view of tropea red onions in a bunch from bottom view, picturing only roots and red/white part of onions for sale
Home » Italian Regions » Traditional Calabrian Food – A Guide to Foods You Must Try During Your Visit

Traditional Calabrian Food – A Guide to Foods You Must Try During Your Visit

Last updated on April 17th, 2024

Calabria is one of Italy’s less talked about regions, but don’t let that scare you away!

Calabria has everything you want from Italy: amazing food, the slow and relaxed way of life you desire on vacation, and some of the best and least-explored archeological sites. 

The region is so complex that you could spend weeks eating your way through town after town and not eat the same thing twice, but I will be brief and to the point, giving you all the info you want to know on Calabria’s most loved and most popular foods worth trying. 

I will review pronunciation (as it can be quite challenging) and include short descriptions so you know exactly what you are ordering. Bookmark this page, make it available offline, print it, and do whatever possible to have this handy as your quick guide to the food scene in Calabria!

Calabrian Food vs Italian Food

Calabria has a lot to offer from a geographical point of view: it has highlands, beautiful mountains, more coast than any other mainland region in Italy, and ideal warm weather, all of which have helped to shape its food culture.

Two distinguishing factors set Calabrian food apart from general Italian food. The first is the concept of the cucina povera, or the poor man’s way of cooking, based on the principle of turning only a few local ingredients into extraordinary dishes.  

Because of this, many strong flavors such as cured meats and rich cheeses play a huge role in the daily diet, making it easy to make even the most ordinary slice of bread explode with flavor. Spice (as in hot spicy peppers) is the other main flavor and spice that is called for in almost every Calabrian recipe.

Secondly, because Calabria is and has been one of Italy’s poorest regions, its people have mastered the art of preserving its bountiful harvests to last even in the harshest of times, such as drought. Not one stalk of celery or carrot is wasted but rather pickled, turned into jams or preserved in some other way to be used in another moment when perhaps the crops are not as prolific. Curing meat/seafood and cheese production are their other main ways to keep a stock of food always at hand, and it’s some of the best around! 

Calabrian food is chock-full of vegetables and their most well-known crop is the Tropea onion – you’ll notice is everywhere! Its vast coastline (over 500 miles!) also means a fishing tradition (mostly swordfish), while pork, sheep, and goat are popular in the mountains. This being said, Calabrian food consists mostly of vegetables and wheat. Meat and fish are supplemental. 

Let’s take a look at some Calabrian foods and dishes you should try on your visit:

‘Nduja

'nduja spread on a slice of white bread on white plate garnished with spicy red peppers

(Pronounced nn-dooh-yah in Italian)

Probably the most representative ingredient in Calabrian cooking. It is a spicy pâté-like spreadable cured meat made with finely minced pork fat and meat, chili peppers and salt. The best way to eat this is spread on fresh bread but it is also used in many dishes as it adds lots of body and flavor. 

Guanciale

side view of stacked cured bacon for sale

(Pronounced gwahn-chah-leh in Italian)

Sometimes referred to as buccalaru or vuccularo in the local dialect, guanciale is made by curing the pork fat that comes from the neck and head.

Soppressata di Calabria DOP

close up of soppressata with two cut slices on a wooden cutting board

(Pronounced sohp-prehs-sah-tah dee cah-lah-bree-ah in Italian)

Also known as suppizzata, this cured meat is made from both lean pork and fat flavored with spicy chili and fennel.

Capocollo di Calabria DOP

capocollo vacuum packed being sold at a market with a handwritten sign on a dark piece of paper

(Pronounced cah-poh-cohl-loh dee cah-lah-bree-ah in Italian)

This popular cured meat is made from pork loin which is deboned, salted and left for 4-10 days, at which point it is washed in water and vinegar. It is then aged for at least three months. This is always served on charcuterie boards

Provola

Basket with Italian cheese provola with lemons close up

(Pronounced proh-voh-lah in Italian) 

This world-renowned cow’s milk cheese is very “sturdy” and holds up well, and is shaped like a pear with a yellow rind. You will see it incorporated in many dishes but we suggest trying it grilled! 

Butirro

(Pronounced boo-teer-roh in Italian)

This is such a luxurious cheese that’s very popular in the summertime. It’s a kneaded curd cheese fruity in flavor consisting of an outer shell and a creamy, buttery soft inside. 

