Tell most Italians you're visiting Calabria, on the toe of the Italian peninsula, and their first question is, "Why?"
Possibly the least touristed state in Italy, it is poor, earthquake-prone, has no major archaeological sites of interest, and its biggest export is organized crime. Most aren't too keen on its cuisine, either—especially its most iconic ingredient, the chili pepper.
Called peperoncino, the fiery red peppers go in most of Calabria's great dishes. Ground into chocolate, dropped in grappa, moulded into sausage, and squeezed into oil, the peperoncino is the soul of Calabrian cooking.
Over four days, I set out to find the spiciest Calabrian pasta I could, and in the process, discovered that not every Calabrian dish is excellent, and some are just nasty, no matter how much you enjoy your capsaicin.
But I did learn that every reason not to visit Calabria was horseshit. To hell with earthquakes, malaria, and the mafia. Calabria is a ripping place to go.
Reggio Calabria is the biggest city in Calabria, about half a million people perched on Italy's toe. It's sunny and the ocean is a bright turquoise. It's the end of the line for the Italian continental train system, and for most tourists, it's the place to catch the ferry across the Strait of Messina to Sicily, not a place to hang around in.
Here, we tried 'nduja [pronounced, with great difficulty, eun-doo-YA] the most common source of spice in Calabria. It's a very soft sausage that is spread over bread, mixed into pasta sauce, or chopped up and dotted atop pizza. Spread on bruschetta, it has a salty and smoky flavour, and a creamy texture, like a pate. It's also hot, but not to a blow-your-head-off degree —a 3/10, like a spiced hummus.
At a fancy place called Via Veneto, where the tablecloths are a crisp white and the waiters are appropriately surly, we ordered our first Calabrian meals.
Using Google Translate, I asked the waiter for whatever was spiciest. He got me the stroncatura, a pasta with a sauce of garlic, oil, chili, pickled anchovies, olives, and fennel seeds.
It was only very slightly spicy. There were a half-dozen tiny chilies in there, and you could hardly taste them. At the end of the meal, there was a bit of a chili tingle in the mouth, but that's no serious spice. 1/10 for spice, and that's being generous.
If this was the spiciest dish in Calabria, this was going to be a short assignment.
Reggio is fine, but the heart of peperoncino country is Diamante, a small town on the Tyrrhenian coast. People here are kind to the point of stupidity. When our train was 45 minutes late, our Airbnb host hung around the station waiting, replying to our entreaties she just go home with texts of, "Silence!"
Random people pick each other up in their cars to give them lifts. Strangers push babies in your arms to play with. The only ones who don't smile and offer help are the cats, which lay out on the sun-drenched shore, ignoring everything.
Diamante's 5,000 inhabitants are obsessed with peperoncino, or at least they pretend to be for the tourists. They hang peperoncino around their homes and businesses like Christmas holly. Shops sell a plethora of chili-infused products and chili-shaped shwag. On the second weekend of September, they host the local Peperoncino Festival. This year, on its 25th anniversary, it's expected to attract 200,000 people.
Enzo Monaco, President of the Italian Academy of Chilies, sits in his Diamante office surrounded by chili art—great paintings of chilies, abstract chili art, a naked Penelope Cruz covered in chilies. The logo of the Italian Academy of Chilies, a Greek mask with a chili pepper tongue, is found throughout the building.
"Calabresi peppers are the best in the world," Monaco boasts. "The climate is most suitable for the cultivation of the pepper plant. That is why in Calabria there is an important tradition of reinventing and cooking the peppers."
It's April, so the peppers are all dormant, but when I ask Monaco where the peppers grow, he sweeps his hand out the window. "In June, there are peppers all over the hills!"
As we left the Academy, he gave us a free bottle of peperoncino wine and a bottle of pickled peperoncino. When I took out my wallet to pay him, he looked like I had punched him in the face.
That night we hit up Locandina di Zio Rocco, a cheap, family restaurant. It was also the only place open, as Juventus were playing Barcelona in the Champions League Quarterfinals, and everyone was watching. The staff spent most of the meal gathered around the television, jumpy and cursing. (It ended in a 0-0 draw.)
When I asked for the spiciest dish, and they pointed at the bottle of chili oil on the table—just do it yourself. I settled on pennette con 'nduja. It was spicy alright, and there was no need to add the chili oil. It was covered in chili flakes and chunks of 'nduja. Otherwise, though, it was kind of tasteless—the main taste here is heat. The heat is a 5/10, similar to Korean kimchi.
The wine Monaco gave me, called "Pepperosso," is a deep red magliocco and merlot mix, made by Spadafora, a Calabrian winery. We were disappointed to learn there are no actual chilies in it, even though it has a picture of a chili on the label.
