It may be a little known fact that the island of Ischia––despite being a seaside spa destination––has a culinary heritage that relies mainly on meat and game. This is because for centuries agriculture, and not fishing, was the chief source of food for the island inhabitants, mostly due to the fertile island’s volcanic soil.
The dish that symbolizes the local cuisine of Ischia is, in fact, coniglio all’ischitana. Ischia-style rabbit stew has been made for centuries because of the abundance of wild rabbits that populate the island, and that were originally brought over by the ancient Romans.
Nowadays the majority of farmers breeds rabbits in cages, but the traditional way to rearing rabbits on Ischia was to let them live, free, in the narrow underground tunnels the rabbits would dig, feeding them exclusively fresh grass, straw, fava bean stems, cicerchie legumes and other pulse, plus residue from pruning of peach and apricot trees and, during grape harvest, also fig leaves and fresh vine shoots. This particular diet and the free range nature of their lifestyle, makes the meat tender and incredibly flavorsome.
Rabbits bred with this method are called “da fossa” (fossa means ‘pit’ or ‘hole’) and lately many associations, including Slow Food, are engaged in restoring this ancient tradition to save the old tunnels, encouraging a more humane method of breeding.
With its unique flavor and unmistakable aroma, the recipe for Ischia-style rabbit stew is jealously guarded by the locals who secretly pass it on from generation to generation. Many recipes for coniglio all’ischitana can be found online, but none will be like the original, savored on the island.
The success of this dish depends very much on the cooking method: the sectioned rabbit is first seared in a copper pan and then slow-cooked in a clay pot. Equally important however are the other ingredients used in the recipe: vine ripened tomatoes, local wild herbs such as piperna; large amounts of local garlic (a whole bulb) and wine made from Ischia native grapes, such as Ischia Bianco Superiore, Biancolella, or Piedirosso.
Authentic Ischia-style rabbit stew must furthermore cook together with its innards, locally called ‘mbrugliatell. This offal is considered the most prized part of the dish. As in many southern Italian stews, the hearty sauce the rabbit cooks in is normally used as dressing for the pasta first course, and then the meat is served as the main course.
Here are our favorite places on Ischia to enjoy proper coniglio all’ischitana.
At the helm is the d’Ambra family with an almost century-old background in winemaking thanks to great-grandfather Francesco, who was the island’s most prominent wine exporter in the early 1930s. In 1991, Loretta and Riccardo d’Ambra, assisted by their eight children, gave life to the trattoria. Located in the hills at 300 m elevation, the place offers breathtaking views both of the coast and of the mountains. In summer guests can enjoy their coniglio all’ischiatana dining al fresco under the pergola, among ancient chestnut barrels and old harvesting tools, and a splendid view of the sea. The owners arrange botanical walks and guided tours of the rabbit holes.
Via Cretaio, 3 – Barano d’Ischia – Tel. +39 081 902944
La Vigna di Alberto
The restaurant alone is worth a visit for its rustic style and the many incredible details that encapsulate the island’s oldest traditions. Ciccio, Alberto’s son, is the host together with his son, continuing the family tradition in the same places where the family home once stood, with the adjoining kitchen, dining room and the stable. The food is simple, there’s little choice but lots of flavor and substance, including an excellent rabbit stew and many other tasty dishes. Panoramic views and friendly service complete the scene.
Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 57 – Barano d’Ischia – Tel. +39 081 901193
Taverna Verde da Morzariello
On the southern flank of Mount Epomeo, about 500 meters above sea level, in the town of Serrara Fontana, is this quaint family-run restaurant where food lovers can enjoy one of the best Ischia-style rabbit stews on the island, whose secrete recipe is prepared by nonna Olimpia. Meals at Taverna Verde are enjoyed on the patio and cannot be considered complete without tasting the house homemade digestivo liqueur.
Via Ciglio, 148 – Serrara Fontana – Tel. +39 081 999384
Also in the municipality of Serrara Fontana is this fabulous little restaurant surrounded by lush vegetation. The interior rooms of the restaurant are typical of the old peasant houses of Ischia, built in tufa stone and wood, but it’s the large veranda overlooking the southern side of the island that offers the best views of Capri and Ventotene. The menu includes seasonal local dishes, among which, of course, a well-executed Ischia-style rabbit stew. Reserve a table at sunset!
Via Falanga, 1 – Serrara Fontana – Tel. +39 081 999436
With wide views of Borgo S. Angelo, Mt Vesuvius, Capri and Ventotene enjoyed from the breezy terrace, and welcomed by the friendly owners, Eugenio and Flora, you’ll agree this is one of the loveliest places to enjoy dinner by candlelight. In addition to coniglio all’ischitana, the €25 per person fixed menu also features bucatini with rabbit stew sauce, a vegetable side dish, water and wine. Upon request, the owners arrange guided riding trails for experts and beginners with their horses.
Via Falanga, 19 – Serrara Fontana – Tel. +39 081 999566
This charming restaurant can be reached from Campagnano following the road after it narrows at the Torchio bottleneck, driving up hairpin bends to the end of the road. After parking your car it’s only a short hike to the restaurant. With incredible views that span the Gulf of Naples, Procida and Capri, sit and enjoy the hearty dishes using homegrown ingredients, including bucatini with Ischia-style rabbit sauce.
Cell: +39 345 151 4338
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.