1 October 2015

Making Cinguli with the Locals in Calitri - the Italian Town You Dream Of

Calitri and surrounds

Friends have described my trip to Italy 3 years ago as "the trip that keeps on giving." In many aspects they are quite right. Since this is a blog mainly about food there were many memories made in and out of the kitchen.  Anywhere I travel, even if it is just an outing to the local farmers market, I feel the need to immerse myself and dive head first into the food and culture of the area and then share it in every way possible.

My first conscious memory of this type of travel was at a cooking school on the island of Keaa small island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece. This was a life-changing vacation that altered my perception of food and how it should be enjoyed on a daily basis. Travel helps us to better understand and appreciate other people and their cultures. Nothing is more intimate, or more effective at breaking down cultural barriers, than cooking and sharing meals together.

When you have like-minded people from all parts of the world breaking bread at the same table magic happens. This is how this 9 year journey on this blog began... as a place to share my food discoveries with anyone who is willing to read  as well as with my daughter who was headed off to university at the time. It continues to be a gathering place for family and friends to pull up a chair at the same virtual table and share what we have. My daughter is now married and settled in a small community to the north but we continue our love for food and sharing with others; hers as a registered and accredited dietitian and mine as a self proclaimed food and travel writer.

With my good friend Dina of Olive Oil and Lemons planning her winter vacation with 4 months in Italy I find myself doing some armchair travelling once again and dreaming of my adopted homeland as I add my two cents worth to her travel planning.  Three years ago as I was planning my own 6 week vacation in southern Italy  I came across an article in the Seattle Times that ignited a passion in me to travel to an unknown, non-touristy area of Campania east of Naples in the Irpinia region. After 3 years I was surprised that I had not yet written about my sojourn to this magical place. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to keep this place all to myself. To wrap my arms around it and keep it close to my heart, undiscovered except by a few. Many of the finer details are lost but the memories are still there.

The Campania region is well known for its astonishing landscapes, deep blues, fabled islands, and archaeological sites such as Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum. However, Campania’s true treasure may be the land-locked area called Irpinia in the province of Avellino that is slowly blossoming into one of the most popular destinations in Italy, thanks to its abundance of culture, history, nature, archeology, art, food and wine traditions and the enterprising nature of  a handful of locals. Ridged with hills, peppered with abbeys and Norman castles, the trails of this border area are ancient. A town of around 6,000, Calitri hides in one of Campania’s hilly green recesses, up near the borders of neighbouring Basilicata and Puglia. Although remote-sounding, Calitri isn’t too far from Campania’s crowd-pleasers being 90-minutes from the famed Amalfi coast and 30-minutes from Naples.

Thoughts of relaxation, time for writing, and enjoying a bucolic setting while immersing myself in daily life reeled me in. I romanticized the fact that the town of Calitri is nicknamed "Positano d'Irpinia" after its resemblance to the Amalfi coast fishing village I had visited a few short weeks before. Many of the homes have the familiar pastel colours  of its Aegean neighbour. However, let's face it. What clinched the deal was the REALLY inexpensive rental of an apartment for a week in Italy, in what is an expensive country for travellers.

The surrounding area near Calitri on the eastern borders of Campania
Up until now, as a first-time visitor to southern Italy I had focused on Italy’s brand-name locations such as Capri, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast but I longed to touch a more authentic Italy. I wanted to experience one of those unspoiled towns that many of us dream of finding. The kind where locals follow the drowsy beat of their own drum. Calitri offered what I was looking for with no horse-drawn carriages, no tacky souvenir shops, no fancy cocktail bars, and no menus translated into 7 languages.
“Ponder well on this point: the pleasant hours of our life  are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table.” Charles Pierre Monselet 