Caciocavallo

many caciocavallo cheeses being hung in a room by strings

(Pronounced cah-choh-cah-vahl-loh in Italian)

This cow’s milk cheese is made throughout southern Italy but here in Calabria it is produced in Sila. As it ages, it takes on a strong flavor perfect for grating and incorporating into dishes. 

Pecorino Del Monte Poro

side view od several pecorino cheese forms stacked with top cheeses cut open

(Pronounced peh-coh-ree-noh dehl mohn-teh poh-roh in Italian)

Produced in the province of Vibo Valentia, this sheep’s milk cheese is one of the best in all of southern Italy. Please don’t leave Calabria without trying it!

Ricotta Affumicata Crotonese 

(Pronounced ree-coht-tah ahf-foo-mee-cah-tah croh-toh-neh-seh in Italian)

A typical cheese from Mammola made from the remaining whey of the cheese-making process. The cheese is then smoked with the help of fragrant local plants and chestnuts. 

Giuncata

(Pronounced joon-cah-tah in Italian)

This is a slightly acidic cream cheese made in Sila from cow’s or goat’s milk.

Riccotone Salato

(Pronounced reek-coh-toh-neh sah-lah-toh in Italian)

It is made from November until July from a mix of milks and has a strong taste, almost spicy. 

Zeppole Calabresi

(Pronounced zehp-poh-leh cah-lah-breh-see in Italian)

A savory donut filled with anchovies or sardines and lots of mozzarella. They are so good and very popular amongst the locals.

Piccantino

(Pronounced peek-cahn-tee-noh in Italian)

This is a mushroom-based sauce that is flavored with hot peppers, eggplant, olive oil, herbs, salt, and vinegar. It can be used with cheeses or on toasted bread as an appetizer.

More Veg Please: Check out my list of Vegetarian Dishes to Try in Italy.

Sardella

two wooden crates of sardines on the ground from birds eye view

(Pronounced sahr-dehl-lah in Italian)

Known as “caviar of the poor” by the locals, this condiment is made with baby sardines and lots of spicy chili pepper! It is often thinned out with olive oil and combined with the local Tropea onions, slathered on bread. 

Fileja

(Pronounced fee-leh-yah in Italian)

One of Calabria’s favorite local pasta shapes made with durum wheat and water. It is made by wrapping fresh dough around a tool known as a ferretto, similar to a dowel, to form a slightly twisted pasta shape. You won’t meet a Calabrese nonna who doesn’t know how to do this and you can be sure she is willing to teach anyone who asks! 

Fileja ‘Nduja

(Pronounced fee-leh-yah nn-dooh-yah in Italian)

The local pasta is dressed in a hearty sauce made from the spicy ‘nduja sausage. 

Learn More: Read all about the Different Types of Italian Sausage.

Pasta e Patate Ara Tijeddra

(Peonounced pah-stah eh pah-tah-teh ahr-ah tee-yehd-drah in Italian)

Cooked pasta and cooked potatoes are mixed with tomato sauce, cheese (the kind will vary depending on the family recipe) and breadcrumbs and then cooked in the oven until a crispy crust has formed. 

Maccheroni col Ferretto

(Pronounced mahk-kehr-oh-nee cohl fehr-reht-toh in Italian)

This is another local pasta shape made with the same ferretto as used to make fileja. The rolled-out dough is wrapped around the small rod into a sort of corkscrew shape and often served with rich game ragùs or with ‘nduja.

Lasagane e Cicciari

shallow white bowl full of wide pasta and chickpeas

(Renounced lah-sahn-yeh eh cheech-chah-ree in Italian)

Handmade fresh pasta is cut into wide ribbons and tossed with chickpeas that have been flavored with rosemary, garlic and of course, spicy chili peppers. 

Vegan tip: order lagane e cicciari for a vegan-friendly option. This dish is a staple so many places will serve it. 

Ravioli alla Calabrese

ravioli calabresi covered in a tomato sauce and garnished with basil

(Pronounced rah-vee-oh-lee ahl-lah cah-lah-breh-seh in Italian) 

This fresh pasta is filled with some of Calabria’s finest flavors: pecorino, provola, eggs and soppressata. The ravioli is served in a spicy pork and tomato sauce.

