La Locanda di Zio Rocco

Calabria, Part 2: “Hot” Restaurants in Diamante

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Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke

The Peperoncino Festival is still a day and a half away, so there’s some time left to explore the regional restaurants. And we’re hungry …

La Locanda di Zio Rocco

In an alley just off the Lungomare (seaside promenade), we stumble across a trattoria – a small restaurant with just three tables inside and outside, and the picture of a world-famous stingy cartoon duck on the wall. One of the tables is already occupied by a cheerful bunch of locals, obviously enjoying their meals. There’s an irresistable aroma in the air – tomatoes, garlic – and peperoncini! Also, strings of chiles are hanging and drying here, another unmistakeable sign that this is our kind of place, so we take a seat. It turns out that at least some of the folks at the other table are the restaurant owners.

La Locanda di Zio Rocco

The owners should know what’s good, so we order the same food they’re having: A whole fresh caught fish, fried in olive oil with just some herbs. Penne alla Zio Rocco – pasta with peas, olives, garlic and tomatoes, and of course spiced up with peperoncini. Stuffed eggplants (called melanzane here), topped with tomatoes. Real tomatoes – not that “sliceable water” grown in a greenhouse. Maria, the owner’s cute daughter, brings us a jar of home made, wonderfully hot peperoncini in olive oil, so we can add more heat. We’re in heaven.

Chairs are constantly moved at our neighbors’ table, as new folks join into food and conversation all the time. Also, they’re getting a plate with bright red peppers. All help themselves, and from the noise we can tell that this must be something crispy. Need to try that, too! Five minutes later, Maria brings us that Calabrian specialty, and explains: This is called peperoncini friti, and to fix it, they pick a handful of dried mild red peppers from a string (called fila here, like a ristra in New Mexico). They fry the pods in oil for just 2-3 minutes, drain and sprinkle them with coarse salt. Then this snack is served hot.

Peperoncini friti

Peperoncini friti – crispy fried pepper pods

The family at work

Even the spicy oil dripping out of the fried peppers is delicious – we dip it up with the fresh-baked bread.

While we are enjoying our crunchy pepper snack, our neighbors have finished eating and have rearranged their chairs to form a circle around a big basket of eggplants. This vegetable is used a lot in southern Italy, and grows really well here. While daddy is handing out eggplants to everyone, Maria notices our curious looks and tells us what’s going on now: The group is preparing a regional antipasti (appetizer) specialty called Malenzane all’ Olio (eggplant in oil). The whole family joins into peeling the eggplants, cutting them into slices, and the slices into thin strips.

To keep the eggplant strips from turning brown, they are thrown into a bucket containing water with some salt and lemon juice. Next day the strips are drained well and put into vinegar. After soaking them in vinegar for another day, the strips are drained well again. Now they are stored in olive oil, with garlic, fennel seed and chunks of hot peperoncini added. Fennel seed is used a lot in Calabria – even in sausage and with olives in oil. Maria disappears in the kitchen and returns with a small plate, bringing us a sample of the finished product from their last batch. As opposed to fresh or cooked eggplant, this kind of preservation makes it firm and crunchy. Without knowing that this is eggplant, it would be hard to tell. Also, the strips take on the pleasant flavor of the other ingredients. Very tasty.

It is just our second day in Calabria, but we can tell already (and will experience many more times during our stay) how proud the people here are of their culinary specialties. Despite the language barrier – here in the “deep south” you’ll hardly find locals speaking anything but Italian and Calabrian – they do their very best to help you enjoy their tasty treats.

