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Top chefs share their passion for the cuisine of southern Italy

From pillowy pasta topped with the best parmesan to fresh anchovies with Amalfi lemons, three chefs wax lyrical about southern Italian cuisine and share their favourite recipes.

Published 2 Jun 2021, 12:48 BST, Updated 15 Jun 2021, 14:36 BST
Masha Rener is head chef at Lina Stores in London.

Masha Rener is head chef at Lina Stores in London. 

Photograph by Lina Stores

The flavours of Italy are varied and, above all, delicious. So, whether you’re planning a trip, or simply want Italy to come to you, here are three snapshots from the country's sumptuous south — three illustrations of diversity, three invitations to eat.

CAMPANIA

Grown on Campania’s rocky coastline, Amalfi lemons are unmistakable in their flavour and a versatile ingredient in recipes. Masha Rener, head chef at Lina Stores in London, sings their praises

Do a blind taste test with Amalfi lemons, and you’ll instantly be able to pick them out. They’re sweeter than other varieties, with a subtler citrus flavour, but so intense. They’re not big, weighing around 100-120g each, but I’d say they have double the juice of other types of lemons, and the zest is packed with essential oil. They produce incredible results in recipes, too. Best known as the ingredient for limoncello, Amalfi lemons are used in everything from desserts to antipasti and main courses. Their leaves are sometimes used in cooking, too; when you buy them locally, they’re usually still attached, and are a good indication of the lemon’s freshness. Before modern medicine, lemon flowers and leaves were used in mental health treatments; during Amalfi lemon blossom season, it was said, people were calmer.

These lemons are almost exclusively grown in one place: the stepped terraces of Amalfi’s steep, rocky coast. A prized trade product back when Amalfi was a powerful maritime republic, the lemons also helped sailors fight off scurvy. Today, the vitamin C-packed zest is used widely in cooking, and the lemons are still almost entirely organically farmed.

When I was growing up, my mother was a chef and ran a restaurant with my father. She’s from Croatia (my father’s from Italian Istria, just over the border), and with few of her relatives around, the restaurant was my ‘babysitter’. It was where I developed a passion for food, learning to peel potatoes and clean mushrooms. During the summer, my sister and I would be sent to stay with family friends in Amalfi, where we’d spend weeks exploring on little boats and eating fish, fruit and locally made Gragnano pasta. It’s where I developed my love of Campania, especially its food.

I’m increasingly into foraging and ‘flower cuisine’. In Italy, I can go outside and come back with armfuls of wild fennel or asparagus, but the next day find nothing; you can only work with what’s available. I’m from Umbria, and I chose my apartment there for its huge terrace. During lockdown, I’ve grown all sorts of fruit trees and vegetables, and my little lemon tree, despite being miles from the coast, has grown 44 lemons. It’s a huge success.

Masha Rener's lemon tart is a real favourite on the dessert menu at Lina Stores in London. 

Photograph by Lina Stores

Masha Rener’s lemon tart recipe 

The perfect recipe for the warmer months ahead, our torta al limone is a real favourite on the dessert menu at Lina Stores. Perfectly balancing sweet and sour, this tart uses only the best ingredients for the filling, including fresh juice from Amalfi lemons that are intense in fragrance and aroma. A true exercise in patience, the homemade pastry is worth every minute it takes to make, with its unmistakable crumbly and biscuit-like base.

Takes: 1 hr plus 4 hrs chilling
Serves: 12 

Ingredients

For the pastry base
230g plain flour, plus extra for dusting 
65g icing sugar
two pinches of salt
150g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks (medium size) 
two dashes of vanilla extract 

For the filling
300ml lemon juice 
300g caster sugar
3 medium eggs
1 tbsp cornflour 
7 egg yolks (medium)
2 Amalfi lemons, zested
250g butter
icing sugar and creme fraiche, to serve (optional)

Method
1. To make the pastry base, combine the butter, salt and flour in a standing mixer and mix until crumbled (alternatively, simply use a mixing bowl and spoon). Add the eggs and vanilla and continue to mix until just combined. Remove the dough from the mixer or bowl and transfer to a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Knead slightly, then wrap the dough in cling film and chill in the fridge for 4 hrs. 
2. Once the pastry has chilled, heat oven to 185C, 165C fan, gas 4. Thinly roll out the pastry to form a circle about 4cm wider than the pastry tin you’re using (the ideal size for this recipe is 24cm). Use the rolling pin to lift up the pastry and place it in the tin, then press the pastry into the tin and trim the edges until it fits snugly. Cut a large square of baking paper or tin foil and use it to line the pie. Pour pie weights or baking beans into the pie dish (this can be dry rice, baking beads or even flour — ensure you have plenty, so it’s filled right to the top). 
3. Bake for 15-20 mins until the edges are golden-brown, then take out of the oven. Remove the weights and paper and return to the oven for a further 25 mins until all the pastry is baked evenly and is golden in colour. Use a pastry brush to paint the top of the pastry with the egg yolk, then bake for a further 3 mins until dry to seal the pastry fully. 
4. To make the lemon filling, whisk together all the ingredients except the butter in a large pan set over a low heat. Whisk until the sugar has dissolved and everything is well combined. Add half of the butter and continue to whisk until the eggs have cooked. The mixture will have thickened slightly and should coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add the remaining butter and continue to whisk until the mixture has turned into a thick, curd-like texture. Remove from the heat, but keep whisking until the mixture has cooled down to lukewarm to avoid it curdling. 
5. Pour the lemon filling into the pastry case and bake at 220C, 200C fan, gas 7 for 15-20 mins until it’s baked through and the top has browned slightly. Leave to cool to room temperature. Serve on its own or with some icing sugar and creme fraiche, if you like.

