Our cookbook of the week is Food of the Italian South by Rome-based culinary writer Katie Parla. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Manell’ (fried polenta fritters), orecchiette con burrata, pomodorini e pesto (orecchiette with burrata, tomatoes and almond pesto) and cozze ripiene (stuffed mussels).
Stuck in a sheep traffic jam as wild horses gallop by and cows graze at the side of the road, Katie Parla has often wondered why she can drive for hours and not see another soul in Italy’s rural south. “You’re like, ‘Where is everyone? Why aren’t there more people exploring these places?’ and the simple reason is they’re all in Florence, Rome and Venice,” she says. “That’s what’s really cool about travelling through South Italy. You can feel like you’re having a true adventure; seeing things that few people on the planet have witnessed, especially Anglophone travellers. It’s such a fun experience.”
A journalist and culinary guide originally from New Jersey, Parla moved to Rome in 2003. Her chosen home became the subject of her first cookbook, Tasting Rome (Clarkson Potter, 2016; with Kristina Gill). She had always thought her family was from Naples, and intent on discovering her roots, travelled to Campania’s capital regularly. However, following her maternal grandmother’s death, her mother found a hand-drawn family tree that told a different story. Naples, a city she had grown to love, was simply her family’s point of departure. Parla’s true ancestral homeland was Spinoso, a village 200 kilometres away in Basilicata.
“Like a lot of Italian-Americans and italo-canadesi (Italian Canadians) who are from third-generation families, you have a vague idea of where you’re from. My family for literal generations just said, ‘We’re from Naples.’ No further explanation, no investigation because people were really, really eager to leave the poverty of the past behind,” says Parla. “Previously I’d spent a lot of time in Lecce, Bari and Napoli, and knowing that instead I was from a family of shepherds, which we were able to trace at the vital statistics office in this tiny village, really sparked my interest in a more rustic, rural, mountain travel through the south.”
Her second book, Food of the Italian South (Clarkson Potter, 2019), is the result of more than 15 years of such expeditions. In developing the collection of 90 recipes – all adapted for ease of use in North American kitchens – Parla met with bakers, chefs, farmers and home cooks throughout the regions of Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria. (South Italy is not to be confused with Southern Italy, which encompasses Sardinia and Sicily, as well as the lower peninsula.)
Many of the foods foreigners associate with Italy – from tomato-rich dishes to durum wheat pasta and salted anchovies to buffalo mozzarella – are, in fact, classics of the south. Likewise, Parla emphasizes, are cookbook and menu mainstays such as caprese salad and eggplant Parmesan. However, with Food of the Italian South, her intention was to shine a light on the products and recipes that hadn’t yet traversed the Atlantic.
Although a handful of the recipes may be familiar, such as minestra maritata (Italian wedding soup), the balance are obscure – each contributing to a deeper understanding of the history and flavours of the south. For example, manell’ (fried polenta fritters) are made exclusively in the commune of Cerreto Sannita; orecchiette con burrata, pomodorini e pesto (orecchiette with burrata, tomatoes and almond pesto) is a contemporary dish with origins in the poverty-stricken past of the city of Andria; and cozze ripiene (stuffed mussels), while hugely popular throughout Puglia, are lesser-known elsewhere.
“This is changing in North America because you have ambassadors like Rob Gentile in Toronto, among others, who are talking about regional differences. But 10 years ago or even fewer, people would say ‘Italian cuisine’ rather than thinking the cuisine of Abruzzo or the cuisine of Calabria or the cuisine of Puglia or the cuisine of Sicily,” says Parla, adding that in reading the book, she hopes people will continue to reflect on these particularities and recreate the dishes in their own kitchens using ingredients local to them.
“And the most expensive prospect, I hope that people will travel to the south,” she laughs. “For those who can sneak away for a week or tack on a few days in the south to their trinity of visits to Venice, Florence and Rome, they’ll find some really delicious things. They’ll find some really fascinating experiences. And they can help preserve the flavours of the south by visiting small businesses there or by cooking and eating those things in their own homes.”