It is always weirdly flattering to be told by someone that they love your Country. We all take pride in elements of our respective national identities over which we have absolutely no control. As an Italian, I am used to the fact that compliments of this nature will, sooner or later involve food to some extent. We might be discussing the benefit of the mediterranean diet or the simple pleasure of a properly baked pizza and eventually it will be clear that we perceive our own cuisine very differently from everyone else. For instance, I have had friends visiting Italy in August and order lasagna in a seaside restaurant, much to the puzzlement of the restaurant staff, or reminisce about the delicious Panettone they tasted on their last holiday and expect to find one at the local supermarket. Italian food abroad is mostly seen as a crystallised whole, with a few fixed distinguishing features. The truth is much more complex. We have already offered you a few examples of the regional differences that make Italian cuisine so rich and varied, now it seems like the right time to talk about seasonal recipes. Italy enjoys a mediterranean summer, ranging from sultry to cool, suited to lighter and less complicated recipes than those popular in winter. If you are visiting Italy over the summer, you might want to try these 7 recipes.
Gallipoli Swordfish fillet (Apulia)
Gallipoli is a small seaside town in Salento. Quiet and unremarkable in winter, over the summer it turns into a local nightlife hotspot, with fashionable clubs and discos and thousands of tourists causing the local population to swell from the usual 20.000 residents to over 300.000 at any given time, with over 2 million tourists per season. Before it evolved into a popular tourist destination, however, Gallipoli had been an important port for centuries. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most dishes originating from this area are fish-based. Swordfish is a particular favourite of the Ionian regions: meaty and rich, fatter than most fish but still healthy and above all delicious, it forms the basis for many local specialities. The traditional way of cooking swordfish fillet in Gallipoli involves coating it in breadcrumbs and serving it with cherry-tomatoes and rocket salad.
This recipe’s original purpose was to recycle leftovers and reuse stale bread, at a time when wasting food was simply unconceivable. When bread is no longer crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, it can still form the basis for a typical tuscan dish, that has been adapted with minor variations in several other Italian regions. The bread is soaked in water for at least an hour and then roughly chopped up and added to a salad of sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, sprinkled generously with extra-virgin olive oil and garnished with basil and seasoned at will. The assembled Panzanella must be kept in the fridge for at least an hour before serving. The result is a surprisingly tasty ensemble, as well as a quick and cheap alternative for the traditional Italian first course (usually involving pasta).
Impepata di cozze (Campania)
You might never learn to pronounce the name of this dish correctly, but you are guaranteed to love it, particularly if you visit the south of Italy over the summer and you are partial to seafood. This mussel-based recipe is incredibly versatile and works equally well as a hors d’oeuvre or a main course. The key to a perfect Impepata are, of course, fresh and tasty mussels (“cozze”). The seasoning is as basic as it gets: a clove of garlic, chopped up parsley and a more than generous sprinkle of black pepper. The mussels will literally do the rest: they will open when cooked, releasing their natural juice and soaking up the seasoning, creating a tasty soup that is best accompanied by fresh bread or croutons. Mussels are incredibly rich in nutrients, as well as utterly delicious. The vast majority of mussels sold in Italy nowadays are farmed and come from a controlled environment, which makes them safe to eat.
Stuffed Squid (Sardinia)
When you are visiting one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean, seafood is likely to make up a large part of your diet and it is also likely to be the best you have ever tried. Stuffed squid is a local delicacy that uses a quirk of nature to create a light and tasty combination of flavours. In most Italian regions, squid is usually served chopped up into rings, to be fried or boiled, but this recipe uses the natural shape of the squid’s head as a pocket, to be stuffed with dried tomatoes, breadcrumbs, eggs and the fried tentacles of the squid itself. The pocket is then sealed, sprinkled with cool Vermentino and oven-roasted. Try this on a cool summer night, possibly outdoors. And keep that bottle of Vermentino handy: it is the perfect match for this delicious recipe.
Pasta alla norma (Sicily)
This is a traditional Sicilian dish and among the most popular pasta recipes in Italy. It originated in the area of Catania and it’s named after Vincenzo Bellini’s operatic masterpiece. It is not clear who and why thought that a story of war, occupation, betrayal, near-infanticide and ultimately suicide could be summed up in fried aubergines, tomatoes, ricotta cheese and basil, but there you go. It is equally unclear who thought that a main course containing cheese and fried vegetables was to be considered a typical summer delicacy, but apparently that’s what it is. I personally wouldn’t recommend having this for lunch on a hot day, although it might be an ideal choice for dinner, provided that it is as part of a one-course meal and there’s plenty of cool white wine to accompany it.
Codfish & potatoes (Calabria)
Like swordfish and salmon, codfish ranks among the fatter and richer types of seafood, particularly salted codfish, which is commonly (but not necessarily) used for this recipe. Just like pasta alla norma, this dish is best served on its own, with nothing heavier than a fruit salad to follow. Traditionally, one of the great merits of codfish was the relatively easy process of salting it and keeping it longer than most fish, so that it could be stored. It was also historically cheaper than other seafood products, making it a favourite of the working classes. The combination of codfish and potatoes is common in several reasons. The Calabrian version includes white onions, dried peppers and a spoonful of sweet paprika. This being Calabria, most households will favour the spicy version, with an extra spoonful of hot paprika thrown into the mix, but that’s entirely up to you. Generally speaking, if spicy food are not your cup of tea, Calabria might not be your ideal holiday destination. Just saying…
Sea urchin linguine (Apulia)
There are two possible attitudes to eating sea urchins: upon first becoming aware of the possibility, people are usually fascinated or horrified. The same goes for tasting sea urchins for the first time. The bright orange flesh that can be found on the inside of a particular variety of sea urchin (Paracentrotus lividus) has a sweet and pungent flavour, that blends perfectly with fresh pasta such as linguine. In some restaurants you will find the same recipe served with spaghetti, but the purists will tell you that it is unacceptable to eat sea urchins with anything but linguine (and it’s is linguine, by the way, not linguini). If you happen to visit Salento and you explore the rocky part of its shores, you will often come across divers of every age and gender surfacing with a knife in one hand and a net containing a handful of sea urchins in the other and then sitting down on a rock and, one by one, opening and eating them raw. This is our version of sushi. And yes, we are aware of how weird it looks.