Dine, Drink and Discover Italy’s South

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Feb 09, 2017

by CATHERINE MARSHALL, Writer

The sun-baked cliffs of Southern Italy heave with olive groves, wild fennel and native vines. Between drinks (and a few pastries), a Sydney restaurateur finds inspiration in his father’s homeland.

In a centuries-old villa warmed by a log fire and marked with a cross to ward off attack by the Saracens, Nino Zoccali takes a sip of gaglioppo, one of the oldest and most well-known native wine varieties in Calabria. He swirls the velvety vino around his mouth, aerates it with a sharp intake of breath, expels it into a spittoon. He sits back and smiles, for he’s tasted his father’s homeland. 

Outside, the hills of Southern Italy’s Cirò unfurl in a carpet of olive groves and vineyards, bergamot and mimosa, prickly pears and Calabrian pines. Curtailed only by the turquoise sea, this flora occupies the toe of Italy’s boot, defying the parched bedrock from which it springs. The Moorish dwellings dotted hereabout make perfect sense; if this region were to stretch out its gnarled toe, it would kick Sicily further into the Mediterranean Sea and almost certainly touch North Africa.

Though Zoccali was born a world away, in Western Australia’s Bunbury, north of Margaret River, this landscape is bred into the very marrow of his bones. 

“For me, it’s a bit emotional,” he says, tearing a chunk of bread from a loaf and dipping it into sardella, a cured sardine paste spiced with chilli and the wild fennel that grows with abandon. “I feel different here.”

To the south-west lies the town of Rizziconi, where Zoccali’s father, Domenico, was born in 1935. Though he left for Australia at 18, the Calabrian heritage he passed on to his son has borne an exceptional legacy: today the younger Zoccali is an esteemed restaurateur, former head chef at Otto and founder of The Restaurant Pendolino in Sydney and its little sister, La Rosa The Strand. As he says, “I’ve made being Italian a career.” 

Zoccali is on an annual pilgrimage to his ancestral homeland with the restaurant group’s sommelier, Veneto-born Cristian Casarin, to source new vintages for their wine lists. Here at Giuseppe Scala’s winery, Santa Venere, they’re excited to discover old wines being tailored to increasingly sophisticated palates. 

“This is really the new frontier of winemaking in Italy,” says Zoccali. “You’re seeing these varieties in their best possible expression.”

The vines here are fed by a soil rich in minerals, hot with sunshine and moist with the juice of blood oranges that fall ripe from the trees. You can taste fresh strawberries in the rosato gaglioppo, says Casarin; salt in the marsigliana nera (also a rosé), adds Zoccali.

Our Bacchanalian journey starts days earlier in Naples, where we watch kitchen hands shovelling doughy, soft-crusted margheritas into the mosaic-tiled ovens at Pizzeria Brandi. This is the very eatery said to have invented this pizza in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy. The toppings are simple yet deeply significant: basil, mozzarella and tomato, whose colours conjure the green, white and red of the Italian flag.

But this universally adored peasants’ fare is a mere footnote to the ingenuity of Italian cooks: with every region once rooted in poverty, its residents harvested whatever was available and made from it an exquisite art form, says Zoccali. His father continued this tradition in WA’s Bunbury, waiting for the tomato vines to die before picking their sweet fruit, preparing rich Neapolitan sauce and storing it in beer bottles for the year ahead. “I grew up wishing we’d go to the supermarket like normal families,” he says.

SEE ALSO: When in Naples

Italian resourcefulness is illustrated on the drive south from Naples to the Amalfi Coast, where no speck of soil is left untended. Almond, olive and bay trees teeter upon narrow terraces; broad beans, tomatoes and asparagus sprout unrestrained from the loam. Past these plots we go, twisting up through Campania’s Monti Lattari range, sighting at its crest a wide blue swatch of Mediterranean Sea and coming to rest in the hilltop village of Agerola.

Amalfi’s food-and-wine festa starts here, where artisanal cheesemaker Gennaro Fusco of Fior d’Agerola cuts through pats of still-warm fior di latte, a version of cow’s milk mozzarella made here in the Southern Apennines. Later, he will pull the cheese this way and that, creating those same stretchy filaments that oozed rich and velvety atop our margheritas in Naples. 

It’s a short, jagged descent from Agerola to Furore, which is not so much a village as a scattering of dwellings wedged into the cliff-side and a flourish of centuries-old vineyards carved into the sloping, calcified landscape.

At every elevation, right down to the Fiordo di Furore that cuts in from the Gulf of Salerno, vines dominate the range – climbing chestnut-wood pergolas, springing from dry rock walls and clinging to the mountainside in an act of horticultural defiance.

These grapes are transformed by Andrea Ferraioli and his wife, Marisa Cuomo, into exceptional Amalfi wines at their winery, Cantine Marisa Cuomo. Though it’s a misfortune to farm in such extreme territory, it’s an advantage, too, says Ferraioli: hot days, cool nights and sea breezes enrich the grapes’ flavour and variable elevations help to deliver a diverse harvest.

“These varieties all express characteristics you don’t find anywhere else in Italy: the salinity, the difference in altitude, which makes a difference, too, within the same grapes,” explains Pendolino’s Cristian Casarin. “They get more iodine if they’re closer to the sea.”

We uncork the Ravello and the Fiorduva over dinner at Bacco, a hotel and restaurant set opposite the winery’s cliff-side-scooped cellar. It’s poetic, this matching of the fruits of Amalfi’s gulf – smoked swordfish, tuna tartare, salt cod pâté – with the ruby drink that flourishes on the slopes overhanging it. And our glasses are filled with romance, too, for though people at the time thought it madness, the love-struck young Ferraioli was determined to put his wife’s name to the family vineyard.