To reach Calitri I was travelling on a Sunday while leaving the sun-drenched coastal city of Tropea in Calabria behind for my next adventure. With the help of my friend and guide Tania of In Italy Tours I booked a train ticket to Calitri my destination for my final days in Italy. There was a single bus on a Sunday so no room for error. The train halted in Avellino and I found myself the soul occupant at the train station with all shops, restaurants etc. in the immediate vicinity closed and not yet open for the evening. It seemed desolate and remote except for a group of customary Italian gentleman sitting on a bench outside the station. This is when I wished I had more than just rudimentary Italian as one man kept coming and speaking with me (in Italian of course) while dangling his keys. As it turned out with our sign language and limited communication this group of men had taken it upon themselves to make sure that I got on that bus to Calitri. They practically jumped out in front of the bus as it was pulling up and ushered me on, handing me my suitcase with a wave and a smile. This is so Italian.
Calitri in the region of Irpinia
I arrived just after dusk to meet Emma Bastile who helped me navigate the maze of the old town to my home for the next week, a 3 bedroom apartment rebuilt by foreign investors after the devastating earthquake in the 1980's that demolished a good portion of the 'centro storico.' I wouldn’t have found this place without Emma, the young owner of Porta d'oriente real estate agency.   The old town is a labyrinth of narrow streets that I longed to get lost in.  The streets too narrow and crooked for vehicles. No wonder Italians are so slim!

Joyce Walder says, "Calitri is a faded postcard of a town; no movie house, no bookstore, weathered pastel stone buildings and the ruins of a medieval castle clinging to the side of a mountain. It takes a series of hairpin turns to reach and once there you can see the exposed interiors of buildings that were destroyed in the terrible earthquake of 1980. Elderly widows wear black and the agricultural tradition is strong."

Photos of Calitri by Angela Paolantonio of L'Americana
After a peaceful sleep I woke up to what seemed to be the sound of silence. I peered out my bedroom window from the tiny balcony hovering over the pottery roofs of neighbouring homes and was taken aback by the view of the winding road up to the town of Calitri with a view toward Monte Vulture. It is said that this mountain was named by the Roman occupants thinking the mountain resembled the wing-span of a vulture. Stepping through the ancient, heavy wooden door of my historical home and down a narrow pathway I soon discovered that Calitri has a steep, stair-filled 'centro storico' that invaded my senses. It was like walking back in time. Wrought iron balconies overlooked narrow alleyways with old-fashioned storefronts and bars that have barely been touched by centuries of development. The town is flung haphazardly across the top and side of a steep hill ringed by mountains, and watched over by the great, crumbling medieval castle. This is ancient Calitri, a world of stone archways, alleys, and narrow steps, and faded palazzos with walls emblazoned with sculpted stone heads, shells, and coats of arms. History and beauty burst from every corner…lizards from every crevice. 

It was just what I was looking for for a quiet week after the hustle and bustle of the coast. I was charmingly surprised by the authenticity of the village! You really get a feel of the real Italian country life and just wandering the narrow streets in the old part of town is an experience in itself. In contrast with many pretty country villages Calitri is not a ghostly hamlet, but a lively rural village of several thousand souls where life follows a gentle pace dictated by the seasons. A perfect place to relax and recoup from a busy lifestyle, it offered the authenticity I was looking for. The focus is on the simple things in life that is refreshingly far removed from the noisy, spoiled tourist resorts. There is not much written on the internet about Calitri but it is truly a treasure in southern Italy. The area has been desolated by more than a century by emigration and a series of earthquakes the last being in 1980 and deserves all accolades.
Photos of Calitri by Angela Paolantonio of L'Americana
As I passed through the gates of the old town I heard a friendly voice addressing me in English. This was the first time that I met my friend Angela Paolantonio a slender Los Angeles woman who searched for her roots in the small Alta Irpinia town of Calitri and ultimately purchased her grandmother’s ancestral home. I soon discovered that she is a talented photographer and writer who has written not only for the New York Times and other publications but writes down her musings at her blog 'L'Americana'. At the time this enterprising woman was teaching English language classes to locals and was invaluable as an interpreter as well as a friend during my stay in her beloved hometown. I have read exerts from her soon to be published book 'The Ghosts of Italy" the story of her journey to find her roots in this small Irpinian town. 

