How to Cook the Best Food Southern Italy Has to Offer
Francesco Mazzei was an eight-year-old boy in southern Italy when he asked his father for money to buy sneakers and jeans. Dad joked that he should get a job, which is exactly what Mazzei did.
He went to work in his uncle's ice-cream shop, a move for which many of us should thank his dad, for it was Mazzei's first step toward becoming a chef. Not that Mazzei Sr. was happy when his son decided to train as a cook: It wasn't a respected job in Calabria at that time, and both parents were devastated.
Mazzei has turned into one of Europe's brightest culinary talents, celebrating the Calabrian cooking of his childhood and refining it to the point where it's more than a match for the northern Italian dishes generally served in the U.K. At London restaurants such as L'Anima and now Sartoria, he's combined big flavors with a lightness of touch.
In his first cookbook, Mezzogiorno, Mazzei focuses on eight regions: Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia, where the cooking is rooted in the tradition of cucina povera. It's a style born out of rural poverty, using cheaper cuts of meat and whatever other ingredients come to hand.
In an interview, Mazzei recalls his childhood and how it influenced him.
"My uncle always made ice cream, still does," Mazzei says. "We used to make our own bread, our salami, our pickles, everything. When you grow up with that kind of quality, those flavors, it's a real inspiration in your life. My first food memory is of Christmas Eve as a child. We'd have 13 dishes - one for each of the apostles and one for Jesus Christ - and you had to taste every dish because it's good luck for you.
"Southern cuisine used to be only mama cooking, but now it is respected. Chefs do it and that is gratifying."
When the three-Michelin-star culinary maestro Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana dined at L'Anima, he said he had never tasted such fine Italian food in any restaurant outside Italy.
Mezzogiorno features dozens of recipes. Here are three to try:
Linguine With Prawns, Lemon and Parsley (Linguine con gamberetti, limone e prezzomolo)
320g dried linguine
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 red chilli, thinly sliced
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
500g raw tiger prawns, peeled and roughly chopped
grated zest of ½ lemon
50g flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, add the linguine and cook for 3 minutes less than advised on the packet.
- Put the garlic and chilli into a saucepan with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and fry until the garlic is golden brown.
- Pour 100ml of water from the linguine pan into the pan of garlic. Drain the linguine, then add it to the pan of garlic and cook the linguine for the final 3 minutes of its cooking time.
- When there are just 30 seconds of the cooking time left add the prawns and quickly stir them through, then take the pan off the heat and add the lemon zest, parsley and remaining tablespoon of olive oil until you have a creamy sauce. The heat from the pan will cook the prawns in seconds. Transfer to a heated serving dish and serve immediately.
Beef Rolled with Cheese and Wild Mushrooms (Involtini di podolica, caciocavallo e funghi selvatici)
"We don't have a big culture of cooking beef in the South. Buffalo are bred for mozzarella, but cattle have historically been a working animal.We used our cattle in the fields, so beef cattle were expensive and too much of the animal was wasted to make it a rewarding investment. As the South has shed its economic shackles that is changing, and the culture of using beef is growing. That said, involtini use the animal in a way that is in keeping with our culture of stretching meat to make it go further. Small quantities of beef are bashed until very thin, then rolled around a filling.
In Italy I would use beef from Podolica cows, which are bred in the Sila mountains. It’s a beautiful place where the cows graze outdoors all year round and the grass is iron-rich. The meat is lean, which means it is tougher, so you need to beat and rest it – to tenderize it before cooking, and watch it carefully during the cooking to ensure it doesn’t dry out. In the U.K., medallions are likely to come from grain-fed beef fillet and be fattier and more tender, which will ensure they remain moist."
800g beef medallions (about 60–70g each)
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, skin on, halved
1 rosemary sprig
1 thyme sprig
400g mixed wild mushrooms, trimmed
10g flat–leaf parsley, finely chopped
10g chives, finely chopped
10g marjoram, finely chopped
50g mozzarella cheese, torn
60g pecorino cheese, grated
250g caciocavallo cheese or young, soft pecorino cheese or smoked or unsmoked scamorza, crumbled
30g '00' flour
200ml white wine
300ml chicken stock
5g parsley leaves, roughly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
You will also need some rosemary sprigs or toothpicks to secure the rolls
- Place the beef medallions between two sheets of cling film and bash them with a rolling pin until they are each 5mm thick, then set aside.
- In a pan heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over a medium heat with the garlic, rosemary and thyme. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and fry for a couple of minutes on a very high heat (be careful not to burn the garlic – remove it if necessary) until the mushrooms are browned and soft.
- Let the mushrooms cool completely, then roughly chop two-thirds of them and place in a bowl. Add the herbs, mozzarella, grated pecorino and caciocavallo cheeses and mix well.
- Put about a tablespoon of the mixture on the shorter ends of each slice of beef and roll up, being careful to enclose the ends of the rolls as you roll by tucking the sides in. Secure each roll with two rosemary sprigs or toothpicks.
- Preheat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6
- Season the rolls with salt and pepper and dust them with the flour. Heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and add the rolls. Fry until seared and sealed all over, then pour in the white wine and allow it to evaporate. Add the reserved mushrooms and the chicken stock, then transfer to a large baking dish and place in the oven for 7-8 minutes. Check they are hot right through by sticking a toothpick into the centre of a couple of rolls; it should come out warm.
- Lift the rolls out of the sauce into a serving dish and remove the rosemary or toothpicks, stir the parsley into the sauce and pour over the rolls
Aubergine and Chocolate Cake (Melanzane e Cioccolato)
"You're probably thinking this sounds like a very strange combination, but southern Italians like to mix sweet and savory - it's our Moorish legacy, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be surprised by how well the aubergine works in a cake. Its mild, smoky flavor is simply complemented by the chocolate and above all it just gives the cake a beautifully moist, fudgy consistency. The idea for this cake comes from a traditional Neapolitan recipe, which you’ll see served along the Amalfi Coast, particularly around the 15th August, Italy’s national day. Layers of fried aubergine are dipped in sugar, spread with chocolate and sometimes ricotta. It is very unusual but is a real treasure from South Italy and I’d like to see the concept live on."
1 kg aubergines, cut in half lengthways
4 mint leaves, finely chopped
240g caster sugar
200g unsalted butter
225g dark chocolate (minimum 70 per cent cocoa solids)
140g ground hazelnuts
- Preheat the oven to 200ºC /fan 180ºC /gas 6. Place the aubergine halves on a baking tray and cook until the flesh is really soft and the skin is burnt – it should take 30 – 45 minutes.
- Transfer the aubergine to a bowl, cover with cling film, leave to cool then scoop the flesh out of the skin and discard the skin. Place in a sieve for a few hours to drain the liquid so that most of it is gone. Finally, roughly chop the aubergine and stir through the mint.
- Heat the oven to 160ºC /fan 140ºC /gas 3. Grease a 23cm cake tin with butter and line the bottom with baking paper.
- Place the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of just simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Heat gently to allow the chocolate and butter to melt then stir together carefully to combine. Set aside to cool a little.
- Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric whisk until very pale and fluffy. This will take about 10 – 15 minutes. Gently fold the butter and chocolate mixture into the eggs with a spatula, followed by the ground hazelnuts.
- Put the aubergine into a separate bowl, add about an eighth of the chocolate mixture and mix very well, then fold this into the rest of the chocolate mixture. Pour into the cake tin and bake for 1 – 1½ hours. To check it’s ready, insert a skewer in the centre – it should come out almost clean. It won’t come out completely clean as it is a moist cake. Leave to cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then turn out on to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Richard Vines is chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines