What is Cucina Povera?
A friend recently asked me to explain the concept of cucina povera and here’s the working definition I came up with :
a style of cooking best represented, in the past, by the lower class (read: peasants) of a given society. Peasant cooking aims to utilize whatever is found in the kitchen, household, farm, etc. to prepare meals. The concept of cucina povera (literally meaning poor kitchen) can be found in every society and is really about making great food with simple, yet high quality, and available ingredients (including every part of the animal such as cow intestine, pig ears, goat head, etc.).
Both my family in the United States and Italy have made and continue to make meals in the fashion of cucina povera. That is to say, utilizing both what is contained in the kitchen or pantry and what isn’t too costly at the market in order to prepare meals. In Italy, the kitchen of the poor arouse out of post War conditions and the generally depressed state of southern Italian life where food choices were limited (regardless of War).
10 examples of cooking in the style of cucina povera include:
- Tomato salad
- Risi e bisi (rice and peas)
- Basic pizza/bread
- Minestra (vegetable soup)
- Pea soup
- Broccoli bean soup
- Pasta with olive oil, garlic, and parsley (aglio e olio)
- Pasta frittata
How to Cook in the Style of Cucina Povera
Ask any Italian cook if they aim to prepare foods in the style of cucina povera and you’ll get a laugh, especially from an older person who lived through post War Italy. Both my grandmothers, for example, wouldn’t acknowledge the cucina povera style rather they’d argue that it was simply the food they had access to and prepared (we’ve only managed to romanticize the style of cooking here in the United States with our countless food choices).
So, my advice to you if you’re looking to cook in the style of, say, the Tuscan peasant or the Calabrian laborer is to have a simple Italian pantry (see my list of the top 12 Italian pantry ingredients) that is well stocked and also to try and lead a more simple existence (see the 10 things my Italian parents taught me about money); that is to say, cutting out excess and living the Italian way (in the kitchen and elsewhere).