Like many Americans with ancestral roots in the toe of Italy's boot, I grew up thinking that Calabrian food and Italian-American food were one and the same—saucy, satisfying cucina povera. When I finally visited extended family in this remote region, I was awed by what I found: here was spicy salami that hung in my cousin's home; freshly made ricotta for breakfast; roasted rabbit for lunch. I spent hours in the kitchen with my aunts, rolling out pastas in shapes I'd never seen before.
I felt that awe all over again when reading the new book My Calabria (W. W. Norton, $35), the first authoritative tome devoted to this region's cookery, written by Rosetta Costantino with food writer Janet Fletcher. A California-based cooking teacher from the Calabrian village of Verbicaro, Costantino is a passionate and knowledgeable guide. She gives us glossaries on local cheeses, pastas, and cured meats; a chapter on key ingredients, from capers to wild fennel; step-by-step instructions on making ricotta and other foods; and sidebars on everything from the prized local licorice to the Arberesh, a community of Calabrians with Albanian roots.
My Calabria is a personal story, too; hardly a page goes by without an anecdote that illuminates the culture of the region: festivals, folklore, the way life revolves around the kitchen. Many of the book's 110 recipes illustrate the ingenuity behind Calabria's cucina povera, whether it's a velvety soup born of basically just onions, water, and Pecorino, or a snack of sun-dried zucchini. They range from quick and easy—like a lusty dish of swordfish seared and simmered, "glutton's style," with olives and capers (see Recipe: Pesce Spada alla Ghiotta)--to project-oriented. You could spend all afternoon rolling pasta around a knitting needle in the local fashion, but for a taste of this unsung region, it would be time well spent.