Why you should care
Because sometimes you don’t want to feel the burn.
Southern Italians are weaned on hot … real hot chili peppers that come in all colors: red like the devil, yellow like the scorching sun and fluorescent green like the Amazon jungle. People in the nation’s south are able to gulp down 10 of those shortish ones shaped like horns, dubbed “little demons.” Unlike most of us, they don’t have to rush to the sink afterward to rinse their mouths, which, don’t ask me why, never light on fire (something that pretty much happened to my dad once — but I guess that’s because he’s Roman).
They spice their espressos, café lattes, liqueurs and even tea with it. Moms sprinkle toddlers’ bottles with chili powder. There’s even chili pepper ice cream. It’s like a drug. Only problem is if you have a sensitive stomach — spicy food can make things get ugly, and fast. I’m not for hot stuff. Guys, yeah. But food, no way. So despite being a pure 100 percent genuine Italian, I gave up on chili peppers.
That is, until I visited Matera — that stunning, funnel-shaped town in the deep south stuck inside a gorge where many poor people lived in caves until the 1970s, sharing beds and toilets with animals. That’s where I came across Cusco and changed my mind. Nope, it’s not a local stud with hairy arms, dark eyes and curly black hair. It’s a special variety of “friendly” chili pepper that won’t assault your taste buds, nostrils, eyes or throat. It’s gentle to the lower parts too. No risk of bursting into flames.
You just keep eating one, and then another, and then another, until there’s none left.
It’s a huge, sun-dried and then fried red chili pepper that is hollow inside and served as an appetizer. You actually end up eating just the crunchy peel. When the runner of popular restaurant Le Botteghe (a typical stout southerner with a strong accent) serves me a full platter of these ugly, dark-looking things, I’m like: “No way, man, that ain’t going down my food pipe.”
But Angelo Giannella is convincing. Calling me “Lady,” he tells me not to worry: “These are sweet and tender. It’s our specialty,” and they are found only in Matera. “You’ll get addicted in no time. After the first one you gulp down, you’ll never want to quit. I swear it.” What the hell … OK, then, let’s give it a try.
I tentatively start munching on one. Just like a potato chip. And … wow! He’s right. In two seconds, the plate is empty, shining white, and I’m licking my fingers. ’Cause just like when you open a Doritos bag, you just keep eating one chip, and then another, and then another, until there’s none left.
Lucky for me the meal has just started. Local cuisine adds Cusco chilies to everything, from appetizers to even dessert. It’s divine with twisted handmade strascinate pasta fried in bread crumbs and tomato sauce, or with stock fish. But its “death” — a metaphor Italians use to indicate the best way to eat it, the best pairing — is solo. Like a king.
Matera has been picked as 2019 European Capital of Culture, and Cusco will rule in taverns and on tables. Residents are bound to make a fortune out of it. And don’t worry: Traditional chilies are always there to satisfy your ravenous palate for heat.
Just around the corner from the main square there’s another tavern, La Talpa, that makes fried “Assassin Spaghetti.” I’ll let you guess the story behind the name.