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Aug 14, 2008 10:10 PM

Cucina povera

What exactly is cucina povera, and how is it different from rustic Italian? Any reputable sources where I can get a reliable answer are also welcome!

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    1. I can try to reply; let's hope my attempt will work !
      Cucina povera is the natural fall-out of the poor status of many and many Italian families after the first world war until the end of the second world war and beyond (1950s).
      It meant to use every ingredient coming from the garden (tomato, garlic, onion, zucchine, pepper) from the barnyard (rabbit, chicken, pork, duck), from the woods (wild asparagus, mushrooms, chestnuts), from the sea (anchioves), from flour mill (bread, pizza, piada, pasta).
      And prepare each one of these so that there is the least possible waste and several smart ways to reuse the leftovers. What is riboliita, for example ?!?!
      So, a way to cook where very few ingredients were purchased.
      So, a way to eat and enjoy, in a simple though satisfying way.
      Cucina rustica is not a clear concept. It could mean to prepare meals using few ingredients always in the same ways because, sad but true, you have no fantasy and no expertise, to make more and better. I equate cucina rustica to "menu turistico" of so many and many crap Italian restaurants who do not make efforts for a better and more genuine offering.
      In fact, we use these words "cucina rustica" seldomly and sure almost never a chef will describe his way to cook saying that he is a chef of cucina rustica.
      I shall finish to say so: "I love cucina povera and I dislike (and distrust) cucina rustica".

      1 Reply
      1. re: vidanto

        Although the term may be of 20th c. vintage, I think the reality predates the last century and the two wars.

        I agree with you that 'cucina rustica' is a recent advertising concept and that the "no waste" concept is really key in cucina povere.

        I believe that "cucina povere" -- ending in an "e" is probably the correct spelling.

      2. Well, I'm disreputable, but I'll share this much:

        I'm sure you already know, "povera" is poverty, so the historic difference is not merely that the cooking is unschooled or unrefined, but that the dishes are the products of mean necessity and a poverty of ingredients. On menus in Italy, you will often see clam dishes described as "vongole verace" -- meaning "true clams" or "verified clams" because there is also an Italian dish -- rare to find these days -- called "vongole finte" where there are no clams but potato slices instead (a "feint" or fake). The delicious pastas tossed in breadcrumbs and not much else fall into the category of cucina povera, as do chestnut pastas, farro soups and plain pies made of ground chickpeas ("farinata") that really have almost nothing in them except the starch.

        The legend, and perhaps true history of the Genovese foccacia al formaggio (sometimes called fugassa) is a tale of cucina povera: The terrain around Genova is so poor, people survived there by living right at the sea and pulling their food from the water.That left them quite exposed to maurading Saracen pirates, and the defensive solution was to build lookout towers in the high hills to send up alarms when pirates were spotted headed for land. The fishermen and their wives quickly gathered up whatever oil, salt, flour and raw milk cheese they had on hand, and literally headed for the high hills, eating only the foccacia al formaggio they baked over fires in caves, for days on end, until the danger passed and they could go back to fish in the sea.

        To this day, classic foccacia al formaggio consists only of these poor ingredients, although it is now a foodie quest to find the baker who does the best version near Genova. The classic Genovese ravioli with walnut sauce is a rustic dish -- the handmade ravioli twists ("pansoti") are stuffed with weedy herbs and the sauce is made with pounded walnuts and stale bread with milk or cream -- but the protein content is very high, the preparation is leisurely, and the ingredients themselves reflect choices and good times, not making do with whatever is on hand.

        3 Replies
        1. re: summerUWS2008

          PS: In Parma, the local wealthy cuisine prides itself on taking earthy dishes and refining them and enriching them-- so that the classic Ligurian pesto pasta, consisting of pounded basil and pignoli traditionally served over twists of chestnut pasta, gets converted into a dish made of highly refined wheat noodles with the basil kneaded right into them, and the pignoli gets pounded with well-aged Parma cheese.

          1. re: summerUWS2008

            This from "In Mama's Kitchen""

            Rigatoni alla Pagliata or Rigatoni with Pajata. This is rigatoni served with calf's intestine and dressed with tomato sauce, oil and garlic. It is a prime example of the cucina povera. Romans sent the finest cuts of meat to the Papal tables and were resigned to eat offal. The use of offal has diminished with time.


            And I'll correct myself from above: It is "cucina povera" with an 'a'.

          2. re: summerUWS2008

            i was in cattolica recently and an argument raged over vongole verace. i was lead to believe that the distinction is as follows;

            Vongole Verace - the true carpetshell clams with a heavily lined shell, Tapes decussatus (Linneo)

            rather than the more common Vongole - carpetshell clams with a smoother shell, Chamelea gallina (Linneo, 1758).

          3. thanks a lot guys, this is excellent! googling got me into information (or misinformation) overload - i know i can always trust fellow hounds to get me to the good stuff.

            1. Two short comments, or perhaps tangents:

              First, cucina povera is worldwide. You can certainly find it here in Oklahoma. One woman I know was astonished when I told her that all the animals her family ate (except for the squirrel) would command a hefty price in a New York restaurant.

              Second, the one benefit of this that you can't glean from the printed page is the indescribable freshness and richness of flavor those local ingredients have. People in NY would pay any price to get it... and can't (though Craft and Blue Hill come close). Here's my description of such a meal: