Calabria is a stunning coastal region surrounded by the crystal-clear blue waters of the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas, rocky coasts and umbrella-dotted sandy beaches. Inland are endless acres of lemon, orange and olive trees, mountainous backdrops and rolling hills. Calabria’s history dates back thousands of years and is a place where you can explore ruins, castles and medieval villages. It’s as equally as beautiful as anywhere in Italy, yet still remains one of the lesser-visited regions.
If you’ve ever wanted to truly immerse yourself in Italian culture and experience what it’s like to be welcomed, as family, into the homes of people whose hospitality and genuine excitement to share their cuisine and culture is undeniable, Southern Italy is where you go.
I experienced this sense of community during my 10-day trip with Dinner In The Field, a culinary tour company that hosts groups in Southern Italy, giving visitors unique opportunities to take part in family-style dining and regional cuisine; learn about Calabrian culture; how to cook Calabrian cuisine; and visit Calabrian towns and surrounding areas.
“Southern Italian cuisine is special not only because it’s delicious, but also because the roots on which it is based are peasants,” says Chef Gregorio Spinzo, founder of Dinner In The Field. “It is cooking that was done by people who truly needed to live from the land. These are the same lands that today people farm with love and passion to make sure they have the best produce.”
Cooking—and Eating—With the Italian Culinary Institute
Getting hands-on in the kitchen is a big part of your trip. Dinner In The Field has a special partnership with the Italian Culinary Institute, which means you’re getting cooking lessons from some of the best chefs in the country!
Led by ICI chefs, including John Nocita, ICI President, cooking classes ranged from extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar tastings and cheese pairings to step-by-step instruction on how to cook classic Italian dishes like spaghetti alla puttanesca, carbonara, and struncatura.
My favorite one? The pasta making class where we learned about regionalism which entails understanding where each pasta comes from, which sauces are used for specific kinds of pasta, and how to prepare over 50 types of pasta in one session!
The ICI chefs are extremely knowledgeable about Italian cuisine, past just the cooking part. Each session had a sprinkle of history and discussion about what really makes Italian cuisine delicious: seasonality, locality and micro-climates.
Lunches and dinners, when not off property, are held in the stunning dining room of the ICI. The table is surrounded by 360-degree views of the ocean, making it the perfect backdrop to indulge. Four-course meals are served with wine pairings and a chef introduction for each dish.
Agriturismo and Family-Style Dining
One of the most awesome aspects of this tour is that Chef Spinzo grew up in Calabria and knows the best places to eat. Places that, of course, aren’t your typical touristy restaurants. Each meal we had during the ten days felt like a farewell meal; that’s how much food and wine-fueled comradery filled our evenings.
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A couple incredibly authentic dining experiences were at Agriturismo Podere Seminaroti, Petrizzi and Agriturismo Borgo Piazza, Borgia.
“A lot of local family-run restaurants in Calabria are called Agriturismo, which is a combination of Agriculture and Tourism,” says Chef Spinzo. “These are basically farms designed to receive guests for their freshly home-cooked meals.”
“In Calabria sense of community revolves around good food and great wines. In addition, hospitality is also something very special. People love to share their food and welcome new friends at their dinner tables. It’s a pleasure for them to share a meal together.”
Our evening at Podere began with a tour of their culinary gardens, which is where the majority of their fresh ingredients comes from. After being introduced to the owner, Flavio, and his family who helps cook and run the farm and inn, the night continued with him and his grandma making pizzas right before our eyes.
The eating began in the courtyard with oven-fired pizzas, bread, charcuterie, cheeses and wines; I was full before dinner officially started, but it was so worth it. Once we took a seat inside, we continued to indulge in freshly made pasta dishes, coal-fired meats and salad. The entire evening was filled with hilarious stories told over delicious Calabrian cuisine. Flavio and his family couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming. By the end of the night, we were taking shots of aperitif together!
At Borgo Piazza, the experience was equally incredible. Situated on an estate filled with olive, citrus and almond trees, culinary gardens, pastures and more, the scenery couldn’t have been more ideal. Prior to eating, we explored the property which had beautiful views of the ocean, wildflowers and rolling hills. At their restaurant, our group was literally presented with an entire table of food. From eggplant parmigiana and charcuterie to arancini and polenta and more, the eating was non-stop.
One evening we explored Cardinale, a tiny town in Calabria which is home to the traditional Trattoria A Ruga, Cardinale, where we ate dinner with the owner and his family. The town itself was charming, a quiet, sleepy town with ruins, old buildings, churches and historic points of interest to explore. Our dining experience at A Ruga was, yet again, one where the plates of fresh pasta, meats, cheeses and side dishes never ceased.
Dinner In The Field
As the name suggests, Dinner In The Field hosts al fresco dinners that are visually stunning and incredibly tasty. We had a couple of these special dinners outdoors, one being right on the beach, overlooking the Ionian Sea.
We were welcomed by Chef Gregorio’s family and friends who shared their passion for Italian cooking and cuisine, course after course. The night ended with impromptu karaoke on the beach which solidified each of our friendships more than anything else could. There are few things that bring people together like food and this special evening proved just that.
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Each day offers time to relax, spend sunbathing on the nearby beach or shopping in town, in addition to excursions.
We took a tour of the lush, sprawling vineyards at Ippolito 1845, Ciro’. The Ciro’ D.O.C (Denomination of Controlled Origin) red wines are the oldest wines in Europe and we had the pleasure of tasting these with dishes from the area.
Another fun activity was exploring the bustling mercatino of Soverato: a typical Italian open-air market. This market was filled with spices, honey, fresh fish and meats, cheeses, produce, candies, flowers and other regional delicacies. It gave us a great opportunity to try all the artisanal goodies that have put this region on the map! The vendors were particularly friendly and entertaining as they sold their goods.
During the last several days of the tour, we traveled to Sicily to tour Taormina and Tropea. While crossing the Straights of Messina for Sicily, we partook in a special tradition of eating eat an “arancino” onboard the ferry.
Taormina is a gorgeous, historic town established in 358. This ancient city has great boutique shopping and plenty of places to get your fill of gelato, cannoli, marzipan candies and aperitifs. And for those interested in culture, some of the most intact Roman and Ancient Greek ruins outside of Greece, including the Greek Theater (300BC), Palazzo Corvaja (10th century) and the Duomo (13th century), are here. If you’re lucky, you can also see Mount Etna, an active volcano, which actually erupted while we were there!