Calabrian cooking amid the ruins.

In a phenomenon more marked than in anywhere else I have ever been, the food of Calabria tastes not only of the region’s bounty, but also of what it lacks. Its food is less defined by spice and rare ingredients than it is by scarcity—by the need to preserve, to forage, to turn simple ingredients into more than the sum of their parts. It is the food of Anna patiently rolling her pasta; of Enzo and his prickly wild artichoke plant; of Susy in the back of a tractor, speaking a love letter to the grapevines that have taken her family across oceans; and it is Gabriella’s fried blossoms, the food of a woman who, unlike my grandma, was able to find her way home. In this way, my Google search for Grandma Maria’s food had come full circle: It delivered me to the emotional heart of her cooking, a cooking that transformed deprivation into abundance.

Three More Places to Eat Well and Escape the Crowds in Italy

Despite Italy’s enduring popularity with travelers, there are still regions that, like Calabria, remain virtually unknown to most international visitors. Katie Parla, a Rome-based expert in Italian food and wine and the author of the forthcoming Food of the Italian South: Recipes for Classic, Disappearing, and Lost Dishes (Clarkson Potter; March 2019), shares her dining recommendations for some of Italy’s less familiar regions. 

Molise
The region: Just under two hours southeast of Rome by car, Molise has Apennine mountain peaks, tiny villages, and a small Adriatic coastline. “If you show a bit of interest in a bakery or a pastry shop, they’ll invite you into the laboratorio to see awesome handmade things being produced,” Parla says.

Where to eat: The trattoria La Grotta di Zi’ Concetta in Campobasso makes simple dishes rich with olive oil. Parla’s favorite is pizz’ e foje, which resembles a polenta and chicory scramble. “You get this intense heirloom corn flavor from the polenta,” she says.

Abruzzo
The region: This mountainous area has some of the highest peaks in the Apennines. “The villages are scattered among national parks, where you’re more likely to encounter grazing sheep than humans,” Parla says. “I love to go to this region specifically to eat cheese.”

Where to eat: In the town of Scanno, Gregorio Rotolo sells cheeses made from the milk of free-range sheep. “They graze the mountains and eat chamomile and mint and all sorts of tasty things,” says Parla. “You can buy cheeses and cured meats—a combination of pork and lamb sausages—and homemade pasta at his trattoria.”

Campania
The region: People know Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and Capri, but Parla notes that the rest of this region is rarely visited: “There are all of these little villages where people still practice old-school food techniques—especially fishing.”

Where to eat: Ristorante Angiolina, in the anchovy-fishing village of Pisciotta, serves cauraro, a local soup made with potatoes, wild fennel, and foraged greens. “They just lay the raw anchovies on top to steam and absorb all the flavors of the herbs,” Parla says.

>>Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Italy