Much ado is made over what is referred to as cucina povera, simply put, the cuisine of the poor. These dishes are rooted in tradition and authentically recreate recipes with locally sourced ingredients. Today, patrons of the world’s best restaurants clamor for this tasty, wholesome food of humble origins. In Catanzaro, one such rustic dish has become a symbol of the city, the Morzello di Catanzaro.
LEGEND OF MORZELLO CATANZARESE
In popular lore, the morzello of Catanzaro is attributed to a resourceful widow named Chicchina, who struggled to feed her children. One day before Christmas, she was hired to clean a courtyard, where calves of the well-to-do had been butchered. As Chicchina went about her business, cleaning the blood and gathering the discarded offal, a lightbulb went off in her head. (Perhaps, a candle would have been more in keeping with the period.)
Instead of throwing away the interiors as instructed, she could use them for her Christmas dinner. She would make a meat soup. She chopped the assorted veal innards into little pieces (morzha morzha in Catanzaro dialect), which she boiled in water with tomatoes, peperoncino, salt, oregano and bayleaves. And the morzeddhu was born (morzello in Italian).
Of course, there are other theories as to the dish’s derivation, but the story of Chicchina feels right, especially in the cold weather, such as at Christmastime, when this comfort food warms the spirit.
MORZELLO NELLA PITTA
I’m well aware that many reading this will turn up their noses and say that they’ll never eat the stomach, heart, lungs or spleen of an animal. (Vegetarians, cover your ears and divert your eyes.) To all the rest, I say, try it. I’m telling you, it’s delicious. Simmered to perfection in tomato puree with just the right amount of peperoncino calabrese, bay and oregano, the morzello develops a rich, complex flavor with a piquant delicacy.
The traditional way of eating morzello is with a local bread called pitta. Unlike the unleavened pita, this bread is leavened and in the form of a large ring. The pitta is cut into pieces of about eight inches in length, sliced open but not all the way through and stuffed like a sandwich. Although morzello can be presented on a plate as a dinner, eating it with pitta is a time-honored ritual.
Historically, laborers consumed morzello in pitta during mid-morning breaks, but the special sandwich was not reserved for workmen alone. Students as well as the middle and upper classes enjoyed the hearty repast, too.
C’ERA UNA VOLTA IN CATANZARO
Morzello di Catanzaro was traditionally eaten in pubs and inns found in alleys and lanes of old historic centers. Today, the dish is served in trattorias that keep the tradition alive. I recently enjoyed morzello nella pitta at an eatery appropriately named Locanda C’era una Volta or “Once Upon a Time” Inn, located in a beautifully restored building in Catanzaro’s old town. The original stone walls complimented the welcoming, unpretentious interior.
Morzello nella pitta kept good company with scaloppina di vitello (veal scaloppine), parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmigiana) and polpette di carne al sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce) on the menu. My little party started off splitting an assortment of appetizers, but I was too busy eating and only just got a photo of the crochettone di patate ripieno con la ‘nduja before it was divided. A favorite of my friends’ daughter, the very large croquette with a super smooth potato interior was filled with Calabria’s famous spicy salami, which was an adventurous choice for a middle-schooler.
I wouldn’t have thought a youngster would have considered ordering the morzello, either, but it’s all what you’re used to and the dauntless young lady wanted just that. In Catanzaro, morzello is ricercato (sought-after) by all ages.
Read another story from Catanzaro in my blogpost Wooden Ecclesiastics of the Catanzaro Cathedral or visit an outdoor sculpture park Contemporary Art in the Catanzaro Park of Biodiversity. Or experience a typical dish from Reggio Calabria in Le Frittole: The Pig Boil, Calabrian Style. And for an in-depth look at the beautiful land in the toe of the boot, check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.
Would you like to travel to Calabria? Check out the itinerary for my in-depth Calabria Tour.
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