In her latest book, Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily, author Rosetta Costantino has gathered 76 favorite desserts and master recipes from her Southern Italian homeland. These areas have a history of rich traditions and tasty desserts, many of them tied to holidays and festivals.
Organized by region, with each chapter showcasing the area’s best offerings, the recipes range from simple home desserts to cutting-edge creations of Southern Italy’s finest restaurants and pastry shops. All of the most classic and regionally important desserts are featured, as well as new creations (like the delicious cannoli ice cream that burst on the Italian scene just last summer).
Beyond its unique and fascinating topic, and a breathtaking package—the book’s recipes are extraordinary. For anyone that has ever wanted to travel to Italy, the book presents a food lover’s dream, transporting you to the most exquisite part of the Italian meal experience: dessert.
With fail-proof recipes and information on the desserts’ cultural origins and context, Southern Italian Desserts illuminates the previously unexplored confectionary traditions of this enchanting region. And like the region itself, this cookbook will entice all who discover it to return again and again.
We asked Rosetta to share her experience and some background on Italian food culture with us. Here was our conversation:
Can you share with our readers the top 5 desserts or dishes that your family would have on the table for the holidays?
I will pick the region where I was born and grew up, Calabria. I will use Christmas Eve as a holiday as it is one of the biggest holiday event coming up for us.
For Christmas Eve, and this is true for all of Italy, our meal is based on seafood. One type of dish that will show up on all Southern Italian family tables on Christmas Eve is baccala (salted cod), whether it is fried, baked, in a salad or with pasta it will be on our table. The other types of fish varies depending on where you live, if you are on the coast line you will see all types of fish (swordfish, tuna, shellfish, squid, etc.) and if you live inland you will more dishes using anchovies or salted cod in place of fresh fish. At our table here in California, I will have crab, squid, shrimps, clams, mussels, baccala, swordfish, tuna. If you need a typical menu that would be served on Christmas Eve you can look at my website for the Christmas Eve dinner cooking class. As for desserts there are a lot of similarities in Southern Italy as we all prepare traditional desserts this time of the year. What is typical all over Southern Italy is a sweet fried dough shaped in various ways and coated with honey or grape must or fig syrup this time of the year.
In my region at Christmas type you would find Grispelle (yeasted dough with or without potatoes) shaped like a doughnut and coated with honey or sprinkled with sugar, cannariculi, gnocchi shaped sweet dough fried and coated with honey, cicirata or pignolata, sweet dough shaped in tiny balls and coated with honey (this is commom throughout Southern Italy, in Naples they are called struffoli). You will also find cookies filled with dried figs and nuts in Calabria and Sicily, called petrali in Calabria and cuccidatti in Sicily. In my region people will also make sweet ravioli filled with chestnuts and chocolate and nuts (included in my first book My Calabria) known as Chinule in Calabria or filled with chickpeas (this recipe is included in my dessert book in the region of Basilicata called Calzoncelli con i ceci, page 177). Another dessert prepared at Christmas time in Calabria is Pitta’mpigliata (rosettes filled with nuts and coated with honey, this is also in my first book). Another dessert that will appear on the table throughout Italy is Panettone, and of course Torrone (Nougat) and in Calabria you will also find chocolate covered figs (my new book on page 177 ). These are all traditional desserts that will show up on the Christmas Eve table. I didn’t include recipes for these in my new book as I had already covered them in my previous book.
What is your fondest food memory as a child?
Cooking with my grandmothers and my mother. Spending time on the farm and seeing the food going from the farm to the table. They were amazing cooks that knew how to make the best with what they had. They didn’t buy any food at all, everything was grown on the farm. We had our own olive oil, our own flour (we grew wheat and took it to the community mill to get flour in return). Looking back the fondest memory is when I had my own little garden and I grew vegetables all on my own (I had my own little patch) and I remember one summer when the beans were ready and I picked them all and brought them in and cooked them with my mom, so simple and yet so good. I made our simple salad of Romano beans tossed with our olive oil and homemade vinegar, salt and some fresh garlic.
Another fond memory is when we would can our tomatoes, I still have vivid memories helping my grandparents can tomatoes for the entire day …. I guess there are lots of memories that now days I treasure and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to grow up in that environment.
What was it like growing up in Calabria? What was the food scene like there?
