As with its myriad indigenous wine grapes, Italy lays claim to countless dishes that are all but unknown outside their place of origin. But they’re no less worth discovering for that. Here are six quirky regional specialties that deserve a closer look.
① Melanzane al Cioccolato
Think vegetable desserts are a recent trend? Think again. Campania’s Amalfi Coast has long been home to fried eggplant with chocolate, customary during Ferragosto (a summer holiday). Just picture eggplant Parm covered not with cheese and sauce but with melted chocolate, then garnished not with herbs but with candied fruit and almonds or pine nuts, and you’ve got the gist—though you’ve got to taste it to believe how good it is.
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② Gnocchi di Susine
The jumbo plum-stuffed potato dumplings of Friuli-Venezia Giulia are yet another savory-sweet treat that’s underappreciated stateside (except, perhaps, among fans of renowned Boston chef Barbara Lynch, who has been serving a foie gras-enriched version with prunes at No. 9 Park for years). Crumb coated and cinnamon sprinkled, they can function as an appetizer, as well as a dessert.
Not to be confused with Sicilian caponata, this ultra-refreshing Ligurian salad (which is usually tossed, though sometimes layered) shares commonalities with Nicoise salad and Tuscan panzanella. Historically, its defining components reflected the realities of life in fishing communities: pieces of a seaworthy biscuit (think hardtack) and slices of salted, dried tuna belly. Today, key ingredients include chunked tuna, anchovies, tomatoes, olives, capers, herbs, olive oil and vinegar, along with, perhaps, red onion and hard-boiled eggs. (Capponadda has an extravagant feast-day cousin in the composed seafood salad cappon magro.)
Italy is a treasure trove of cucina povera, including beloved examples of "peasant cuisine" like the acqua pazza of Campania, fish cooked in tomato broth, and ribollita, a twice-cooked Tuscan stew of beans, greens and leftover bread. Sardinian mazzamurru shares elements with both while outdoing them in thrift. Recipes vary—some use milk or broth, some don’t; some resemble soup, others casserole—but at its core, it’s moistened stale bread covered in tomato sauce and grated cheese. In other words: the ultimate comfort food.
The province of Alto Adige represents a cultural and geographical bridge between Austria and Italy, its cuisine as Alpine as it is Mediterranean. Case in point: "shaken bread," a cracker-like rye flatbread flavored with fenugreek, caraway, fennel and other spices. A natural companion to other South Tyrolean staples like speck and graukäse ("gray cheese"), schüttelbrot can also be ground into flour for pasta.
This creamy, butter-topped wheat porridge also hails from Alto Adige, where it’s a favorite breakfast staple that’s often served family style. A golden crust gives way to a rich, pudding-like interior, making muas the perfect way to start the morning.