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Italy’s cuisine is the stuff of legend. While pizza and pasta makes just about everyone smile, the country itself has a food tradition that is incredibly diverse and varies greatly from region to region. Northern Italy may be known for its creative use of meats and heavy cream sauce, but Southern Italian cuisine utilizes its access to the sea and warm weather, often including seafood and fresh tomato and olive oil. Hungry yet? We’ve assembled a guide to the dishes someone eating their way through a Southern Italian meal might have.
The most traditional staple of Southern Italian Christmas meals is Baccala. Baccala is more or less salted cod, at times dried, which can be prepared in numerous ways for added flair. The Napolitano’s even claim there are 365 different ways to eat baccala. In Southern Italy, the Christmas Eve meal is an integral part of “The Vigil” or the waiting for midnight, which marked the birth of Jesus. During the meal, many people eat seven different seafood dishes. This tradition is the basis for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is also a popular custom for Italian-Americans. While many of the seven dishes vary, baccala is the one that consistently makes an appearance on Italian dinner tables.
Anelletti al Forno
Hailing from Sicily and at times called the Sicilian Lasagna; Baked Anelletti is often on the menu. At first glance, this pasta bake appears to be a cake made out of pasta (no complaints from us). Internally the bake includes ring-shaped pasta, a red sauce that is often ragu, and cheese, while breadcrumbs decorate the exterior. A variety of other ingredients are also added depending on the chef including peas, fried eggplant, and béchamel sauce.
Known more colloquially in English speaking countries as Wedding Soup, Minestra Maritata is often the opening act for Southern Italian dinners. The name does not mean that the soup is a ritual for weddings but rather actually references the flavor that is produced by the “marriage” of green vegetables and meat. The soup’s base is almost always exclusively clear chicken broth and contains a healthy amount of meat and greens. Meats that are included are meatballs and sausage and at times chicken, whereas the veggie representatives are endive, escarole, kale, or spinach. Again certain cooks will add other things like Parmesan cheese, lentils, or pasta.
Spaghetti alle Vongole
Don’t worry; we are not making it through our Southern Italy meal list with only one pasta dish. Spaghetti alle Vongole, or spaghetti with clams is especially popular and a signature dish of the Campania region. Campania is a South Central region on the west coast of the Italian boot, is not exactly off the beaten path Italy as it includes the city of Naples, widely considered to be a top culinary capital of the country. The dish itself is usually prepared two different ways, bianco or rosso. Bianco is dressed with oil, garlic, and parsley; some will add some white wine also. Rosso meanwhile adds tomatoes and basil. Many in the United States familiar with this pasta will think the recipes will call for cream, but those in Southern Italy would find that addition, to put it mildly, unusual. The clams are always cooked live and are later left in their shell when added to the pasta.
Insalata di Rinforzo
The salad representative for meals, Insalata di Rinforzo is another must-have in Naples and for those observing the Vigil. Meals for Vigil do include seafood but beyond that is entirely meatless. Meant to “reinforce” the lack of meat and light cooking this salad is supposed to be simple and fresh. Using cooked cauliflower as the base the salad is then adorned with green and black olives, as well as a variety of peppers. It is usually dressed with oil and vinegar and accompanied by salted anchovies.
While in some Italian traditions, Frittelle, or Italian doughnuts, are considered the ultimate dessert, others think of these fried doughy bits as an exclusive treat for Fat Tuesday. Enter cannoli. Cannoli is just about as classic Sicilian as anyone can get. Though Sicily is often associated as its own entity since it is an island, its proximity to the South and culinary influence over the country mean it has to be considered for this list. Cannoli, literally meaning “little tube”, is a pastry roll packed with sweet ricotta filling. Wandering the streets of Palermo, people will encounter cannoli no bigger than a pinky finger or some that seem to be the size of a forearm.