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Calabrian cuisine fires up the menu

Calabrian food may not ring culinary bells like Neapolitan pizza or steak Florentine. So how do chefs entice diners to a lesser known cuisine, even from a well-eaten nation like Italy?

The challenge to serve a very spicy, smoked Calabrian salame with the exotic name of ‘Nduja didn’t deter Staffan Terje. The chef-owner of Perbacco in San Francisco introduced Calabria as a July special offering at his more casual Barbacco Eno Trattoria next door.

I was attracted to the Barbacco menu because I had recently attended a Calabrian cooking class by Rosetta Costantino. A native Calabrian, Costantino and Janet Fletcher wrote the first Calabrian cookbook in 2010, “My Calabria.” In the class Costantino highlighted the food from the “toe” of Italy’s boot with its intense spice elements, reliance on simple, foraged ingredients and copious amounts of tomatoes, garlic, vegetables and seafood.

Not being a spice girl or lover of small, shiny fish, I declined the spicy pepper flakes to toss on my pasta and eschewed the anchovy in the mozzarella stuffed squash blossoms.

So I tapped my hot-pepper-seeking friend to join me for the Calabrian dinner at Barbacco. We were intrigued by the first menu item, ‘Nduja. The server pronounced it “andouille” like the original French version. We both dove into the paté-like presentation on crostini.

How did French sausage get so spiced up in Calabria? And how did Chef Terje get the clean meat flavors to shine through despite the intense heat so I could polish off my portion?

The first question is easy, says Chef Terje. The Bourbon kings once ruled Calabria and brought their favorite sausage recipes. Numerous invaders and spice traders introduced hot peppers and exotic seasonings to the coastal villagers which made their way to the central mountain region’s dwellers.

Keeping it spicy but not spooky

A true culinary scholar, Terje studies old cookbooks to find the authentic recipes such as ‘Nduja. “We keep the actual dialect words and the concept of the old recipes. But we apply current ingredients,” says Terje.

Even in San Francisco, says Terje, “We have to balance exotic ingredients with the recognizable. We can serve food that might be spicy, but it can’t be scary. Many Calabrian dishes have tripe. Take Cavatieddi alla Silana, a dish from the mountainous central area. We substitute house made sausage—this is a popular dish.”

The braciolette di alici featured four small anchovy wrapped rolls packed with bread crumbs, pecorino, parsley, oregano and garlic. I intended to share my fish roll after the first bite. But Terje lured me in with just enough heat as to not overwhelm the dish, a balanced amount of garlic, and thin, very thin, fresh anchovies from the San Francisco Bay. Plus, who doesn’t like the classic bread crumb-cheese stuffing? I gobbled both of my rolls.

Changing the pace for regulars

At Perbacco the menu fields the buttery rich, creamy foods of the Piedmont area year-round. To delight the regulars and draw in culinary explorers, Terje brings Southern Italian specials to Barbacco in the summer. Calabria in particular, says Terje, offers a refreshing summer approach with less meat, more tomato sauce and EVO.

Terje’s cavatieddi dish with tomato, sausage, mushrooms, prosciutto, guanciale, chili, and basil exemplified the full-bodied flavors from Calabria. Yet my friend noted that the reflex to offer cheese at Italian restaurants was absent here. A small amount of Pecorino and Caciocavallo cheese was already incorporated into the sauce to convey the optimum sense of richness and mouthfeel for the dish.

Introducing Calabrian wine

Co-owner Umberto Gibin leads the wine program. He brought in two 2009-vintage Calabrian red wines for the month-long special menu, the light and fruity San Francesco Ciro Rossi and the more intense, peppery Malaspina Palizzi Rosso.

A quintessential Calabrian entrée, Vruocculi Ca’ Savuzuizza, house-made spicy sausage with broccoli rabe, brings one of the best wine pairings. My friend gives thumbs up to the spicy sausage with Malaspina Palizzi Rossi: “Even with heat at the start, the sausage’s finish is a simple warming of the back of the throat. The wine is similarly warm but not too hot.”

My vote for the Ciro Rossi is the match with tonno bianco alla ghiotta, local albacore tuna “glutton style” with tomato, capers and olives. The licorice notes in the Ciro Rosso holds up to the mild, yet intense flavors of the tuna dish, adds my friend.

Gibin acknowledges that Calabrian wines are a tough sell. “We only brought them to introduce our diners to a new area. Calabria is similar to where Sicilian wines were 15 years ago in acceptance—and a good 30 years behind ‘mainstream’ Italian wines—but intriguing nonetheless.”

Calabria, simplified

What amazes us is the proliferation of tomato sauce in nearly all the dishes, each with a unique consistency and flavor profile. Barbacco Restaurant Chef Nick Kelly notes that several tomato sauces are similar, but technique makes the difference. “We start with yellow onion, a little garlic, white wine, dried oregano, bay leaf and chili flakes. For the “glutton tuna” sauce we add capers and olives about twenty minutes before the sauce in finished to let them infuse their flavor into the sauce.” Each variation worked with the pasta or protein.

Desserts at Barbacco are simple. We shared a not-too-sweet butterscotch and chocolate crunch gelato and a fresh strawberry version. But Terje may want to check out a new source for next summer’s menu, Costantino and Jennie Schacht’s new book, “Southern Italian Desserts.”

With or without Calabrian pastries on the menu, we’re ready for more. With Terje’s deft hand in adapting recipes to diner tastes and his eye on the freshest ingredients and clean technique, Calabrian food is capturing guests’ culinary interest, too. It is the most popular Southern Italian menu offered to date at Barbacco. But it may take some time for 'Njuda to hit the mainstream. Call it "Calabrian andouille" and who knows what might happen.

 Calabrian appetizers at Barbacco              

Calabrian main courses at Barbacco       Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

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