Francesco Mazzei is chef-patron of three London restaurants, including Sartoria.

Photograph by Polenta Valsugana

PUGLIA

The heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia is home to some of the country’s most flavoursome — and frugal — dishes. Francesco Mazzei, chef-patron of three London restaurants, including Sartoria, explains how he fell in love with the region and its ‘cucina povera’

What do you admire most about the food of Puglia?
Its variety. As with much of the Mezzogiorno (the Italian south), Puglia is known for some astonishing dishes made using very few ingredients, such as eggless pasta. It’s a classic cucina povera (‘poor food’) culture, but it’s second to none in Italy. And it’s incredibly healthy: the diet is 70% veg, 20% fish and about 10% meat.

How did you become interested in the region’s cuisine?
I was born in Calabria, but did my Navy service in Puglia. They quickly saw my skills were in the kitchen and made me a pastry chef. I travelled all over, buying food in all the best spots. Back then, for as little as 2,000 lire (around £2), I got two bags of the freshest seafood — sea urchin, octopus, San Giacomo scallops. I fell in love with lampascioni (white ‘onions’ that are actually a type of hyacinth bulb), cicoria (bitter greens from the dandelion family) and cime di rapa (‘turnip tops’, a green also known as rapini), but it was the street food that really amazed me. Puglia isn’t widely associated with polenta, for example, but one of my favourite things was buying a Peroni and eating scagliozzi (fried squares of polenta) from street stands in Bari.

What are the most distinctive things about Pugliese food culture?
You still see people fishing for octopus, then bashing them on the rocks to tenderise the flesh. In the Bari area, octopus is eaten raw. Nowhere else in Italy has crudo (raw seafood) like this, sold street-side: there are clams, mussels and sea urchins, depending on the season. Then there’s friselle (toasted bread snacks); they’re often used in a dish called l’acquasale, which is similar to a Tuscan panzanella (bread salad), but made with just tomatoes, peppery Puglian extra virgin olive oil and, often, ice. When the ice melts, you’re left with bread soaked in chilled tomato juice — the best thing on a boiling hot day in August.

What are your favourite Pugliese ingredients to work with?
I’m a big fan of grano arso, Puglia’s burnt grain flour. I just made the most amazing sourdough and southern-style pasta (cavatelli and orecchiette) with it. Then there’s fior di latte, which we call ‘the real mozzarella’, made from cow’s milk. That in a salad with rocket and walnut is just amazing. Sometimes I add a little mosto cotto (reduced grape must — like balsamic vinegar, but with very little acidity). Mosto cotto is also used in desserts like cartellate (fried pasta tartlettes with figs).

What are your favourite dishes from Puglia?
Macco di fave with cicoria — dried broad bean puree with cicoria (blanched and sautéed with garlic and chilli), topped with Puglian extra virgin olive oil and served with focaccia Barese or small taralli (bread sticks, often flavoured with fennel seeds). This is the food of ancient people. There isn’t a better-thought-out, more dynamic, nutritious dish in the world — it’s packed with protein. I’m completely in love with it. But sometimes my favourite dish is as simple as spaghetti with tomato and basil. Both are vegan, but so tasty. Take Sicilian caponata: you don’t think ‘vegan’, you think ‘this is one of the most flavour-packed things I’ve ever eaten’ — and it’s the same with the best Pugliese dishes.

Learn how to make Francesco Mazzei's broad bean puree with cicoria.

Photograph by Simone Petulla

Francesco Mazzei’s broad bean puree with cicoria recipe

Not to be confused with chicory, or endive as it’s also known, cicoria can be swapped for dark, bitter greens such as cavolo nero, dandelion leaf or leafy chicory.