I was very fortunate to have been raised by parents that lived off the land. As a child, I didn’t fully appreciate it, and I thought it was a lot of work for my parents to grow all of their food, but looking back, I am thankful for having had the opportunity to know what food should taste like.
I grew up in a small town where most people grew their own food, I still remember there was only one produce market in town. We only cooked what was growing in the farm, we only used olive oil (butter didn’t exist) and ate a very simple diet based on vegetables, pasta, very little meat. There were no restaurants in my town when I was growing up. People didn’t go out for dinner. Everyone cooked their meals and holidays or Saints days were days for celebration and these were the times we would splurge and have desserts. I didn’t grow up eating desserts, fresh fruit was our dessert. On special occasions, we would bake, or when I was older a pastry shop opened up in my town and I would splurge once in a while and buy a pastry on my way to school.
How has it changed since you left?
Things have changed a lot since we left in 1974. It is sad that even their diets have changed and they have moved to our fast food lifestyle. There is a restaurant in town now and people do go out for dinner and they even buy prepared foods. A lot of the traditions are being lost, that is one reason why I wrote My Calabria as I wanted to preserve a lot of the traditional dishes I grew up with and especially the art of preserving foods which Calabrians are masters at it. In the old days they would preserve all of their summer vegetables, because of the weather and the lack of refrigeration they preserved everything whether under salt, sun drying it or pickled. People still cook at home and buy fresh produce at the market but there is the trend of eating more non-traditional dishes than when I grew up there. Of course, there are now amazing restaurants all over the region as tourism has increased.
What was it like traveling through Italy to create the book?
We drove over 3,000 miles all over Southern Italy to find most of the recipes that ended up in the book. It was a lot of fun to discover towns or cookies that I had never heard of before and re-engineering the desserts as most of them I didn’t have recipes or have never been documented in Italian or English.
If you had to choose 5 must visit eateries in Italy, what would they be, and what would you order?
In Calabria, there are at least 5 restaurants that I would dine at … these are places that I take my tour when I lead a culinary tour there:
- Ristorante La Tavernetta, Camigliatello Silano – Any dishes that features porcini
- Ristorante La Taverna Del Conte, Diamante – Fresh local seafood
- Ristorante Barbieri, Altomonte – Local dishes such as “Peperoni cruschi” (sun dried pepper chips)
- Ristorante La Clarisse, Amantea – Everything they have is amazing…
- Ristorante Pimms, Tropea – Any dish that uses Red Onions of Tropea
Talk to us about the cannoli festival in Palermo-what is that like?
The cannoli festival is outside of Palermo, in Piana Degli Albanesi and I have never attended it so I can’t share my own experience. I can tell you that it is a feast that is all focused on cannoli and you will find the largest cannoli ever made in this town. They hold contests on who can eat the most number of cannoli, meetings, workshops and of course tastings.
What was the most challenging dessert you created in the book? Why?
The most challenging one was the “Africano” and the “Sfogliatelle”. The Africano I had no recipe to work with so I enlisted the help of my sister in law that still lives in Palermo and she brought some over and we had to re-engineer this recipe as nothing can be found written down in a book or online. We thought that there might have been rum in the filling and kept on trying to recreate the filling and it wasn’t working out with the creamy consistency that we were looking for. Eventually we eliminated the rum which it doesn’t have it (we think that one that we had tried might have had the cake soaked with rum and we decided to leave it out as it is hard to roll the jelly roll once soaked and then it becomes a dessert just for adults and my kids loved this one so we left it out). The sfogliatelle was challenging as it takes practice to learn how to shape them. This is a dessert that nobody would make at home in Italy but I kept at it until I figured it out.
What do you hope readers can learn from this book?
That we have amazing desserts in Southern Italy, and I am hoping that they discover all these desserts that are not found anywhere in this country and that you can make them at home (you can’t buy them here for sure!).
Favorite kitchen tool that you just can’t live without?
I guess my Kitchen Aid stand mixer … I could live without but it is nice to have your hands free while it whips away for 5 minutes as a lot of desserts involve whipping eggs or egg whites for 4 or 5 minutes. SilPat is the other gear that makes baking cookies so easy … no paper, no buttering, and very little cleaning and you keep on re-using them over and over again.
With permission from Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily by Rosetta Costantino with Jennie Schacht (Ten Speed Press, © 2013).
Photo Credits: Sara Remington.