Though roughly ten percent of all Italian immigrants to this country – well over a half-million over the years – came from Calabria, the region has not had a big impact on restaurants here. This is due largely because the region was poor, without big cities, and was dominated culturally by Naples, which was long the capital of the country that ruled Calabria (long before a unified Italy).
Perusing through a couple of cookbooks – one dedicated to Calabria, the other an excellent regional compilation from a famed cookbook author decades ago – there was seemingly nothing unique or original from Calabria that had made it into the Italian-American restaurant canon. But, the food is familiar: “If it has tomatoes, peppers, and onions in it, it’s Calabrian,” opined a restaurateur in Calabria. The food is similar to what most Americans know as Italian food with its heavy use of pasta and tomatoes, and the tradition of the long-simmered ragù on Sunday.
I recently went to a dinner promoting Calabrian food products. The president of the region was slated to attend, but backed out, reportedly caught up in the most recent colorfully dysfunctional Italian governmental escapade, but it was an enjoyable event with very good food, and almost enough wine.
“The Mexico of Italy” is how one of the presenters described Calabria’s culinary reputation. “The Texas of Italy” was another refrain in reference to the spice of the cooking from a local Italian at my table. The neighboring or nearby regions of Basilcata and Abruzzo also use peppers, but it might be more pronounced in Calabria. Spice is what we like in Texas.
“In contrast to most other Italian regions, Calabrians have traditionally placed on emphasis on the preservation of their food, in part, because of the climate and potential crop failures” was relayed in one of my books the region. This is somewhat of exaggeration, especially in regards to the salumi tradition throughout much of Italy, which is the preservation of meat from the pig, historically from the annual slaughter in the wintertime. And, tomatoes and other vegetables are preserved in other parts of Italy, but this seems to be done at a greater degree in Calabria.
But, because of this heritage, Calabria shows some promise in enlightening American tables with their numerous preserved products; artichoke hearts, mushrooms, olives, peppers, and many more including the giardinera, that Chicagoland staple. Many of these seem perfectly suited for sandwiches, salads, and snacks and ready-made entertainment aids. Chicagoans have long been enamored with giardiniera as a sandwich helper, which likely has roots in its Calabrian immigrant community.
Unfortunately, many southern Italian food concerns are not yet USDA licensed and their products cannot be shipped into the US. Hopefully, this is not the case with these preserved vegetable items, as they certainly look great, and are e concerns are not yet USDA licensed and their products cannot be shipped into the US. Hopefully, this is not the case with these preserved vegetable items from Calabria – Cattina was one brand – as they certainly look great, and are easy to use, open and eat.