These days it’s become quite chic to claim one dish or another is an example of la cucina povera, or the cooking of the poor. But this one is the real deal. Cipollata calabrese, Braised Red Onions in the Calabrian Style, got its start as a meal for shepherds while they spent the day tending their flock.
And the recipe is as simple and modest as it gets: just sliced red onions sautéed in olive oil and braised in water, then brightened with—this is Calabria after all—a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. The cooked dish may not be much to look at, as the onion turns a rather dun color during its braise. But I can tell you what a cipollata lacks in the looks department it more than makes up for in taste.
These days a cipollata might be served as a spicy side dish for roasted fish or meats, but you can also do like the shepherds and make a light lunch or supper out of it, served with a slice or two of chewy, crusty bread. You won’t feel poor at all.
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) red onions, peeled and sliced
- Olive oil
- 300 ml (10 fl oz) water
- A pinch of hot red pepper flakes, to taste
- Grilled or toasted bread
- Black olives (optional)
- Grated pecorino cheese (optional)
If you want to dress up your cipollata (see Notes):
- Red wine and/or red wine vinegar
- Homemade meat or vegetable broth
- 2-3 plum tomatoes, fresh or canned, seeded and cut into strips
- 1 green or red pepper, cored and cut into thin strips
- A few anchovies, to taste
Peel the onions, trim off their root ends, and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the outmost layer if it looks tough or papery. Slice them lengthwise into thin strips.
Warm a good pour of olive oil in a Dutch oven or terracotta casserole, the add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Let the onions sauté over moderate heat for about 5 minutes or so, until they have wilted and turned translucent. They should have reduced in volume by almost half.
Pour in the water and bring the pot to a simmer. Cover and turn down the heat to low. Let the onions simmer, covered, for 30-45 minutes, or until they are very soft and translucent. Add water from time to time if the onions seems to be drying out.
Sprinkle on the red pepper flakes, as much as you care for. Let everything simmer for a few more minutes, uncovered, before serving.
The cipollata should be served quite wet, but not quite a soup. Add more liquid if it looks too dry and, conversely, raise the heat boil off any excess liquid.
Garnish if you like with black olives and/or a good grating of pecorino cheese, with grilled or toasted bread on the side.
Notes on Cipollata calabrese
The obvious choice for this Calabrian speciality would be the famous cipolla di Tropea, the exquisitely sweet, oval shaped red onion from near the eponymous village of Tropea. Possibly the most famous variety of red onion in the world, the Tropea onion has been cultivated on the clay cliffs that descend from Mount Poro towards the Calabrian coast since ancient times for its exquisitely sweet, delicate flavor and supposed health benefits. Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, lists 30 ailments that can supposedly be treated with the onion. You can learn more about this Calabrian delicacy here.
Sadly, most of us don’t have access to Tropea onions, so we’ll have to make our cipollata with whatever variety of red onions we might find in the local market. If you can find them young and fresh, so much the better. Do try to find smaller ones if you can; they’ll be sweeter.
Traditionally cipollata is served on top of the bread slices. Personally, however, I prefer to serve the slices on the side, as pictured, so you can dip them as you like in the onions. But that’s obviously a matter of taste.
If you ask me, onions are so tasty there’s little need to gussy them up. But of course you can if you like. A drizzle of red wine, added to the onions before the water and allowed to cook off, lends an extra layer of savor, while a drizzle of red wine vinegar offsets the onions’ sweetness. An anchovy or two adds umami—without any noticeable fishiness. A few strips of tomato, added towards the end of the braise, lends a lovely color, while some strips of bell pepper provide a classic pairing but change the character of the dish considerably.
In the region of Abruzzo they also make a similar braised onion dish called, unsurprisingly, cipollata all’abruzzese. But unlike its Calabrian cousin, it’s not spicy, and is made with yellow rather than red onions, paired with lots of fresh tomato and sometimes flavored with a few basil leaves. It makes for a very appealing summer side dish. I may feature it some time soon…
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) red onions, peeled and sliced
- 300 ml (10 fl oz) water
- olive oil
- Salt to taste
- hot red pepper flakes to taste
- Grilled or toasted bread
- Black olives optional
- Grated pecorino cheese optional
- Peel the onions, trim off their root ends, and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the outmost layer if it looks tough or papery. Slice them lengthwise into thin strips.
- Warm a good pour of olive oil in a Dutch oven or terracotta casserole, the add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Let the onions sauté over moderate heat for about 5 minutes or so, until they have wilted and turned translucent. They should have reduced in volume by almost half.
- Pour in the water and bring the pot to a simmer. Cover and turn down the heat to low. Let the onions simmer, covered, for 30-45 minutes, or until they are very soft and translucent. Add water from time to time if the onions seems to be drying out.
- Sprinkle on the red pepper flakes, as much as you care for. Let everything simmer for a few more minutes, uncovered, before serving.
