Head over Heel

On the southern end of Italy's boot—Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and the island of Sicily—you'll fall in love with the creamy gelato, unspoiled beaches, and the rhythms of a simpler life

La Vita Dolce: Sicily's Lipari     Photo: courtesy, Tourism Italy

Mangia crudo, signorina?" asks the smiling waiter with olive-green eyes. Before I can ponder his question—do I eat raw?—I'm nodding, "Si, certo, tutto," ignorant to what "Yes, certainly, everything" means when you're dealing with Pugliese-style sushi. First to arrive are plates of glistening, uncooked seafood: opaque baby octopus and pink shrimp with bulging eyes. I'm instructed to spritz each with lemon, sprinkle with salt, then "ingoia il mare" ("swallow the sea"). Next comes a whole red mullet, its belly sliced thinly at my table and forked onto grilled bread doused with olive oil. And though I wave off tiny raw mussels, it's only because I'm already submerged in delicious new flavors.

I'm giddy to find a culinary surprise in a country where I've spent so much time it feels like home. I fell for Italy as a student in Florence, and an inexplicable passion (growing addiction?) brings me back. I've hiked, biked, swum, and eaten my way through the north, but it took me a decade of visits to explore the south beyond Naples.

Though Italians vacation in the sunstruck Mezzogiorno—the south—foreigners overlook this region of simplicity infused with a laid-back vibe. But change is afoot in the boot. Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily are enticing visitors with crowdless countrysides and value in these soaring-euro days. In the west, terraced hills meet rocky Tyrrhenian shores; the Adriatic east coast has a Greek air. Inland are mountains, medieval villages, parks. Then there's the cuisine, born of peasant tradition and emphasizing what's in season. If it's spring, that means favas at the market, figs off the branch, sea urchin from the shell. And southerners are picky about iced treats. As one hotelier put it, "If the gelato isn't great, the shop closes down pronto."

While the south may not instantly seduce the way Tuscany does—don't expect the panache—the still-raw natural beauty snared my soul. Seek out these highlights of the four regions, and bring a little Italian—language skills are desirable here, especially if you're shy about eating raw fish.

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