The second-smallest region in Italy, Molise was until the early 1960s considered part of the region of Abruzzo. Bordered on the east by the Adriatic Sea, Molise shares the rest of its newly defined borders with the regions of Campania, Lazio, Puglia and Abruzzo. The terrain of Molise rolls gently from seascape to plains then sharply upward into its hilly inland, offering a rich variation of landscapes and food production conditions in a relatively small area. Our founder, George DeLallo and his family are from the region of Molise.
The area in and around Molise has a turbulent history. The Samnite tribes, the Goths, the Lombards and the Romans all laid claims at various times through the ages to the fertile land in the area. The Saracens led a shaky rule for many years, filled with internal strife that led to land struggles between counts and resulted in several cities in the area being destroyed. When Italy finally established itself as a kingdom in the mid 1800s, the area now known as Molise saw a dip into poverty as many people abandoned rural life and sought to better their fortunes in more industrialized areas of Italy, a trend which has continued through recent years. Because the population of Molise is still considerably lower than most other Italian regions, industrialization has been kept to a minimum, leaving the countryside largely unblemished.
Today, foreign tourists rarely stumble upon Molise, orbiting instead the larger and more cosmopolitan regions and the conveniences they offer. Since Molise lives in Italy’s tourism shadows it is an ideal destination for adventurous culinary travelers seeking out the rough-hewn gems of Italian culture. The region’s capital of Campobasso sits along the Biferno River, and is famed for the exceptional skill of its knife craftsmen, as well as its delicious pears and scamorza cheese. Campobasso’s Villa de Capoa is a heady garden attraction for nature lovers craving the scent of evergreens; it is filled with cypresses, sequoias and cedars. Churches like the Chiesa della Madonna del Monte stand out in the architectural periphery, with the Castello Monforte taking the center spotlight. Though beautiful, many of the buildings in the Molise region have been rebuilt over time due to damage by invading forces, as well as by significant earthquakes which shook the area in 1456, 1805 and again in 2002.
Living off the land is a vital aspect of Molisani tradition, and much of its agricultural pursuits are small-scale, reflecting the region’s sparse population base. Most people live in rural areas where subsistence farming is both traditional and necessary to keep families fed and healthy. Sheep, goats, pigs and cattle stock have been cultivated for centuries in Molise, but have historically been raised as a form of currency rather than food, giving rise to the transumanza tradition of traveling with one’s livestock to Abruzzo for sale at the markets. Because animals have been generally raised for sale, Molisani recipes are often vegetarian or use very small amounts of meat just for flavoring. Most dishes are prepared simply and with few ingredients, and work well within the region’s lingering transumanza mindset.
Beans, potatoes, grapes and olives are primary crops of the region, and the culinary tradition is quite similar to that of nearby Abruzzo with liberal use of olive oil, chilies and garlic. Durum wheat is also important to the region, so pastas are both hearty and abundant. Of the few distinct dishes native to Molise, p’lenta d’iragn is the one gracing almost every Molisani table when simple, pure comfort food is in order. A humble but delicious dish, this polenta variation is made from potatoes and wheat and is topped with a tomato sauce. Other polenta dishes are common throughout the region, and many recipes bear the markings of influence from surrounding regions. Even the flavors of nearby Croatia have made their way into the Molisani melting pot. Try this simple Polenta Crostini with Spicy Tomato Sauce in your own kitchen for a little taste of Molise anytime.