Pasta o’ Fùrnu

close up of white ceramic rectangle pan holding pasta o furnu with a fork pulling up a bite

(Pronounced pah-stah oh foor-noo in Italian)

Also called pasta ‘ncasciàta depending on where you are, this baked pasta starts with rigatoni dressed in a meat ragù, which is then layered with sliced eggplant, meatballs, cheese, cured meats and hard-boiled eggs. There certainly are a lot of flavors going on but it’s a favorite for Sunday lunches or big crowds in Calabrese families. 

Pasta alla Jonica 

(Pronounced pah-stah ahl-lah yoh-nee-kah in Italian)

Spaghetti is dressed in tomato sauce flavored with local guanciale, sweet or hot peppers, garlic and basil. Right before serving it is sprinklings with pecorino cheese. 

Rigatoni alla Silana

(Pronounced ree-gah-toh-nee ahl-lah see-lah-nah in Italian)

Originating in the Sila plateau, this rich and hearty primo is a staple during the winter. Tomatoes are cooked with locally foraged porcini mushrooms, spicy peppers, pecorino, caciocavallo and various meats such as soppressata, sausage and guanciale. This is another one of those recipes that will vary depending on the town and time you are visiting. 

Fact: Calabria is Italy’s largest producer of wild mushrooms. They are often preserved dried or packed in oil and added to other seasonings in many Calabrian dishes. 

Pasta e Alici 

(Pronounced pah-stah eh ah-lee-chee in Italian)

This is one of my favorite Calabrian pastas. It’s made from anchovies, oil, onion, chili peppers, and breadcrumbs. Sometimes nuts or citrus are added to the sauce. Don’t be afraid of anchovies though! They are slightly scary if you aren’t used to eating them but they are really just salty bits that add so much depth to simple dishes. 

Licurdia 

(Pronounced lee-coor-dee-ah in Italian)

A filling soup that embodies the Calabrian cucina povera by using whatever fresh produce is in season and the region’s popular Tropea onion as the base. Chili peppers add heat and potatoes and stale bread add body making for a hearty dish to warm up to during winter travels. 

Zuppa di Asparagi

(Pronounced zoop-pah dee ahs-pahr-ah-gee in Italian)

Wild asparagus grows throughout Calabria. This soup captures the essence of wild asparagus seasoned with garlic and pecorino cheese. Creamy yet light, this is a must-try in the spring!

Ciambotta

close up of ciambotta on a white shallow bowl

(Pronounced chahm-boht-tah in Italian)

This spicy eggplant stew is made with tomatoes, onion, local herbs and chili peppers. Although this recipe is typically vegetarian, be sure to double-check! 

Just Ask: Want to be sure if something is vegetarian or vegan? Simply ask, “Questo piatto è vegetariano/vegano?” (Pronounced qweh-stoh pee-aht-toh eh vehj-eh-tah-ree-ah-noh/veh-gah-noh)

Capra alla Bovese

(Pronounced cah-prah ahl-lah boh-veh-seh in Italian)

Also known as Capra alla vutana, slow cooked goat meat stewed with various local herbs, typical of mountain towns. Also look for roasted kid (baby goat).

Frittole

(Pronounced freet-toh-leh in Italian)

This is an enormous pot of boiled pork known as “The Calabrian Pig Boil” from the town of Reggio Calabria. Made with a highly prized breed, the black pig of Calabria, almost every piece of the pig (divided and cut into pieces) is boiled in a large copper pot lined with pork fat. The pieces are added depending on how long they take to cook but the whole process takes about 8 hours and the result is heaping piles of fall-off-the-bone pork fit for a large crowd! 

Pesce Spada alla Ghiotta

(Pronounced peh-sheh spah-dah ahl-lah gee-oht-tah in Italian)

Calabria’s most popular fish, swordfish, is served as a thick-cut steak with tomato sauce made with capers, anchovies, garlic, olives, pine nuts and raisins (influence from Sicily). 

Polpette di Melanzane

close up of fried polpette di melanzane

(Pronounced pohl-peht-teh dee mehl-ahn-zah-neh in Italian)

Vegetarian meatless balls made from eggplant, pecorino cheese and stale bread, often eaten as street food, snacks or appetizers. 

Polpette alla Mammolese

(Pronounced pohl-peht-teh ahl-lah mahm-moh-leh-seh in Italian)

These pork and goat cheese meatballs from the mountains of Mammola are simmered in a spicy tomato sauce until tender. 

Melanzane Ripiene

(Pronounced meh-lahn-zah-neh ree-pee-eh-neh in Italian)

This stuffed eggplant is perhaps the most famous way to prepare this beloved vegetable. Pecorino, stale bread, eggs, parsley and garlic are stuffed into hollowed-out eggplant halves, covered in tomato sauce and baked in the oven. Some recipes call for meat. This dish is great either hot or at room temperature on hotter days. 

Parmigiana alla Calabrese

(Pronounced pahr-mee-gahn-ah ahl-lah cah-lah-breh-seh in Italian)

This is not your run-of-the-mill eggplant parmesan. It starts with traditional layers of fried eggplant, tomato sauce, fresh basil and various cheeses (provola, mozzarella and pecorino). Then, hard-boiled eggs and salsiccia calabrese are added to the mix. Extra rich but extra delicious

Pane di Cerchiara

whole pan di cerchiara on a dark wooden surface

(Pronounced pah-neh dee chehr-kee-ahr-ah in Italian)

This bread is still cooked in ancient furnaces run by the local women of Cosenza who supply the whole region with this type of bread. Pretty impressive if you ask me!

Pane di Margone

(Pronounced pah-neh dee mahr-goh-neh in Italian)

From the small town of Mangone, this bread is made to stay fresh and soft for several days. With a thin crust but pillowy crumb, this bread is made from local wheat and water from Sila.

Fact: Calabrian cooking is so regional it even calls for water from Sila, the mountain plateau of Calabria, in some recipes! 

Biscotto di Grano

(Pronounced bee-scoht-toh dee grah-noh in Italian)

This hard bread needs to be dunked quickly in water before being enjoyed with fresh tomatoes and olive oil. 

Pitta

(Pronounced peet-tah)

Generally speaking, this is a pizza dough stuffed with a range of local cheeses, vegetables or cured meats and thus the name of the pitta will reflect what is hiding inside. 

Tip: Check out any local panificio or bakery to get your hands on authentic pitta. In such untouched areas like Calabria, most bakeries will be amazing as tourism hasn’t yet descended upon them – they have to impress the locals to stay in business.

Morzello 

(Pronounced mohr-zehl-loh in Italian)

Known in local dialect as morzeddhu, this stew is made with calf’s tripe and offal (the organs/leftover parts of the animal) cooked slowly in tomatoes flavored with spicy peppers, bay leaves, olive oil, and oregano. 

Morzello nella Pitta

(Pronounced mohr-zehl-loh nehl-lah peet-tah in Italian)

Morzello, prepared as described above, is stuffed in the traditional pitta and eaten as a sandwich as a mid-morning snack for early risers or for lunch. 

Pizza Calabrese

zoomed in birds eye image of pizza calabrese topped with onions, olives and salami

(Pronounced peets-zah cah-lah-breh-seh in Italian)

Calabrian pizza is characterized by its paper thin, crusty crust. Calabrians like to go heavy on the toppings with things like salami, olives, red peppers and/or ‘nduja. What’s not to love about that? 

Tartufo di Pizzo

(Pronounced tahr-too-foh dee peets-zoh in Italian)

This is Calabria’s most prized gelato creation from pizza where it is said to have been invented in 1952 at the Gelateria Dante. It is made by encasing a molten chocolate filling with two layers of gelato and rolled in cocoa powder to balance out the sweetness. Nowadays, you will see many varieties that use different gelato flavors with almonds or walnuts. This is an absolute must-try for everyone who visits Calabria! 

We Recommend: “Bar Gelateria Ercole” is the most famous stop to try the tartufo di pizzo.

Petrali

(Pronounced peh-trah-lee in Italian)

A short crust cookie stuffed with a filling of nuts, vino cotto (a sweet wine), chocolate and candied fruit served during the Christmas holidays. 

Crema Reggina

(Pronounced creh-mah rehg-gee-nah in Italian)

This is the region’s most famous ice cream flavored with rum and dotted with bits of chocolate and candied fruit. The original recipe calls for Alchermes liqueur to achieve the pink color, but it is often just food coloring.

Ginetti

(Pronounced gee-neht-tee in Italian)

These cookies, made for Easter and weddings, are anise or lemon flavored and double-baked. First, they are boiled in water and then oven-baked before being glazed with lemon icing. 

Sgute

(Pronounced sgoo-teh in Italian)

Known in many ways, aggute, cuddhuraci or cuzzupe, it’s tradition on Easter to make this sweet brioche bread encasing at least one hard-boiled egg in the shape of a handbag, or some other decorative shape. 

