This Licorice-Obsessed Italian Town Is as Sweet as It Sounds
If you’ve only had America’s poor-imitation candy, rethink what you knew about licorice.
If you stroll across the fields in the sunny region of Calabria, deep in the south of Italy’s boot, you’ll come across wide acres of land that look dull and barren, where just tiny green leaves sprout from the fertile soil. And yet the treasure that lies underground here fuels practically everything in the town of Rossano, touching many boutiques, restaurants, pastry shops, and ice-cream parlors.
Rosanno is Italy’s licorice kingdom. As you walk down the streets, a pleasant woody scent fills the air. Here, children are weaned on licorice, adults chew on it, it’s mixed into pasta, added to beer, and sprinkled on top of lobster and caviar. There’s even a licorice museum.
“This is the Licorice Realm—it’s the symbol of Calabria,” says Pina Amarelli, president of the Amarelli licorice company. The Amarelli family has been growing licorice for around 500 years. “Ours is the most élite licorice in the world, thanks to our special soil and micro-climate.”
The roots of the licorice tale can be traced to the 1400s, when landowners discovered the plant growing wild underground. It was thought the roots went so deep as to enter the world of Hades, making licorice imbued with magic.
Initially, the Amarellis just cut the roots, washed them, and sold them as is. Farmers used to chew on them for an energy boost, since licorice raises blood pressure and was thought to give strength to workers who sweated under the hot Calabrian sun. To bust out some science, the plant is officially called glycyrrhiza glabra, which means “sweet root.” Locals considered it an easily accessible natural medicine. Its health benefits include easing indigestion and possibly aiding upper respiratory infections.
In the 1700s, the Amarelli family opened a factory where they would chop, boil, and extract the licorice juice. They would then make elixirs, a delicacy that became a reason to stop in Rosanna while on a Grand Tour of Europe. Today, Amarelli makes licorice cakes, licorice tisanes, licorice spreads and creams, and special digestives with a mix of licorice, caramel, and honey.
“We’ve experimented a lot, though we remain anchored to our tradition. We also make licorice beer, licorice grappa, and liqueur,” says Pina. “Our forte, however, are still the sticks to suck, which are also the most expensive because it’s pure, fresh licorice.”
The crop has become a sophisticated root, somewhat similar to truffle, wanted and used by many top chefs in Italy and France who regularly order Amarelli’s premium licorice. Keep in mind this is a far cry from the candy sold in the US, which doesn’t even use real licorice—this is the real stuff.
Restaurants like Le Macine and Lula Paluza serve risotto, fresh fish, all kinds of crustaceans, and desserts—all made with Amarelli’s licorice. The root is also turned into a powder, which is a key ingredient in Rossano’s households and is often used as a substitute for spices or pepper. Then there are the deserts. You can get a velvety ice-cream and other pastries filled with licorice cream at Gelateria Pasticceria Capani, American Bar, Bar Graziano, and Tagliaferri Massimo’s pastry shop.
Craving a strong espresso after all this lavish food to avoid succumbing to the typical pisolino (i.e. the traditional mid-day nap) at which southern Italians excel at? There’s no better place to go than the Amarelli Licorice Museum and its cafe, located in an ancient lookout tower originally built to ward off pirate attacks. About a 15-minute drive from Rossano, the museum showcases the history of licorice and how the powerful family owners flourished with its trade. On display are old objects used in extracting and processing the licorice plants. Visitors can book guided tours and see the factory where all the licorice confectionery is made.
After the tours, hop by the museum shop, a real lure for the sweet tooth, as you can buy bags of straight licorice sticks, licorice chocolates, confetti of all shapes and colors, and licorice ’bites’ mixed with orange, mint, and anise. And of course don’t forget to pick up some licorice alcohol for your trip home.