The focus is on food and wine in the undiscovered corners of Southern Italy's Campania region.

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CALITRI, Italy — Books on food make some of the best travel companions. One of my favorites is “The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania,” filled with vivid descriptions and photos of Southern Italian towns and villages waiting to be discovered.

Many Italian Americans trace their roots to this area, but guidebooks generally focus only on Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, leaving travelers with the impression that a massive earthquake in 1980 left nothing much else to see.

Author Carla Capalbo, an American food writer who lives part-time in a pocket-size village called Nusco, shows her readers what a difference 28 years make, not only in the towns themselves, many with beautifully restored medieval centers, but in the food and wine of a rich agricultural region surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery.

Tuscany without the tourists and high prices came to mind when my husband, Tom, and I rented a car in Rome and drove inland to spend a week exploring.

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As it is in the next-door regions of Calabria and Molise, where our families have roots, big sites and important museums are few in rural Campania. The reward for a long drive along a winding road might be a Roman arch left standing in a field, or a country inn specializing in what Capalbo calls an “educated cucina povera,” a modern twist on the traditional peasant food familiar to many an Italian American.

Consider the 2-½-hour lunch we had at a farm restaurant outside Taurasi, a wine town about an hour’s drive from Naples.

We toured the cellars of Antonio Caggiano, 71, an architect who took up winemaking in 1990. While helping clear debris after the earthquake, he gathered up stone carvings and farm tools and created an underground cantina where he decorated passageways with antique fountains and arranged bottles of wine in vaults like museum pieces.

After a tour and tasting that lasted more than an hour, he gave us directions to a friend’s farmhouse restaurant, where we sat around a table, eating family-style with a group from Ireland. Platters of air-cured salami and ham, dishes of marinated peppers and bowls of zucchini, potatoes and white beans were followed by pasta, lamb chops and salads. When the waiter finally served a nougat dessert topped with crushed hazelnuts, it was nearly 5 p.m.

It sounds like a cliché to call this the “real Italy,” but if those words define a part of the country so far untouched by mass tourism, this is it.

Italian moments

In Sant’Agata dei Goti, an ancient town built on a rock cliff above a river in an area called the Sannio, we met Loredana Fusaro, a cook at a local restaurant and shiatsu massage therapist, and her photographer husband, Enrico Pofi.

They were our hosts at Sentieri Luminosi, the B&B they opened recently in the 19th-century stone building they bought a few years ago after moving from Naples.

The family lives on the top floor and rents out a bottom-floor apartment to guests for about $70. From their garden planted with fig, orange and olive trees, we looked down on the new town — built after the earthquake — and the restored medieval old town built on the ruins of a Samnite city, all of it surrounded by mountains and terraced vineyards.

Fortified each morning by Loredana’s apple and raisin strudel, scrambled eggs, olives and fennel from her garden, we spent the next few days exploring little mountain towns known for their ceramics; cow- and sheep-milk cheeses; wine; and torrone, a nougat candy made with honey, nuts and egg whites.

Our goal was to find some of the places in Capalbo’s book, but getting on the road by 10 a.m. or so gave us only three hours before the midday work break when everything shuts down until late afternoon.

Rather than give into the frustration of finding things closed, we focused on what I called “Italian moments,” surprises such as listening to opera music while sitting on a cafe terrace overlooking miles of rolling hills in Sant’Agata, or finding all the pottery studios closed in the ceramics town of San Lorenzello and, instead, settling for a tour of the village bakery.

In Cusana Murti, a center for wood crafts, we found no wood carvers, but the smell of cooking tomato sauce led us to a tent where a group of village men hovered over cast-iron pots. A community supper was planned for later that evening, and of course we were invited.

Calitri

We had no idea what to expect when we drove to our next stop, the hilltop hamlet of Calitri in the province of Avellino. An isolated mountain town bordering Basilicata, one of Italy’s poorest regions, Calitri has always been a town that people left. Thousands immigrated to other parts of Italy, South America and the United States in the 1900s in search of jobs, and again after 1980.

Now tourism is starting to spawn a small migration of foreigners interested in exploring their roots or buying a vacation home. Browsing the Internet one day, I found Web sites listing houses for rent in the “Borgo Antico,” the medieval-town center that was all but abandoned after the earthquake.

Ten thousand people lived in the borgo in the 1950s, some in caves within the remains of a 12th-century castle, others in houses with thick stone walls. There were 25 churches and elegant mansions. Today just 500 of Caltri’s 5,000 residents live here, mostly elderly people who refused to move to a modern, new town built next door. They walk home along cobbled pedestrian passageways — streets in ancient times — well-lighted, but not wide enough for cars. A few of the homes have fresh coats of pastel paint, but many more are vacant with weeds growing around weathered doorways.

Fourth-generation Calitri resident Emma Basile, 29, remembers “the old town as a place for cats, not people,” when she was growing up. But a few years ago, a private development company began buying up a few of the houses, restoring them and selling them to foreign investors as vacation homes. After finishing school in Milan and Naples, Basile returned to Calitri and opened a real-estate and rental-property-management office that doubles as the unofficial tourist bureau.

I couldn’t believe our luck when she met us in the town square on a rainy, windy evening and walked with us to the 15th-century house we had rented for four days from a British couple.

Basile brokered the sale after the death of the former owner, 90-year-old Graziella Di Cosmo. During restoration, workers exposed 500-year-old stone walls under crumbling plaster and preserved a stone hearth with slots for the big copper pots Graziella used for making tomato sauce.

Our bedroom overlooked miles of rolling green pasture land and a trail of steps leading to a little hilltop church where locals go to pray on Good Friday and the start of soccer season. All for $85 a night.

Red wine and lemons

Basile showed us around town the next morning, walking us through the castle that’s being restored and taking us into cellars where locals age cheese and cure salami. She suggested day trips to nearby villages and archaeological sites, but mostly we enjoyed spending time as temporary residents of Calitri.

Thursdays are market days, when older women, dressed in black, shop the open-air stalls stocked with polka-dot bras, men’s suits and lemons the size of miniature footballs.

Our dollars stretched easily. We sampled one-euro cups of hot chocolate at a stand-up bar on the piazza, where the owner, Mario Andriaccio, has a collection of 4,000 postcards, including one of Seattle’s Space Needle. At a restaurant called Osteria Three Roses, we drank red wine from ceramic pitchers and sampled pasta cannazze, noodles shaped like hand-rolled cigarettes topped with tomato sauce and sheep- and cow-milk cheeses. Dinner for three was $50.

Basile told us that her mother cried when she decided to move back to Calitri. She hoped her daughter would work abroad or in one of the big Italian cities.

Maybe someday. But right now she’s busy chasing her vision of what the old town might once again become. Her father, a banker, was born in the borgo, and they’ve become partners in several projects, including a new wine bar.

Sitting in her tiny office, surrounded by piles of tourist brochures, she dreams of the day when couples will walk arm-in-arm along the narrow streets. Shops and art galleries will fill the vacant buildings and cellars. Balconies will overflow with flowers, all signs of a new generation of Calitrians staking their future on a corner of Italy so many others left behind.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com