Nacatule 

(Pronounced nah-cah-too-leh in Italian)

This is a type of dough that is fried crisp and covered in powdered sugar. It’s often in a shape resembling a baby bassinet in celebration of baby Jesus. Look for them at Carnival time.

Susumelle

(Pronounced soo-soo-MEHL-leh in Italian)

These are dry, crisp cookies flavored with honey, cocoa powder and cinnamon, and finished with a layer of melted chocolate. They’re ideal for dipping into dessert wines or coffee, and typically served during Christmas. 

Fact: Calabria’s traditional sweets are often made using natural sweeteners such as honey, fig syrup or mulled wine instead of processed sugar. 

Pitta ‘mpigliata

(Pronounced PEET-tah mm-pee-YAH-tah in Italian)

Another dessert made for the Christmas holidays from pastry filled with walnuts, raisins, orange zest, various spices and drizzled with plenty of  honey.

Pitta di San Martino 

(Pronounced PEET-tah dee sahn mahr-TEE-noh in Italian)

Also known as pitta nchiusa, this version has deep roots in ancient Greece. These cookies are stuffed with a mixture of almonds, raisins, walnuts, pine nuts and dried figs but the recipe can vary. 

Pignolata

zoom in on struffoli drizzled in honey and covered in colored round sprinkles

(Pronounced peen-yoh-LAH-tah in Italian)

This is Calabria’s version of a southern staple made of small balls of fried dough mounded high and drizzled with warm honey.

Torrone

(Pronounced tohr-ROH-neh in Italian)

This Italian nougat is made with locally sourced ingredients, including various nuts, caramelized sugar, vanilla, spices, honey and sometimes orange essence. 

Cuddruriaddri

(Pronounced cood-droo-ree-ahd-dree in Italian) 

Although they might be slightly hard to pronounce, don’t hesitate to order them. You will easily find these handmade sweet donuts on every street corner during Christmas. Don’t miss them straight out of the fryer!

Mostaccioli

zoom in on mustaccioli - mostaccioli - chocolate covered cookies garnished with star anise

(Pronounced moh-STAHCH-choh-lee in Italian)

This is a hard gingerbread made with fig syrup, wine, and locally sourced spices. Available in all shapes and sizes, these cookies have a very long shelf life, so they are great for bringing home after your holiday travels. 

Local Crops

view of tropea red onions in a bunch from bottom view, picturing only roots and red/white part of onions for sale
  1. Tropea onions: these beautiful bright purple onions are incredibly sweet and used in almost any dish possible in Calabria. They are also wonderful raw! 
  2. Bergamot: a large, knobby-looking citrus fruit that grows so well in Calabria that they produce 90% of the world’s yield! Although bergamot is most commonly known for its strong oil, it is used by locals mostly in cooking. We Recommend: Gelato di bergamot or granita di bergamot in the summer heat. 
  3. Liquorice: Calabrian liquorice is considered the best in the world but because they don’t produce very much most of it is used domestically and never makes it beyond its borders. If you see fields with yellow flowers you are looking at liquorice crops. 
  4. Patata di Sila: high starch content which makes them very tasty and also more nutritious than your average spud.
  5. Belmonte calabro pomodoro: a very acidic tomato only grown in southern Italy that should only be eaten raw in salads.
  6. Chili peppers: hotter than your typical chili pepper, these red beauties are dried in the sun before being used year-round to flavor and preserve many foods. 
pile of bright green bergamots from birds eye view
Bergamots

Calabrian DOC Wines

  • Cirò (Catanzaro)
  • Melissa (Catanzaro)
  • Lametia (Piana di Lamezia Terme)
  • Savuto (Cosenza province)
  • Donnici (Crati Valley, Cosenza province)
  • Graco di Gerace (Locri)
  • Sant’Anna (Isola Capo Rizzuto)

Traditional Food of Calabria FAQ

What should I drink in Calabria?

Liquore al bergamotto: the region’s own digestif made from the native bergamot citrus fruit. It is similar to limoncello, sweet and thick with a bright yellow color.

What is a good food item to bring home with me from Calabria? 

Pick up some of their famous dried tomatoes, which are preserved in oil with basil, anchovies and hot pepper. They are traditionally eaten as appetizers or to accompany meat. You can buy them in jars at various food shops.
Another fun item is bergamot-flavored tea or even perfumes if you are hunting for someone who isn’t necessarily a foodie.