Most Italian-Americans are from the South of Italy, mainly Abruzzo, Molise, Bari, Puglia, Naples, Campania, and Calabria, and immigrated to the United States out of extreme poverty in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Italians brought their culture to America with them including foods from the regions of their birth. Southern Italian cooking is the soul food of Italy. This food is unpretentious, tasteful, colorful and wholesome.
Southern Italians cook foods that are plentiful and originating from their own region. Molise has long, hot seasons which contributes to the abundance of vegetables, fruits, dark bitter greens, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, artichokes, lentils, fava beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, olives, wheat, corn, raw nuts, lemons and oranges. The poverty of Southern Italy created a regional cuisine that was almost entirely plant based. This is in complete opposition to that of Northern Italian food, which is meatier and creamier. Most of Italy’s southern population subsisted on a predominantly vegetarian diet.
Molise is a dense, mountainous region divided by the sea. Fresh fish and meat are included in Molise cuisine, however, as a compliment to a meal. Due to the rough mountain terrain of Molise, cows do not survive in the region. Therefore, beef, butter and cream do not play a role in Southern Italian cooking. On the other hand, pigs flourish in Molise and play a huge part in the creation of meat dishes. Molise is famous for cured, spicy meats from pork, such as prosciutto, mortadella and sausage. Lamb and chicken are other meats used in this cuisine. Olive oil is often used as a marinade to meats and poultry. From the sea, sardines, anchovies, eel and shellfish are some of the fish Molise people cook (in an olive oil or tomato base).
Red hot peppers ‘peperoncino’ (crushed red pepper flakes) are used to flavor many dishes. Peperoncino flakes awaken the tongue with bursts of intense heat, while ground peperoncino gives a hot, smoldering flavor to food. The Molise region is known for hotter, spicier dishes. Garlic, parsley, and onion are used in many Italian dishes. In Molise, cheese is made from the milk of goats and the water buffalo.
Some of Italy’s best cooks come from Molise. In the 1500s, nobles, along with the very rich who lived in other parts of Italy, would hire the best cooks from Molise, preferring fresh, stimulating foods of Southern Italy.
Southern Italian cuisine is cherished for its delicious, healthy meals at a time when clean eating and incorporating more fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes into our diets becomes more important to us.
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