Basilicata’s name was originally Lucania and is allegedly derived from either the Latin word lucus for wooded area or from lykos from the Greek meaning wolf. Either way, it was called Lucania throughout the presence of the Greeks and then the Romans. After the fall of Rome and into the Byzantine times it became its present Basilicata, which Fred Plotkin, a man who knows these things, speculates may have come from basileus, kind of the Turkish boss title for the man in charge of the particular hinterland.
Hinterland it was, and hinterland it remains. More than 90 percent of the entire region is a hill or a mountain, with the remainder being two small shorelines and the flat plains stretching just off of each shore. That said, there is little that is different between “la terra” di Basilicata 1910 and “la terra” di Basilicata 2003, other than telephone lines, roads, cars, refrigeration and some spotty internet access.
The food, however, remains magnificently rustic, filled with the famed diavolicchi chilis and locally foraged ingredients like lampascioni (tiny bitter red lily bulbs), crazy varieties of broad beans, wild fennel and scrappy little variations on porcini mushrooms. Being a poor region, cow meat and pork is still reserved for special occasions and tourists; and the traditional meal may have one or two grains or dried pulses, a pasta or two and finish with some grilled local cheese and a piece of a prickly pear.
Chickens and rabbits fit into the regular diet, but mutton is traditionally served only when quite honestly dying of old age and served in “cutturiedde” or in “pigneto” both highly spiced kinds of spezzatino, cooked slowly with a variation for every mama in the land. This is the food of the old west, Basilicata style, a little risky, wildly varied, and yet extremely tasty and most importantly, very much of this specific terra…
The truly great ristoranti of Basilicata can be named on one hand and are all but two within an hour’s drive of the financial capital of Potenza. My fave two are, however, both located in a tiny little town called “Terranova di Pollino” located in the National Park of Pollino stretching across the southern border of Basilicata into Calabria. The fancier one is in a nice hotel and called Picchio Nero (via mulino 1 tel…0973 93170) The kitchen is run by signora Genovese and specializes in simple rustic fare, unbelievably textured pastas often loaded with legume based flours like the ferrazuoli al sugo di capra, a rough tangle of dried ceci ropes in a tangy goat ragu with two types of pecorino, or tagliarelli with black truffles and the soft local olive oil. Main courses include a stuffed leg of goat with spicy marinated eggplant, or a simple piece of scamorza off of the grill with a grating of the local black truffle over. To finish, a plate of fresh ricotta and a couple of blackberries and I dance the frug with any lady in black near the piazza.
The other is called Luna Rossa (via Marconi 18 tel…0973 93254) and is always spoken of in hushed tones due to the presence of the seriously regional spokesperson by the name of chef Federico Valicenti. Considered by many to be the only real voice of historically correct Basilicata cooking, his food is in a word, stupendous. A mixed antipasto of cool tripe salad, some roasted hot peppers, fried bread in the form of bruschetta and a few slices of local lucanica salami can leave me with enough on my mind for a week of contemplation. Followed by a pasta called lacanelle with porcini, sausage and vine dried tomatoes, and another sauced in reduced red wine, fennel pollen and hot chili flakes. A main course of pork shoulder with a sauce of juniper, sesame and chestnuts, followed by a pasty, soft aged pecorino with honey from the orange grove ten minutes away … you get the idea… and at around 35 euros per person, about the price of 4 happy meals…. I assume you are there.