They moved from the US to cook American food in deepest Italy. Here’s what happened

The Calabria region, right down in the toe of Italy’s boot, is where Italian cuisine gets intense. Along with the usual wide range of classic dishes, locals relish spicy foods such as pig blood sausages known as sanguinaccio, and pasta laced with ‘nduja chile pepper salami.

It’s a place steeped in ancient traditions, both cultural and culinary. In many ways, very little here has changed for decades or even centuries.

Which is why it’s a surprise, in a place that’s about as deep into Italy as it’s possible to go, to find a restaurant that’s not only run by an American family but is doing a roaring trade serving up American food.

The Fig restaurant was opened in late 2023 by Shannon Sciarretta from Florida and her partner Filipe da Silva, who hails from Rio Vermelho in Brazil, in Santa Domenica Talao, a remote hillside village that’s home to barely 1,000 people.

On tables overlooking the main piazza, the couple sells American classics, including Cape Cod-style lobster rolls with mayo, Reuben sandwiches, chicken wings, tacos and burritos. Also on the menu are dressings like maple syrup and barbecue sauce – previously unknown to villagers.

The unlikely eating venture was conceived when the couple, who were previously based in Cape Cod and worked in the US restaurant business, were looking for a fresh start, a more affordable place to live and a better quality of life in which to raise their child.

“My husband and I wanted to raise our 3-year-old daughter Erminia in a small (Italian) town, surrounded by the history and slower-paced, healthy lifestyle it provides,” Sciarretta tells CNN.

“We didn’t move here to seclude ourselves but to really integrate. The locals have supported us in bringing in a new cuisine they have never tried before.”

Stirring things up

Santa Domenica Talao is a remote hillside village that’s home to barely 1,000 people. - Claudio Giovanni Colombo/Alamy Stock Photo
Santa Domenica Talao is a remote hillside village that’s home to barely 1,000 people. - Claudio Giovanni Colombo/Alamy Stock Photo

Sciarretta, who has dual American-Italian citizenship, had wanted to reconnect with her Italian roots before the couple decided to make their move.

Her grandfather was originally from Minturno, a fishing village north of Naples and, after attending college in Rome years earlier, she’d fallen in love with the dolce vita. Fast-forward past the Covid years and both she and da Silva decided it was time to make the move, choosing Calabria.

“We fell in love with Calabria and especially Santa Domenica Talao,” Sciarretta says. “It is a beautiful hilltop town with sweeping views of the mountains, but it’s really the community, untainted by the commercialism and tourism you see in other cities, that is super welcoming.”

“Here everyone takes care of each other. If one person is not doing well, the entire town rallies to help each other,” she adds.

Since opening The Fig, the pair’s creations have created a stir on Calabria’s sleepy Costa dei Cedri, or Citrus Coast, luring also mayors and luminaries who pick the restaurant for event lunches.

The new place is a big hit.

They do sell American variations on Italian classics, but it’s the unfamiliar foods that are winning over local diners. These include southern US dishes like biscuits and gravy for breakfast, pulled pork sandwiches, plus a lot of Tex-Mex specialties with breakfast burritos.

Sciarretta says it has been entertaining introducing Italians – who typically start the day with a sweet pastry alongside their morning coffee – to savory breakfast ingredients like sausage.

Their peach whisky chicken over mashed potatoes has also been a hit, among others.

“We had a pulled-pork sandwich with coleslaw and fried onion rings with a homemade BBQ sauce,” says Sciarretta. “The Italians had never had anything like it and are still talking about it and asking when it’s coming back.”

Taco Tuesdays (and Mondays)

Tacos have proved very popular with the Calabrian locals. - Shannon Sciarretta
Tacos have proved very popular with the Calabrian locals. - Shannon Sciarretta

But the major draw is the full taco menu on Monday and Tuesday nights, constantly overbooked. Locals, it seems, are crazy about these “exotic” soirées.

“Our taco nights are super fun, we have a great crowd of Italians and Americans… it’s been fun to explain (to Italians) what a street taco is and how to eat it with your hands, not a fork and knife,” says da Silva.

Sciarretta and da Silva celebrated last year’s Thanksgiving and organized an Irish-American St. Patrick’s day weekend, serving up imported Guinness and fish and chips to diners including American expats with Irish roots.

Locals have also been visiting The Fig for “unusual” breakfasts featuring bottomless real American drip coffee (alongside Italian espresso), bottomless mimosas, oat milk cappuccino, ginger molasses crinkle cookies and sourdough bagel sandwiches.

Sourdough bagels are also on the menu. - Jayda Iye
Sourdough bagels are also on the menu. - Jayda Iye

“One of the first things we imported from the States was quality maple syrup for our breakfast menu, which is simple so we often do specials like lemon poppyseed pancakes, panettone French toast, smoked salmon bagels”, says Sciarretta.

And there’s booze. The couple uses imported liquor like Tito’s vodka from Austin and Bulleit bourbon and rye from Kentucky.

Sciarretta, a former bartender, has always had a passion for mixology. Her “hybrid” signature cocktails include The Calabrese (Calabrian chili pepper-infused tequila), and Black Manhattan with Kentucky Bulleit bourbon, Italian Amaro, bitters and local amarene black cherries.

On Taco nights there’s a list of margaritas and specialty mezcals, plus Brazilian cocktails with cachaça.

For dessert, there are ‘espresso martinis’ and Baileys Irish coffees, too.

The couple says they decided to cook American in Italy’s deep south because they wanted to shake up local culinary trends.

When she attended college in Rome in 2009, Sciarretta noted how the only thing missing to make it perfect was food scene diversity.

“I do love Italian food, I grew up in an Italian American family where we had the Sunday gravy and braciola every week and the homemade pastas, but growing up in America, it’s a melting pot of cuisines so I really missed Mexican, Filipino, Thai and Indian foods.

“That’s where the idea of moving back to Italy to open a restaurant was born”, she says.

Building a bridge

The couple say moving to Italy has given them more time together as a family. - Jayda Iye
The couple say moving to Italy has given them more time together as a family. - Jayda Iye

Being able to find an affordable home in Italy was another reason why they ditched the US. When Covid hit, they decided to take the plunge after stumbling across Calabria during online searching.

“The housing market in the States is out of control, it plays a factor in why we moved,” Sciarretta adds.

They’ve now settled in a four-bedroom rural cottage, with olive trees and vineyards – a set up that’s cost them less than half the $1 million-plus something similar would go for in Florida or Cape Cod. There they grow their own produce including jalapenos and cilantro.

When they embarked on their new venture, the idea of bringing a foreign cuisine into Calabria’s deeply-rooted food culture was “certainly scary,” says Sciarretta.

“We didn’t know if we would be accepted but we cook the foods we love and are introducing a new spin on their local products.”

As food, in their view, is just another way of bonding between cultures, they say they feel proud to see the locals “embracing something new and foreign to them.”

More importantly, they say, opening The Fig has given them more quality family time.

“Our lives before Italy were very busy, we both have always worked non stop, several different jobs at the same time and had little time for anything else. Now we are literally a family unit,” says da Silva.

When the restaurant is open, da Silva works in the kitchen, Shannon at the entrance greeting clients while their daughter bounces between the two of them, setting the tables and helping out where she can.

“There are locals that come in with their kids her age and she sits down and eats and plays with them. It feels more like a community hang out than a business,” da Silva adds.

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