On the five-hour road trip from Amalfi to Lecce in the region of Puglia, we’re sustained by frequent stops at coffee bars. We lean on countertops beside the locals, down stiff espressos and eat an assortment of local sweets: sfogliatelle (croissant-like pastries), bomboloni (custard-filled doughnuts), rum babà and cannoli piped with creamy ricotta. 

Puglia feels somehow cast adrift from Italy’s bulk. It’s a strip of land jammed between two seas of ancient mythology: the Adriatic and the Ionian (when you speak the local, pre-Roman dialect, says Zoccali, “you use different muscles”). Tucked deep into the heel of Italy’s boot, Lecce is at last attracting some of the attention reserved for Italy’s more touristy cities. At its centre are old stone-paved streets, historic buildings now inhabited by cafés and Airbnbs, a beautifully preserved Roman amphitheatre and the magnificent Duomo di Lecce, where supplicant nuns are shrouded in reverent silence.

Nearby, in the town of Guagnano, Gianvito Rizzo of Feudi di Guagnano winery is busily preserving abandoned vines, tucking their outgrowths into the soil, waiting for them to emerge elsewhere. This horticultural practice, which eschews pruning and the use of trellises, produces gnarled, stunted bush vines. Beneath them flourishes an opportunistic crop of wild strawberries, chicory and weeds. Fossils are embedded, too; relics of the sea that sloshed about here two million years ago. “When you talk about vines and soil, you talk about the skeleton,” says Casarin. “Calcium and clay: that’s what feeds the soil.” 

We taste these elements over lunch at L’Orecchietta, in red wines made with native negroamaro grapes and the primitivo varietal brought over from the Dalmatian Coast centuries ago. This is a marriage of equality: the ancient, robust grapes are a foil for oven-warm focaccia, a food invented as portable sustenance for people labouring in the fields, digging weeds back into the soil, manipulating these peculiarly shaped vines of Puglia.

Our own sustenance for the drive to Calabria comes from Caffè della Lupa (Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 60; +39 0832 301967) in Lecce’s old town, where we’re served cappuccini and pasticciotti – irresistible crisp-pastry pies filled with vanilla custard.

“Pendolino serves these as a composite dessert with prune and pomegranate sorbet and prunes macerated in grappa,” says Zoccali, dusting the crumbs from his fingers. “We get a lot of our inspiration from this region. 

Puglia’s gentle landscape – the vines converging on a far horizon, the olive trees fringing a hilltop – gradually gives way to the drama of Calabria. Tracing the arch of the boot, lapped by the Gulf of Taranto, we pass valleys thick with prickly pears growing wild, the mountains emerging in apparent protest of the neighbouring region’s geological restraint.

We pause at Cirò to taste that gaglioppo at Santa Venere then follow the mountain pass to Tropea, a sandcastle-like confection overlooking the Gulf of Saint Euphemia. The pilgrimage is almost at an end; fittingly, we eat our final meal at Da Cecè (Largo Toraldo Grimaldi, Tropea; +39 0963 603219) with Zoccali’s beloved aunt, Liliana Di Certo, who still lives in nearby Rizziconi.

Here, chef and owner Cesare Adilardi (nicknamed “Cecè”) serves his Calabrian specialities – secret recipes, he tells Liliana when she asks how she might replicate them at home. There’s pecorino from the milk of sheep grazed on the slopes of Monte Poro; spaghetti tossed with Tropea’s famous sweet red onions; balls of fried eggplant and pan-fried lard; and mounds of ’nduja, a spreadable salami famous in this region and served at Pendolino.

We conclude our feast with a drop of Cecè’s amaro. Made from a list of closely guarded ingredients, it’s the most famous digestif in Calabria, says Zoccali.

Liliana reprimands Cecè: you have too many secret recipes, she says. But Zoccali sips his amaro, sits back and smiles. He’s just the man to unlock the tastes of his father’s beloved homeland. 

Where to stay

AMALFI COAST

Monastero Santa Rosa

The entrance to this 17th-century former monastery in Conca dei Marini is portentous: a bell heralds visitors’ arrival and a 500-year-old door leads into the parlatorio (parlour), where the cloistered nuns would address their relatives through the grates. A confessional is tucked into the main corridor, for the views would take your breath away. A painstaking restoration has preserved the structure’s fine architectural details while adding all the comforts of a luxury hotel, including beautifully appointed rooms, a world-class spa and an infinity pool that is surely the Amalfi Coast’s best.

LECCE

Mantatelurè Dimora Esclusiva

It would be a shame not to stay in the heart of the Baroque city of Lecce, referred to as the “Florence of the South”. There are just six rooms in this former palazzo built in 1550 and reimagined in the 21st century as a stylish bed and breakfast. Guests can drink coffee in the walled garden courtyard and – in keeping with the vineyards that flourish across the surrounding countryside – sip wine in its cellar.

TROPEA

Villa Paola

Calabria doesn’t get more beautiful than this: terraced gardens lead down from this restored 16th-century monastery towards the fortified cliff-sides of Tropea, the gulfs of Gioia Tauro and Saint Euphemia and beyond. Now a boutique hotel, the historic building is characterised by arched ceilings, marble floors and terraces that offer views of a bougainvillea-framed sea.

SEE ALSO: Seaside Escape to the Amalfi Coast