Serves: 4
Takes: 3 hrs, plus 12 hrs soaking

Ingredients
500g dry broad beans
1kg cicoria
½ clove garlic, chopped
1 small red chilli, sliced
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
black fennel seeds

Method
1.
Soak the dry broad beans in water overnight, then drain and rinse under running water.
2. Transfer to a pot, cover with water and simmer for 2 hrs, scooping off any foam that forms on top. If it gets too dry, add some hot water.
3. When the beans are soft, add a few pinches of salt and cook for 5 mins more, then blend to a thick puree or crush and hand-whisk for a more rustic consistency.
4. Boil a pot of salted water. Cook the cicoria for 2-3 mins; drain and cool in iced water.
5. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan set over a medium heat. Fry the garlic and chilli until the garlic is golden, then add the cicoria. Season with salt and cook for a couple more minutes.
6. Serve the cicoria and puree, and top with the fennel seeds.

Taken from Mezzogiorno: Recipes from Southern Italy (£25, Cornerstone)

Giorgio Locatelli is owner of Locanda Locatelli in London.

Photograph by Lisa Linder

SICILY

With influences from Greece to North Africa and beyond, this island’s cuisine sets it apart from the mainland, says Chef Giorgio Locatelli, owner of Locanda Locatelli in London

Sicily changed me. I didn’t go until I was in my 30s, and it altered the way I thought about Italian food. I come from the north where the influence is very much French, Austrian, German; we eat polenta, potato, risotto, that sort of thing. Sicily’s strategic position between Africa and Europe has influenced its history. The English and French were there, the Spanish ruled, the Arabs dominated for over 150 years, and the Greek influence is huge — they introduced various spices, fruits and vegetables, as well as irrigation. All this has affected the cuisine. So, it’s a type of upside-down fusion food, where culture, rather than the chef, transforms the produce.

Pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines), so the story goes, was invented when an Arab general landed on the south side of the island and his cooks gathered what ingredients they could find to make a dish that pleased him. The anchovies used, called pesce azzurro (‘blue fish’), are small, flavourful and have a high omega-3 content.

This dish sums up Sicily: the Arabic combination of sultanas, nuts and saffron — the latter something they brought from the Far East. Wild fennel and fish have been Sicilian since classical times, but it took someone to arrive and reimagine them into a new dish. And, as this is Italy and a recipe is never really a recipe, the dish changes from village to village. The pine nuts might be exchanged for something locally available, and in one restaurant I even ate it without anchovies. The fishing boats had yet to land their catch, so the chef called it ‘pasta con le sarde a mare’ — pasta with sardines that still are in the sea.

Another eye-opener is the use of fried breadcrumbs instead of parmesan to finish the dish. Unlike in Northern Italy, cheese is a rarity in Sicily, but the island has a flavour answer for everything. With fewer ingredients, you have to be smart, and Sicily is the epitome of this. There are some 10 to 12 ingredients found in cooking island-wide, which become incredible, varied dishes.

Giorgio Locatelli’s pasta con le sarde recipe using Sicilian sun-dried tomato paste and wild fennel. 

Photograph by Lisa Linder

Giorgio Locatelli’s pasta con le sarde recipe

The keys to this dish are the ’strattu, Sicily’s sun-dried tomato paste, available in specialist shops (otherwise a good tomato purée is fine); and wild fennel, which grows abundantly on the island. Some people leave out the saffron, but I like the rich complexity of flavour it adds.

Serves: 4
Takes: 30 mins

Ingredients
3 salted anchovies or 6 anchovy fillets in oil
100g breadcrumbs
chopped garlic, anchovy or rosemary (optional)
120ml extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
50ml white wine
2 tbsp ’strattu or 1½ tbsp tomato purée
8 fresh sardine fillets
30g sultanas
30g pine nuts, lightly toasted in the oven
a good pinch of saffron (around 20 threads)
3 sprigs wild fennel, finely chopped, or 1 tsp fennel seeds
200g dry, eggless pasta, such as bucatini

Method
1.
If using salted anchovies, rinse and dry them. Run your thumb gently along the backbone of each anchovy to release it (you should be able to pull it out easily). If using anchovies in oil, drain them.
2. Toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan set over a medium heat until they’re a dark golden-brown, taking care not to burn them (for extra flavour, heat 1  tbsp olive oil with a little chopped garlic, anchovy or rosemary, then add the breadcrumbs). Set aside.
3. Heat half of the oil in a pan, then add the onion. Sauté until softened but not coloured, then add the anchovy fillets, stirring them until they ‘melt’. Pour in the wine and simmer to let it evaporate, then add the ’strattu and bring it back to the boil, adding just enough water to give a sauce consistency. Add the sardine fillets, sultanas, pine nuts, saffron and fennel. Season to taste, stir gently and cook for 10 mins.
4. Cook the pasta for about 1 min less than packet instructions, so it’s al dente. Drain, reserving some cooking water. Toss the pasta with the sardine sauce, adding a little cooking water, if necessary, to loosen. Sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs and serve.

Taken from Made in Sicily (£30, 4th Estate)

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 16-17 July 2022 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in Issue 12 (summer 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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