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Rame e Terracotta / Copper and Terra-Cotta

Rame e Terracotta / Copper and Terra-Cotta

By Katie Parla

*excerpted from Food of the Italian South: Recipes for Classic, Disappearing, and Lost Dishes

As recently as the 1970s, it was common practice for women in the Italian south to bring a dowry of sorts to their marriage. Depending on the village, the bride and her family might be responsible for stocking the bedroom linens or cooking implements, or both. Bringing copper cookware to the marital home signaled that a woman was both a skilled cook as well as a valuable one, her worth bound to the metal from which the pots were wrought. In addition to their symbolic value, copper implements carried the practical purpose of being essential to the south’s soulful stews, braises, and broths, which require even, moderate heat to reach their fullest expression.

LICURDIA (Onion Soup).jpg

Copper pots were often very large, intended for one-pot meals—only in the late nineteenth century did eating in multiple courses become the standard in Italian households of the south—and would be suspended above hot coals or wood-fueled flames to simmer vegetables, legumes, and meats. Terra-cotta, kiln-baked clay, served a similar function, although unlike copper, which heats quickly, terra-cotta is slow to warm up. This makes terra-cotta ideal for long, slow cooking, essential for tough proteins. Terra-cotta vessels called pignate were particularly popular in Puglia, where octopus, goat, horse, or lamb might be placed inside with seasoning, the pignate were either covered with a clay lid or sealed with bread dough, and the meat cooked for hours.

Not surprisingly, these items were ascribed such enormous value that many women transported them in their luggage when they emigrated to America around the turn of the twentieth century.


LICURDIA Tropea Onion Soup

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons pork lard

2 pounds Tropea onions, halved and

cut into ¼-inch-thick slices

Sea salt

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

5 cups vegetable broth, warmed

6 slices rustic bread

7 ounces caciocavallo or scamorza cheese

Melt the lard in a large pot over medium-low heat. When the melted lard begins to shimmer, add the onions and season with salt. Stir, then cover and cook until the onions have wilted, 12 to 15 minutes.

Uncover, increase the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are browned and caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes.

Dust the onions with flour and stir to combine. Slowly stir in the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the onions are falling apart, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the broiler to high. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet. Shave or grate the caciocavallo on top, distributing it evenly. Broil until the cheese is melted and toasty, about 2 minutes.

Serve the soup with the bruschetta on the side, or place the bruschetta, cheese-side up, atop the plated soup


is a Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist. Originally from New Jersey, she has an art history degree from Yale, a master’s degree in Italian Gastronomic Culture from the Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”, a sommelier certificate from the Federazione Italiana Sommelier Albergatori Ristoratori, and an archeological speleology certification from the city of Rome.

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