Of Calitri Angela Paolantonio writes,

"I entered the Centro Storico through an original city gateway at one end of Piazza della Repubblica. The arching-stone galleria leads you in towards what was once the private courtyard of the convent for the Sisters of the Benedictine Order, inhabited solely by nuns until the 1600’s. Once through this gateway my whole sense of the town is transformed. Gone are the expansive panoramas; the dramatic vistas of the Valle d'Ofanto and mountains in the near distance, curtained with morning fog or hidden by clouds at eye level. Inside the stone walls of the town the horizon is all but vanquished. Replaced by rows of stone houses on narrow cobbled lanes with only slices of sky overhead between the rooftops. The houses are not hard to appreciate; each one witness to an age long ago, their doors either weathered and abandoned, or only seemingly so, with some evidence of an elder or two residing there. 
The January sun reflected off the white washed walls of some grand patrician houses as I climbed higher through the labyrinth. On via Giuseppe Tozzoli a double wooden portico lay open to the lane. The cavernous entryway seemed a passage to an epoch long past. Unlike the damp dark courtyards of centuries-old buildings I'd visited in the heart of Naples - echoing with women’s voices from apartments above - inside here was silent. The walls were sun-bleached dry and crumbled. Weeds grew out of the stone and ironwork several stories overhead. No voices lived here now, nor it seemed, had they for many years."


"Love and understand the Italians,
 for the people 
are more marvellous
 than the land." E.M Forster

A journey from farm to farm 
Over the years we have kept in touch with the thought in the back of our minds of taking others to experience this bucolic area during wine harvest or 'vendemmia' or 'transumanza'. Through an introduction from Cecelia at the buffalo mozzarella farm in Cilento I was connected with a local veterinarian who introduced us to many of the local cheese artisans of the area as we also helped prepare a large vat of ricotta. We sat down to an amazing meal at a local agritourismo with his family and sampled the cheeses as well as a table groaning with other local delicacies. Angela was invaluable as interpreter as otherwise it would be just another pretty drive through the country with sign language and misunderstanding. One foggy night we also took a harrowing drive to the nearest town to replace my suitcase for the second time on my journey and sat down to some of the best pizza I had had on my journey so far. By this time money was tight or I would have loved to take her up on  her offer of taking a cooking class with one of her relatives in their home. I revel in the thought that one day I will return and take her up on her offer.

I did enjoy a cooking class that was already arranged. I was connected with Tania a young woman who was the chef at La Locanda dell 'Arco, a restaurant and pizzeria located in the heart of the historic city of Calitri near the Zampaglione palace. The restaurant with its terra cotta floors and wooden beams was designed in what were once the cellars and stables of the old palace. Tania was in the kitchen teaching me traditional dishes for a private cooking class.  

La Locanda dell 'Arco
You may think that Italian meals are excessively large with infinite courses, but more than a means for sustenance they are viewed as a social event. The portions are much smaller than those served in North America. Meals are generally based on vegetables and fruits and home-made pastas which are generally healthier than their cross-culture substitutes. The secret when preparing an Italian meal is to select the freshest of local ingredients, so what you eat will change from month to month. No matter where you are in Italy they eat with the seasons. Every region offers its own unique taste experiences, with roots sunk deep in the wealth of the products cultivated in every part of Italy. Meat in the mountains, fruit and vegetables in the countryside, and fish along the coast, these are the stars of a Mediterranean diet. You only need to travel a few miles to find some new variation, some unknown ingredient or traditional technique. 

Unlike Tuscany with its sun scorched hills, Irpinia is green, cool and lush and the weather is dry and cool, a pleasant diversion during the hot summer months. It's here that some of Italy's best wines are made including Aglianico, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. The natural sulphur in the earth gives some wines a slightly fizzy texture that is unique to Irpinian wine. I would love to visit during harvest when the night air would be perfumed with the heady aromas of crushed grapes.

Calitrian cuisine is renowned in the area for being very tasty yet with a little bit of spice. Scarlet chili peppers drying in the sunshine hang from every doorway, and you’re usually offered marinated chili oil to drizzle across homemade pasta dishes. From chickpea soups to peppery minced pork patties and sun-ripe tomatoes, the food is hearty and sublime.

There are also many delicious meats in the area and local dishes typically feature veal, chicken, lamb and rabbit grilled on embers and accompanied with a variety of sauces. The meats are particularly tasty as there are many farms in the area, producing beef, poultry and milk, and others specializing in sheep and goats. Locally-produced cheeses include caciocavallo, scamorza, caciotta, pecorino and caprino, burrini and salt ricotta, and local chestnuts and hazelnuts have Italy-wide fame. Last but not least, truffle-lovers will enjoy the region as it boasts a generous supply of both the white and the black variety. Among the desserts the ricotta pie is a must, and those with a sweet tooth can also enjoy crespelle, struffoli, and calzoncelli, a chick-pea sweet typical of the nearby town of Sant'Andrea di Conza. Lacedonia's dessert specialties include chestnut and chocolate-paste filled ravioli and sfogliatelle (the worlds best pastry) stuffed with sweetened ricotta cheese or bitter cherry jam.

Tania in the kitchen at La Locanda dell'Arco; cinguli a local pasta

For all of us one of the joys of travelling is reliving those precious moments even years later. When I travel I have always taken hundreds, if not thousands, of photos. Long before blogging I was taking photos of the food at my table while on even the smallest of adventures. There’s something so evocative to me about pictures of food and the power they have to vividly remind me of mouth-watering meals and moments that I’ve had on my travels. I can look at my culinary photos and remember exactly where I was, the scent of the dish placed in front of me, and the way the flavours opened up on my palate. In many cases the taste or smell of something in my past is capable of painting a picture with richer, deeper brush strokes than any snapshot in my photo album. Recreating those same dishes in your own kitchen is pure magic.

We all have a love affair with different places for different reasons, the memories they provoke, the dreams they inspire and the extra dimension they bring to your life. For me memories have always been made in the kitchen. I find it interesting that while I struggle to remember my cellphone number or remember what I did yesterday the merest sniff of bread baking in the oven will evoke a plethora of memories and has me gathered around the kitchen table with my dad kneading dough with 5 year old chubby little fingers with frightening clarity.
Like people, pasta varieties are products of their environment. Just as the fertile Italian region of Emilia-Romagna have provided the world with rich tortellini, the more rugged Irpinian region has given us  an infinite variety of hand-made no-nonsense pasta of various shapes and sizes. The most common are orecchiette, fusilli, tagliatelle, cavatelli, and ravioli. 

Under the tutelage of Tania I was introduced to a regional pasta that is similar to orrechiette (or priests ears) called 'cinguli' (dumplings). Typically this hand made workhorse of the local cuisine is made ​​with pure durum wheat semolina, boiled and served with a pulled meat sauce or a tomato based 'sugo.' Unlike most homemade pastas, which contain eggs, 'cinguli' are made from just flour and water. The lack of eggs and the use of semolina flour which is harder than white flour, contribute to the pasta’s pleasingly firm bite. The traditional flour used for this handmade pasta, known as “00” flour is worth its weight in gold. You can find '00' flour at your local Italian grocers, some grocery stores, and online. 

When I first tasted handmade 'cinguli' (pronounced CHIN-gwee-lee) at my cooking class, I had an epiphany, one of those moments when you know you’re tasting “the real thing.” As soon as I bit into one of the irregularly shaped discs I was hooked. The slightly chewy pasta was the perfect foil to the robust sauce they were tossed in. The pasta’s cupped shape held drops of the sauce, while its sturdy texture kept it from getting soggy.

The dough is made like any other pasta dough, by shaping the flour into a well, putting the liquid in the middle, and very gradually working in the flour with your fingers or a fork. The surprising difference with this dough is that you use warm water, not cold. The warm water will help to develop more gluten in the flour, making it very elastic. After the dough is mixed, it needs at least seven to eight minutes of serious kneading. As you knead, the dough may crumble a little; if it does, just wet your hands lightly and continue working.