When paying the bill, we realize why they have that famous frugal duck on the wall – although everything is prepared fresh, using the finest ingredients, the total is less than 20 Euro (1 Euro currently equals about 1 U.S. Dollar). The pasta dish was just 3.00 Euro, the whole fish seven, and the stuffed eggplant 2.00 Euro, just like other veggie sides we ordered. A 1.5 quart bottle of icecold spring water was just 2.0 Euro, less than what you’d pay retail in a store in any other country. The hot peppers in oil and the eggplant sample were on the house. We’ll be baaack …

La Locanda di Zio Rocco, Diamante, Largo San Biagio, Phone 368-7498498

Fire and Ice at Diamante’s Street Cafés

After that spicy lunch outdoors in the still hot September late summer air, we crave for some ice cream dessert. After all, ice cream is one of Italy’s greatest treats. We decide for Café Nini, right at the Lungomare, overlooking Diamante’s harbor when sitting outside. A spectacular view of fishing boats, the sea with its perfect azure color, and the green hills along the coast. Nini’s specialty is tartufo – that classic Italian dessert, typically a big scoop of chocolate ice cream, hollow inside, filled with liquor like Marsala or Amaretto. Here, they don’t have just one tartufo on the menu, but an ice cream maker’s dozen: “Tartufo Café,” “Tartufo Ciocolata,” and – stop right here! – “Tartufo Afrodisia – gelato dolcemente piccante.

Tartufo Afrodisia - spicy & icy

The friendly waitress explains that this is a rich milk ice cream, stuffed with peperoncini, and quite hot. That sounds just right. “Due tartufi piccanti, per favore.” We won’t get disappointed: Smooth ice cream, with interesting red chunks shining through. Nobody, really nobody makes better ice cream than the Italians, and as we are spooning our way to the center of this frozen delicacy, it’s getting hotter. Juicy chunks of red ripened peperoncini light a fire on our tongues, nicely balanced with the cool sweet ice cream. This is a hot, uhm, cool recommendation for any chilehead traveling to Calabria.

Café Niní, Via Santa Lucia 42, Diamante,

The next day we stop by the small ice cream parlor on main street, right next to the church. Their handwritten “cornetti al peperoncino” sign catches our eyes, and they turn out as a real treat: crunchy, fresh-baked croissants, sliced and filled with chilled sweet pudding that is spiced up with fiery chile chunks. Very delicious, and again a perfect balance of sweetness and heat. They came up with this special right in time for the Peperoncino festival, and their tables on the sidewalk are decorated with bright red chile bouquets.

Cornetti al Peperoncino


Cornetti al Peperoncino

Renate got a capsicum croissant

La Buca di Bacco

There are so many nice little places to explore, we could possibly spend weeks here. Tonight we’re checking out another small restaurant named La Buca di Bacco. Their daily menu indicates that it’s Peperoncino Festival time:

La Buca di Bacco menu

They have Penne alla Diavola (devilish penne pasta), Penne all ‘Anduja (pasta with a chile-spiced pork sausage), and Spaghetti Aglio Olio Peperoncino (Spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and chiles).

We order the latter one and the Diavola. To kick the dishes up, we get hot peperoncini in olive oil. Our Swedish friends Mats and Patricia are joining us today, and the waitress watches in disbelief how much of those pepperoncini Mats and I put on our dishes.

Prices are just slightly higher than at Zio Rocco, and this is another little place we’d come back to anytime.

La Buca di Bacco, Via IV Novembre, Diamante

Also …

Diamante is not a town with glitzy restaurants, with waiters dressed in b&w and menus bound in leather. There’s a rather elegant fish reaturant though, called La Taverna del Pescatore. A big bottle of mineral water is still just 2.00 Euro, and delicious, typically Mediterranian seafood antipasti for two are 10.00, the main seafood dishes we had were around 8.00 Euro each. Many of the larger restaurants have a per-guest surcharge (coperti), which is 1.5 Euro  per person at this place. In turn, they don’t mind sharing and bring two plates if you wish. This restaurant has also excellent pizza – the real thing.

La Taverna del Pesacatore, Diamante, Via Calvario, Phone 0985-81482

Another thing you won’t find here are chain restaurants – neither Italian nor foreign. The last golden arches we noticed were up in Naples.

After dining out in Diamante for one week, we were not disappointed once. And for those who would rather cook themselves, there are plenty of stores right within Diamante, including hot shops. Yes, chile pepper hot shops! Those are the stores we are going to tell you about in our next report.

Go to page 1 here.

Go to page 3 here.

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Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke

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