The region’s rural roots have given us some excellent dishes that are unique to the area. There are some dishes that are specific to a particular town, while others are found all around the region. The cucina povera is exulted in the south, where ingenuity combines with locally-grown produce with delicious results.
Here are ten things you should taste while visiting Basilicata.
1. Ciambotta. This is one of those dishes that varies by cook, but always means a tasty vegetable-based blend of goodness. The word ciambotta is used in the local dialect to mean “a mess” or turned into a verb (ciambottare) to say “throwing something together”. In other words, whatever you have on hand goes into it. Usually eggplant, peppers, a tomato or two, and potatoes, and sometimes eggs, in a sort of southern version of ratatouille.
2. Cavatelli. The hand-formed pasta shape of choice in Basilicata is the cavatelli, an egg-free winner that is formed by dragging nubs of the dough across a board using two or three fingers. The craters the fingers create hold the sauces, whether it be an everyday tomato ragu, cooked rapini greens (very popular here) or chickpeas (likewise), the cavatelli are the go-to pasta shape. Ear-shaped orecchiette and longer, flatter strascinati are also widely used (and also egg-free).
3. Caciocavallo podolico. To call is simply “aged cow’s milk cheese” is a great injustice to this complex charmer of a cheese, because it is a dairy product that makes your taste buds sing. Made from the scarce milk of pasture-grazed podolico breed cows, it exudes the flavors of the herbs and nuts it consumes. This is an eating and savoring cheese, especially good when grilled and drizzled with honey. But my favorite way to enjoy it is way to enjoy it is at the local festivals when the saddlebag-shaped cheese is suspended over hot coals and the melted creaminess is slathered on toasted bruschetta. Heaven on bread. Caciocavallo podolico from Basilicata is one of Italy’s most expensive cheeses.
4. Peperoni cruschi. The strings of peppers you’ll see drying in the sun are not spicy chile peppers, as one may suspect, but a thin sweet variety that are dried and kept, then flash-fried in olive oil to become crispy addictive treats. The cruschi are crumbled over pasta, in vegetable dishes, and eaten whole as part of the antipasto. A typical dish is cavatelli con la mollica di pane – with seasoned and fried bread crumbs and crumbled cruschi, a delectable poor man’s dish that used humble ingredients since cheese was too scarce to grate over pasta.
5. Lucanica. Both Cicero and Orazio waxed nostalgic about the porky treat called lucánica, which comes as sweet or spicy sausage, and fresh or cured versions. It is still made the same way it was back when the ancient Lucani people perfected it - selected pieces of pork and fat are cut by hand into small cubes (not ground), spiced with salt, pepper, ground peperone dolce (from those peperoni cruschi) and wild fennel seeds. The spicy version adds piccante chile powder to the mix. Either way, it’s moist and delicious, and is used in pasta sauce, simmered in wine, or grilled.
6. Pane. Basilicata glorifies bread and raises it far above the tasteless, salt-less mealy-textured “bread” of central Italy. Here, double-ground semola flour (the same used for cavatelli) makes a crusty loaf with a soft interior, and is baked in wood-fired ovens. This is what bread is supposed to be! The lumpy-shaped Matera bread has special protected (IGP) status as well as Slowfood recognition, and is considered by many to be the best bread in Italy. (They sort of duke it out with Altamura, whose bread is very similar.)
7. Lamb and Pecorino. (Bonus round!) You’ll see lots of sheep around Basilicata, so you can bet the lamb dishes are truly delectable. Whether it’s simply grilled or baked with wine and herbs, or topped with mollica di pane (crumbled bread crumbs) and baked, we enjoy its sweet-and-savory flavor immensely. Mutton is used to make a stew called cutturiedd’, a long-held tradition.
Likewise, those grazing sheep provide excellent milk that is used to make swoon-worthy pecorino cheese. We buy from a local producer in our village, but the varieties made in Filiano and Moliterno (called Canestrato) are both aged in grottoes, and are tastefully tempting and prized in other parts of Italy, as well.
8. Carne di cavallo. Yep, horse meat is a thing here. It’s especially popular in the Matera province in towns like Bernalda, and just across the border in Puglia, especially when enjoyed in a “braceria”. Specialized butchers raise and sell the meat in their shops, which then light up wood-fired grills in the evening. You select the meat you want and they cook it to perfection while you wait. Some offer a smattering of side dishes, along with local red wine to accompany the grilled meat.
9. La cialledda. Another one of the ingenious peasant dishes, this one takes stale bread which is dunked in water, squeezed dry and then crumbled. It’s then mixed with chopped fresh tomatoes, cooked rapini greens, olives and onions. It can be served hot or cold, and was frequently eaten during the harvests.
10. Rafanata. Utilizing ráfano (horseradish) root, which is referred to as “poor man’s truffle,” la rafanata is basically a frittata of eggs, potatoes or stale bread, grated horseradish and a generous handful of grated pecorino cheese. Sometimes it gets more decadent with crumbled sausage or various herbs. It’s usually served around Carnevale time for a spicy kick during the cold-weather festivities.ere.