What is cucina povera?
Translated as ‘the kitchen of the poor’, cucina povera refers to the traditional cooking techniques and recipes that originated from Italy’s rural peasant populations.
Often described as a ‘philosophy’, cucina povera actually originated out of necessity – historically, this was the only way that many Italians could afford to cook. Cucina povera recipes are fundamentally frugal, with an emphasis on not wasting food, making more out of less and savouring every ingredient.
The staples of cucina povera cooking were cheap, calorific carbs like pasta (made with a white dough of just flour and water), bread and polenta – typically accompanied by seasonal fruit, vegetables and pulses. Meat was rare, but when it was on the menu, it was normally in the form of the cheaper cuts and offal that the rich would turn their noses up at.
Central and southern Italy is typically seen as the ‘cradle’ of cucina povera; places like Tuscany, Puglia and Campania all had significant populations of rural poor, and many famous cucina povera dishes come from these regions.
How you can cook in the style of cucina povera
The basic spirit of cucina povera relies on creativity, resourcefulness and ingenuity in the kitchen. Here's some practical aspects to the tradition to try at home:
Reducing your food waste
Whether it’s using up leftover herbs and tired greens in a pesto or saving vegetable scraps to make vegetable stock, cucina povera cooking is all about making sure that no ingredient is wasted. Pangrattato – literally grated bread – is one such example. Often referred to as ‘poor man’s parmesan’, these crispy fried breadcrumbs are an ingenious way of using up stale bread, and the perfect vegan topping for scattering over pasta.
Eating locally and seasonally
For Italian peasants, eating locally and seasonally was a necessity more than a choice. Most would grow their own produce, bartering their excess with neighbours for ingredients that they couldn’t grow or rear themselves. Growing your own produce is a great way to reduce your food miles, and you don’t need a big garden to get started – these six Italian herbs will grow happily in pots on a windowsill in your kitchen.
Using cheaper cuts of meat
‘Nose to tail’ eating is all the rage now, but for Italian peasants it was often the only way they’d eat meat. “Del porco non si butta via niente” (no part of the pig is thrown away) is a famous Italian peasant mantra, and it’s just as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. You don’t necessarily have to throw yourself straight into offal though; this pulled pork ragú makes the most of a cheaper cut of pork by slow-cooking it for hours, creating a deliciously tender partner for ridged pasta shapes like rigatoni.
Classic cucina povera recipes
In days gone by, Italian peasants cooked these dishes out of necessity. Nowadays, many classic cucina povera recipes are loved throughout Italy – and plenty of them appear on high-end restaurant menus.
A thrifty alternative protein source, pulses are a common ingredient in a host of Italian dishes. Perhaps the most famous is pasta e fagioli, or pasta and beans. From Emilia-Romagna in the north to Sicily in the south, each region of Italy has its own version of this warming, restorative soup. Whether you decide to keep it vegetarian or add some chopped pancetta, the key to this dish is taking your time to slowly cook your soffritto of carrots, onion and celery.
Translated as ‘boiled again’, ribollita is a hearty soup and a staple of Tuscan peasant cooking. Traditionally made on a Friday with the remains of stale bread and the week’s vegetable scraps, the ribollita would then be reheated and eaten over several days, becoming deeper and more intense with each day. Nowadays, this dish is a comforting and flavourful way of using up any tired veg you might have lurking at the back of your fridge.
Another dish from Tuscany, and another way with stale bread. With origins that stretch back to at least the 14th century, panzanella initially came about as a means for Tuscan peasants to use up old loaves of pane sciocco – Tuscany’s favourite bread. These days, panzanella is one of Italy’s most famous summer salads. It’s that good, we’d even recommend breaking with tradition and making it with fresh bread if you don’t have a stale loaf lying around.
Pasta is a quintessential cucina povera food: affordable, filling and delicious. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a pasta dish that’s more thrifty than this classic. Hailing from Campania, spaghetti aglio e olio (spaghetti with garlic and oil) elevates a handful of simple ingredients into a satisfying, fuss-free dinner. With just five main ingredients and a few simple steps, this dish is often called ‘midnight spaghetti’, as it’s easy to whip up after a long shift (or an evening on the tiles).
As one version of the story behind this famous dish goes, a group of hungry customers entered a restaurant in Ischia late at night and asked the owner, who didn’t have many ingredients left, to make una puttanata qualsiasi, that is, to throw together whatever ingredients he had. In his possession were just a few tomatoes, olives and capers, but that was enough. In true cucina povera style, he made do with what he had, and the result was a salty, savoury and punchy riff on a classic tomato sauce, which has become a staple across Italy.