Contrary to pasta myths out there, you don’t need to purchase any special equipment or clear your schedule for an entire day to make it.  Cinguli are easy to shape, but each “bowl” must be shaped individually, which understandably takes a little time. The basic method for shaping the pasta is to dimple a small, flat round of dough with your index finger to make a tiny cup. The dough dries quickly, so work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest covered with a towel or plastic wrap. The entire process is about 15-20 minutes. The results? Phenomenal!
Making cinguli; pasta at a local agritourismo; Irpinian hills

My visit to Calitri was much too brief. As the car pulled away, I felt that I had barely scratched the surface. I stared out of the window, wondering when I would be back, walking these streets again. I was happy that I had taken the plunge, gone off the beaten track and made the journey there, but disappointed that money was tight and I wasn't able to do all that I had wanted to do. This magical place was hard to leave with a hint of the scent of wild flowers along the rock walls, the memorable company and conversation, and the stunning vistas all around as I listened to the siren song of the land. It was autumn in late-November where life is rather peaceful and contemplative.

I covet  Carla Capalbo’s book “The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania.” I want to start in Calitri and use this book to eat my way through the small towns of Campania, going from cheese makers to wineries, from olive oils mills to small family run farms. I want to sample local breads and freshly made mozzarella, still warm and oh so creamy. Sip limoncello and taste just picked figs again. Talk with these artisans and fill the car with their precious products, knowing that at some point I'll be lost and hungry and can pull over and have an impromptu picnic.

This pasta was more than simply a vehicle for transporting sauce; it was an equal element of the dish, as important as the sauce itself. I knew that once I arrived home, I would be trying to perfect my own. Fortunately, 'cinguli' are simple to make.  I couldn't help but serve this delicious regional pasta with 'sugo' or sauce as I had it in a a beautiful kitchen overlooking the verdant green hills of my wannabe home. As I tasted this enticing dish I close my eyes. The sun, the cool mountain breezes, the faint strains of Italian music….all the memories flood back. I dream of one day returning to my beloved Italy and reconnecting with the land. I have no idea if this is the exact method used by the local women, but it had a way of taking me back. 

Mangiare per vivere e non vivere per mangiare (Eat to live and not live to eat). 

**Cinguli with Sugo**

Recipe for Handmade Semolina Dough from "Flour +Water" by Thomas McNaughton

1 cup semolina flour
1 cup 00 flour
Salted warm water: 3/4 water plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt
Simple Traditional Sugo

NOTE: I don't know where they get their kosher salt in the States but using 1 tablespoon of kosher salt here would make this pasta inedible - I would use 1/2 teaspoon not a tablespoon regular salt or kosher salt - you are your best judge)

Combine the flours. Place the flour mixture on a dry, clean work surface, forming a mound about 8 to 10 inches in diameter at its base. Using the bottom of a measuring cup, create a well 4 to 5 inches wide, with at least 1/2 inch of flour on the bottom. Using a fork to stir the middle of the well, slowly pour in the salted water, trying to keep the integrity of the walls during this first step. Combine the flour and water into one mass and knead until fully incorporated. The dough will be dry. If necessary, using a spray bottle, spritz with water several times to "glue" the loose flour to the mass.

Once you've formed a ball, knead the dough: Drive the heel of your dominant hand into the dough. Push down and release, and then use your other hand to pick up and rotate the dough on itself 45 degrees. Drive the heel of your hand back in the dough, rotate, and repeat for 8 to 10 minutes.

Wrap the dough tightly with plastic wrap. Let rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature before using. If you're not using it after 30 minutes, put it in the refrigerator.

Line 2 trays with a dry kitchen towel and dust your hands with some semolina mixture. Remove plastic wrap from your piece of dough and cut it into pieces. Roll each piece between your hands to create a rope 3 to 4 feet long and 1/2 inch wide. Put rope on a work surface and with a sharp knife cut into 1/2-inch pieces, separating pieces as cut so they are no longer touching. Lightly toss cut pieces with a little semolina mixture. 

Take eat individual piece and while on the counter lightly but firmly draw your index finger along the dough towards you, creating a cup. Continue in this manner with all pieces. Practice makes perfect. 

Drop cinguli into boiling water. Once pasta is cooked 80 percent, about 2 minutes, drain and transfer to sauté pan with some sauce. Let pasta finish cooking in the sauce.

