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, except for the less-than-appealing Reggio Calabria, a city used as a jump-off point for traffic heading into Sicilia, the whole coastline is relatively empty with beautiful and immaculate sparkling water beaches. In the middle of the province, there stand gorgeously mountainous forestlands with very few towns and even fewer restaurants. This bodes well for the topographically and gastronomically inclined traveler, but poorly for the club-hopper looking for the disco scene. In short, this is ideal for me.
The food of Calabria is clean and spicy, incorporating 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 even the mixed seafood grill at dinner. You heard me say, “gelato for breakfast, right?” Oh yeah! The Calabrese love to eat their gelato for breakfast on a soft, sweet roll like a sandwich, with their cappuccino to wash it down. The spicy, hot peperoncino plays into nearly all meals and olio santo (the spicy chili oil) rests on almost every table in the region. With restaurants neither fancy nor elaborate, the dishes of the region offer exquisite, honest food. 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 CD’s into the stereo and admire the eye-popping scenery while you ride in your air-conditioned pod from town-to-town.
Across the toe of the boot, traveling south a bit more, lie Vibo Valentia and Tropea, both small towns with real food and real markets.
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 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.
Start with delicious air-filled ricotta and anchovy fritters which set the tone for a beautiful lunch of includes monkfish polpette, and mussels in a sweet pepper stew with olio santo that could soothe any savage beast.
L’Approdo in Vibo Marina is the best of the area. There 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.
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.