At the end of the bottle I thought I felt a slight chili tang around my mouth, but a lady at a wine shop said that was my imagination. It is, however, great to drink with chili dishes.
The chili-infused grappa, on the other hand, nearly murdered me. It does have chilies in it—there were two of them floating in our 100-milliliter bottle, sad, wrinkled and piss yellow.
The grappa looked and smelled perfectly normal, but on first taste, it was like someone fucked my throat with pepper spray and gasoline. It is the foulest thing imaginable, an unpalatable liquor, comparable only to Irish poitín or Chinese baiju, and then infused with the nastiest hot peppers the world can grow. You cough, you choke, you cry.
I suspected the grappa was only for gullible tourists—when I asked a waitress for it in Diamente, she replied, confused, "Grappa is a drink."
I asked a group of young people about it. They had all heard of it, but none had drunk it, except one. He said he had once come home dead drunk with a bunch of friends, and were looking for something to put them "over the top."
"We all tried it, but said forget it," he said, shuddering at the memory. "Let the tourists keep that shit."
We also set about eating hot pepper chocolate, another tourist favourite from Diamante. It was solid cacao chocolate. There's no soft chili filling, but you can distinguish tiny red dots within. According to the wrapper, the pepper is only 0.3 percent of the chocolate, but you can taste it—it adds to the chocolate flavour without overwhelming it. Winner: 1/10 for spice, but 9/10 for chocolate goodness.
Lunch, a couple hours before we left town, was at Osteria dei Murales. It was pleasant, if touristy, with outdoor seating and a waiter who couldn't seem to speak either English or Italian. When I asked for something spicy, they recommended the piatto della memoria perduta—the dish of lost memory.
It appeared we had finally found the spiciest pasta in Calabria. My first impression was that I had made a terrible mistake, as hot burn exploded in my mouth and throat. Neighbouring diners were choking on the smell of it. After five minutes, the heat stabilized a bit, but it was still mad. The sauce's primary ingredient appeared to be chili oil and pieces of fried bread, like croutons. 8/10 on the spice.
After Diamante, we boarded the train for Cosenza, a city of about 75,000 people, inland and on the other side of the mountains.
Unlike the rest of Calabria, Cosenza still has a medieval old town that hasn't been shattered by earthquakes. It's deserted though, the few businesses still running are empty, and there seem to be more cats and plastic bags out than anything else.
But the sun is beautiful, the beer and wine is cheap, and from the Norman castle on the hill, you can see the grand sweep of Calabria below. If you squint, you can imagine the hills dotted with red chilies.
Our penultimate Calabrian meal was eaten at A Cantina Cosentina, in a medieval-looking brick building, with wine on the walls, dangling dried chilis, and no menu. This is about as authentic as it gets.
The chef listed the options in rapid-fire Calabrese, and I had no idea what he was saying. I just asked for something spicy, and it was only after the meal I learned it was called paccheri della Cantina, square -shaped pasta rings with fresh cherry tomatoes, black olives, ricotta, and a chili oil base.
Not only was it not spicy, it also wasn't any good, just an oily noodle mess. Midway through my meal, the plate broke and they had to throw the pasta out, as a thousand little shards blew like shrapnel into the food. They offered to cook me a new one, but I declined, and they comped the meal. 1/10 for spice, but a solid 10/10 for disappointment.
We drank throughout the day after that, and they have a penchant for strong Scottish ales in Cosenza—I don't know who introduced them to it, but at the Bulldog Ale House, the cheapest pint is also 10 percent ABV.
So we were sloppy but psyched for our final Calabrian pasta meals, at Trattoria il Paesello. A beautiful little trattoria, with silk flowers on the table, brick walls, and two drunk old men behind us, staring at their meals despondently, like their dogs had just died. It was also dirt cheap—a litre of wine was five euros, the meals five or six each.
Through the strains of "All by Myself," I asked for spicy and they insisted I eat the tagliatelle Calabrese. It turned out to be the best Calabrese pasta I'd had yet, though not the spiciest. A spinach pasta with a mushroom and 'nduja sauce, the spice didn't overwhelm, but was a warming compliment to the sauce. 2/10 for heat, but 8/10 for sheer deliciousness.
Throughout our exploration, my wife Jo ordered non-spicy dishes: Fileja scillia e cariddi, with cherry tomatoes, swordfish, eggplant, mint and basil; pasta e fagiloli con cozze, with beans and mussels; salmon farfalle; and plain tomato sauce pasta. All were excellent, by her own testimony and by mine, when I raided her plate.
Which means there is no requirement to get hot peppers in your food. And though you will disappoint a Calabrese citizen or two, they'll be nice to tell you.