hen I tell people in Rome that two of my roommates are Calabrese, Calabrian, they often react with thinly-veiled skepticism. Calabria, the toe to Italy’s boot, and the rest of the Italian south for that matter, isn’t held in the highest esteem elsewhere in the country.
Many northerners see the south as Italy’s badlands. While there’s little doubt that the Camorra in Naples, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, and Cosa Nostra in Sicily are powerful criminal entities, tainting all southerners as associated with the clannish underworld is the worst kind of stereotype.
If its stereotypes you like, go with this one instead: Southerners love spicy food. For those foreigners who complain that Italian food doesn’t pack enough heat, look south. Even seemingly benign spaghetti alle vongole packs a punch when two or three pepperoncini, not one, are stirred in with the clams.
I’ve seen one of my roommates calmly chew on a full pepperoncino that made its way to his plate hidden in a pasta shell. His Calabrian taste buds seemed to enjoy it. When this happens to me, my sinuses clear up fast. I’ve also been known to cry.
Chili pepper may have been brought from the New World, but the Calabrians quickly included them into their pantheon of ingredients, which also includes cipolle rossa di Tropea (Tropea red onions) and cedro (a lemon-like citrus fruit) from Santa Maria del Cedro.
Of the myriad uses for pepperoncini, a personal favorite is a spicy salami called ‘nduja.
The name derives from the French andouille sausage. Both consist largely of pig stomach and intestines. The Italian version is far spicier and depends heavily on chili peppers (up to a fifth of the mixture). The French smoke their version for up to eight hours. The Italians do the same, but more lightly. They then turn to the aging process.
Calling ‘nduja a salami is a bit misleading. Easy to spread, it’s closer to a pâté than salami. Spreading it on toast makes for a fiery bruschetta while mixing into pasta is… rocket fuel.
‘Nduja originates from the small town of Spilinga, located in the Calabrian mountains about half way down the boot. Some say variations on the sausage have been produced for a millennia, though today’s spicy version most likely originated in the 1500s.
Though it’s is no longer made solely with intestines and stomachs, the meat still comes from fattier scraps of pork, which are then combined with salt and chili peppers and stuffed into pig’s stomach lining. The salami-like log is then smoked for several hours and aged in a dry, airy space for up to six months. The longer the aging process, the more intense the resulting flavor.
‘Nduja-based dishes are not for the faint of heart. If you’re spreading on toast, consider yourself warned before biting. If you’re using in pasta, remember that small amounts can go a long way.
Penne al ‘nduja (serves 4)
- 1 box (500gr) penne pasta.
- 1 small red onion, finely chopped.
- 1 cup of dry white wine.
- 3 cups (400gr) tomato sauce.
- 200gr ‘nduja (available at most butcher shops).
- Olive oil.
- Grated pecorino cheese.
- In large saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté onions until they begin to soften.
- Add the ‘nduja (breaking it up with a wooden spoon in the pan) and the white wine. Stir until the wine evaporates.
- Add the tomato sauce, check for salt, and simmer for 10-to-15 minutes, adding a little pasta water if necessary.
- Once the sauce is simmering toss the pasta in well salted water, when it’s al dente add it directly to the sauce, simmer for another 2-3 minutes, sprinkle with a heavy hand of pecorino and serve immediately.