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author/owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.

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  1. A fantastic experience! Lovely people, place and dish.



  2. Val, I loved this post, it transported me to a small rural town in Italy. I could breath in the fragrance, hear the sounds and enjoy the sights together with you. You know, I think your trip to Italy has a book in it. You should think about it. Loved it, thanks for posting, I know how much work it is to write this.

    1. More research is needed Dina. If only I could join you in Italy this winter :-)

  3. What a fabulous post. I enjoyed every minute of it and I can see why secretly you might have wanted to keep it just for yourself. You said it best when you said that sharing food is very effective at breaking down cultural barriers and how important it is to cook and share meals together to open us up to new cultures. I would love to dine in the cave restaurant with its pretty white interior one day.

    1. Thank you Sam. These areas are so overlooked, but that is what keeps them authentic.

  4. these pictures are incredible. they're what i see in my head when i think of what i hope italy actually looks like. :)

    1. This could describe many small Italian towns Grace> I hope you have the opportunity to go someday.

  5. I do the same thing. I figure if you eat like a local you have truly experienced the place. GREG

  6. Nice! This is an interesting post and you're a great writer!

  7. Wonderful! I first met Angela in person 5 years ago in Calitri. The village where my grandfather was born. You have captured it all perfectly.

  8. I felt like I was right there with you as you discovered calitri. Thanks for sharing the adventure and the recipe.

  9. Ciao bella !
    I can say that because I live here in Italy, where women say it to eachother all the time. What a wonderful post. You really captured all the flavors and quirks, all the aromas and longings. Everyone I sent it to raved. Thank you for including me in your prose.
    I like to repeat a local phrase to those who haven't yet experienced the depth of Irpinia - Come. Visit. Vi aspettiamo...
    But you Valerie, simply need to return.

    1. Thanks for continuing to be an inspiration Angela. We say ciao bella to our friends here as well. Perhaps we are wannabe Italians.

  10. Your travel posts are such a pleasure to read, Val. I've never been this part of Italy, but now I feel as though I know all about it!

    1. Thanks Barbara. It is one of those areas that should be on everyones bucket list. The people, the scenery, the food. It shouldn't be missed :-)

  11. So glad that Emma posted about your blog on Facebook. My grandparents came from Calitri and I visited once just for an overnight and have been trying to get back there ever since. I plan to do exactly what you wrote about-using Carla Capalbo's book and exploring the area. I had planned to go last October but at the last minute had to change my plans. I grew up eating cinguli-as children we called them "jingles"-they were my favorite of all the dishes my grandmother made. Thank you for sharing your visit.

    1. I'm so glad you commented Janie. I first read about "jingles" before I went to Calitri, and had to seek out where I could learn to make them myself. I know you will get back there again.

  12. Oh I have such envy for a holiday like this. I love meals with friends that last all evening and are plates with small portions that seem to keep coming. I've never heard of Calitri but I'd love to visit one day. Brilliant post.

  13. Thanks for a lovely little tour of a place in Italy I have never been to. The remarkable thing about Italy is that everywhere you go is the most beautiful place you have ever been, until you go to another area, and Italy shows you a whole new face. I rarely have the patience to make my own pasta, so kudos to you for this!

  14. I love working with semolina dough but it's been a long time. This has also helped me to remember back to my own trips to Italy. I still have not shared a lot. I would have loved to have been traveling with you. You take it all in so well.

  15. ... and it keeps on giving! What a wonderful story and what a wonderful experience!!

  16. I do dream of Italian towns and nobody but you captures them so beautifully. GREG

  17. Honestly Val, your posts are wonderful. I don't always comment, but I do read them. You always make me feel as though I'm right there with you and the recipes are divine. I haven't made my own pasta for a few years and don't know why I stopped. I guess age and the fact that I cook for one. Going to live vicariously through your posts. Loved Italy every time I went, but we never took foodie trips like you have.
    Wonderful post!

  18. Thanks for your support Barbara. I think we would both like to head to Italy soon :-)

  19. Food draws us closer.

  20. thank you for sharing... love this!


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