- The dish should be served quite wet, but not quite a soup. Add more liquid if it looks too dry and, conversely, raise the heat boil off any excess liquid.
- Garnish if you like with black olives and/or a good grating of pecorino cheese, with grilled or toasted bread on the side.
I just made these but used some leftover chicken broth I was trying to use up. Delicious on top of the grilled bread, sort of like bruschetta. Yet another success from Frank, my new kitchen guru.
I’ll definitely try this one. I grew up to the aroma of delicious onions sautéing every day. My mom cooked nothing without them, and loved them even more on their own. Can’t wait to taste this. 🙂 ~Valentina
Thanks Valentina! I couldn’t agree more, onions are a real godsend!
Neat dish! I’ve had similar dishes, but never made one. I will, though. 🙂
Hope you like it John!
So Frank, I made this per instructions, and it came out tasting a bit “thin” to me…as if I’d cooked off all the onion flavor. I added 1/4 cup balsamic, and 2 TBS sugar and let it cook down further until it got “jammy”…now I love it on everything!!!!!
Sounds delicious, Andrew!
They look delicious to me! Thanks for sharing Frank! 🙂
Thanks so much!
la nostra cucina tradizionale non smette mai di sorprendermi, con un solo prodotto di eccellenza si possono creare piatti straordinari ! Buona settimana Frank, un abbraccio !
E vero, Chiara! Buona settimana anche a te. 🙂
I know I would love this but somebody has to slice the onions for me.
You know what this’d be great for? As the base of a savory pie. Sounds wonderful!
I bet it would In fact one of my great aunts used to make an onion pie with a not too dissimilar (but not spicy) filling.
This is SO COMFORTING! I am big on onion and those onions are deriously making me drool.
Thanks so much! You’re too kind…
This reminded Panos of some of the simple foods his late grandpa Nikos used to have from time to time. Old school peasant foods that could give a lot of satisfaction though. He can totally envision his grandpa enjoying this with good fresh bread and homemade wine (that he used to make). Thank you so much for sharing this dear Frank, for keeping alive treasures like this.
Sending you our love,
Mirella and Panos
And thank you, guys, for stopping by! These old time dishes really are the best.♥️
It’s these simple, authentic recipes that I love on your blog. I can imagine serving this as a Hors D’œuvres with our fabulous no-knead bread. This is a perfect late night dish too. Can’t wait to try it,
Hope you like it, Eva. And I think you will… 🙂
Frank, this looks to be another great recipe. We love onion soup and onions cooked in many ways. I’m liking the idea of having this as a simple lunch with some nice fresh bread and cheese.
Sounds very nice. Save a bowl for me… 😉
This really does qualify as rustic cooking at its best. What a simple recipe! But much like French onion soup, there is so much flavor hiding in those onions. I’ve never had a dish like this, but I’m super intrigued by it. And super healthy, too!
Indeed it is, David! Thanks so much for stopping by.
Oh boy ! My grandmother used to make this Braised Red Onions and always added red wine. I remember this served with stale bread and it was irresistible ! Nowadays, we spread it over a steak and it ads delicious flavours to any kind of meat.Perfect one Frank. Thank you so much and enjoy your day 🙂
I bet it complements the steak beautifully!
Beautifully simple! Have never had this dish, but I love onions any which way, so this is a must-try! 🙂
I think this one will appear to you, Christina, especially if you enjoy a little spicy kick to your onion dishes.
Methinks this onion dish is universally loved cucina povera or not ! Your adding extra piquancy is naturally welcome . . . I would happily use a wrap to get it together and enjoy it hugely with that special glass of cold white . . .
Perfect with a nice cold glass of white wine, Eha! 🙂
Love this dish! Forgot all about it until I saw the post about it. On the menu for tonight.
THIS, with crostini and some good artisanal salumi. And a glass of vino. I’d especially love to find some Tropea-style torpedo onions to make this.
Wouldn’t that be incredible, Domenica! I’m hoping some enterprising farmer takes them up one of these days and makes a mint selling to restaurants and farmers markets.
This is new to me, Frank, but I would love to try it. I can easily see this as part of a charcuterie board. Or as side to many primi.
Indeed it has many potential uses, David!
You always have a surprise up your sleeve Frank! even though we even have a huge onion festival in a village nearby, I have never heard of this style of cipollata, with the chili pepper. The Cannara onions are less famous than Tropea’s, but I will definitely try as I am sure they will be a perfect combination with our robust Umbrian dishes!
I think you’ll enjoy it, Letizia! Thanks for stopping by.
This is really lovely to me because I know what it tastes like. Well, close to it, anyway. I make an onion confit sometimes to pair with cheese platters, and it’s very similar. Of course I love the addition of cayenne pepper flakes. Peasant or not, it’s fabulous!
So true, Mimi! Good food is good food… 🙂