Calabria is one of the least modernized regions of the entire Italian “boot” which in many ways makes it a fascinating place to travel and eat. With virtually no real industrial development along the coast but for the less than appealing city of Reggio Calabria which exists mostly as a jump off point for auto traffic and trains on the way to Sicilia, the whole coastline is relatively empty with beautiful and immaculate sparkling water beaches. In the middle of the province there are gorgeous mountainous forest lands with very few towns and even fewer restaurants. This bodes well for the topographic and gastronomically inclined traveler but poorly for the club hopper looking for the disco scene… in short, ideal for me.
The food of Calabria is clean and spicy, incorportating loads of local vegetables, and including simple pastas based on seafood along the coastline, and on lamb and pork on the interior. The local citrus is ubiquitous, particularly the exotic bergamot from the hills around Reggio, and can be found in everything from the morning gelato con brioche to the afternoon tea and the mixed seafood grill at dinner.
Did I say morning Gelato?? Oh yeah!!! The Calabrese love to eat their gelato even at breakfast on a soft, sweet roll like a sandwich with their cappuccino. The spicy hot peperoncino plays into nearly all meals and olio santo (the spicy chili oil) is on almost every table in the region. Restaurants are not fancy or elaborate, but the food is honest and at times exquisite. I love the local wines, particularly the rustic red Ciro. I could easily make a meal out of the local caciocavallo Silano or ricotta affumicata,some good bread,and a glass or two.
In Calabria, it is easiest to travel by car: just toss some bootleg Dead cd’s into the stereo and admire the nearly extra-planetary scenery while you ride in your air-conditioned pod from town to town. Probably the best restaurant in the whole province is in the middle of nowheresville (but just 10 km off the autostrada), in a tiny berg called Castrovillari. The nice thing about La Locanda di Alia, aside from the genius of the kitchen, the perfection of the wine list, and the joy of the owners, is the fact that it is located in a small hotel where you can take a nap between lunch and dinner,or even stay over after dinner to enjoy the sleep of kings. The incredible food is a cross between ancient tradition and intelligent innovation, featuring such dishes as the onion and egg soup with mushroom crostino, the panzerotti with anise seeds, the candele pasta with anduja sausage, and the classic “ncartata di carne” with a sauce of honey and chilis. The cheeses here rock and the desserts are the best I’ve eaten in the entire south. Needless to say, if you eat anywhere in Calabria, I recommend this place first.
Travel down the A3 to Cosenza then head east on the E846 thru the Sila National Park to Crotone. Don’t stop until you are at Casa di Rosa where baked mussels, smoked tuna loin, linguine with monkfish ragu, spaghetti with ovotarica (calabrese style bottarga, the dried tuna roe), and tiny sole with sweet red onions from Tropea will fill your tub. At the slightly fancier da Ercole,the crudo antipasti of raw and marinated fish is followed by the maccheroni with squid ink, bug-like “cigale” with garlic and oregano, and a sublime bergamot semifreddo. Also excellent is La Sosta di Marcello,situated in the elegant Palazzo Merigliano, where the delicious, air-filled ricotta and anchovy fritters set the tone for a beautiful lunch that includes monkfish polpette, and mussels in a sweet pepper stew with olio santo that could soothe any savage beast.
From Crotone, head southwest across the interior of cape Rizzuto and then cruise along the spectacular coast on the E90 just an hour to Catanzaro and dine at Le Brace, an excellent (if a little large at 120 seats) spot where both meat and fish are equally well done. Across the toe of the boot and south a bit are Vibo Valentia and Tropea, both small towns with real food and real markets. The best of the lot is L’Approdo in Vibo Marina where I once ate the tiniest of baby octopii, just barely steamed with orange oil, then gnocchi stuffed with roasted sea bass and sauced with spicy arugula and tomatoes, followed by grilled local sweet shrimp. I washed it all down with a Ciro bianco that made more sense than algebra.
On your way to Sicilia from L’Approdo, an hour south of Vibo, is a small town called Bagnara Calabra where an odd yet delicious addition to the calabrese scene is a greek restaurant called Taverna Kerkira. Almost everything there, from the tzatziki to the saganaki al forno, speaks Greek to me; but the pastas, like the farfalle with mullet and eggplant, and the maccheroncini with sea snails and garlic parlano italiano. At 35 seats this place gets filled everyday, so try and call a day or two in advance. From here you are only 2 hours from Sicilia, so crank up St. Stephen, head to the ferries at Reggio, and splurge on the fast boat to the island.