Burnt Toast Dinner Brigade

The Italian Idea of "Cucina Povera" & How It Can Help You Save Money

I grew up in a house that cooked. The one thing my family all shared was a greedy enthusiasm for food: reading about it, talking about it, cooking it and, best of all, eating it. I learned to cook from watching my mother roll buttery pastry and my father crush garlic for roasts. But, like most of us, I didn’t really learn how to cook until I left home.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

It was in my first apartment share, where I hosted my first “grown-up” dinner party: For the first time, I planned, shopped, cooked (and paid for) it all myself.

It was, looking back, a primitive affair, a “carpet picnic” of sorts served on the floor (sitting on cushions and eating at a coffee table because in those days we didn’t have a proper dining table), but it didn’t matter. I was making my own home “a house that cooked.”

Photo by Skye McAlpine

Cooking for friends was, in the days when I was still a student, as much an exercise in balancing the books, as it was in chopping and sautéing. I cut corners, sought out cost effective ways of catering for a crowd, and took much inspiration from Cucina Povera (literal translation: “poor kitchen”)—what we in Italy call those simple recipes that magic the most basic of ingredients (like a stale loaf of bread, a bunch of onions, and a rind of cheese) into a nourishing meal.

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It is the kind of warming comfort food that we all love to eat, but by its very nature relies on inexpensive ingredients. Think: bean soup, pizza, risotto, and pasta dishes.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

Farinata is both cucina povera and a favorite dish of mine for dinner parties. A crisp pancake made from a base of chickpea flour, water, and just the tiniest drizzle of olive oil, it's quick and simple to make, easy to scale up to large quantities, and deliciously moreish.

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Top Comment:
“Then what do you do with a recipe that comes with volume measurements like most seem to do? Thank you, K ”
— Kathy J.

You can make it as fancy as you like, topping it with anything from small tomatoes and fresh basil to caramelized red onions and fennel, or you can serve it plain with a sprinkling of salt. I often serve it with pears, arugula, runny honey, and shavings of hard cheese.

Other tricks for hosting on a shoestring:

  • Make simple ingredients the star. There is no getting around the fact that meat from a good butcher or fish from a good fishmonger are expensive to buy. Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself to a joint of roast beef or a salt baked sea bass, but more often than not I will make the central focus of dinner something like polenta topped with melted cheese and homemade tomato sauce. I like to give it all the attention and drama I would give a roast, so I pour the polenta out onto a large wooden board along the middle of the table and then top it with chunks of cheese.
  • Plan the menu around what is in season and what you find at the shops. Fruit and vegetables are not only more flavorsome when in season, but as a rule of thumb, they also cost far less than anything imported. I like to go to the shops and look for an ingredient that is on special offer, stock up, and then use it as inspiration for the rest of the menu.
  • Make what you can from scratch. Make your own bread, salad dressing, and other trimmings—you will be surprised by the savings.
Photo by Mark Weinberg
Photo by Mark Weinberg
  • Use leftovers where you can. Try to plan your menu around dishes that you can magic out of leftovers—or at least include them. Turn old, stale bread into panzanella and leftover panettone into a bread pudding. If you have a few vegetables leftover from dinner last night, toss them into a frittata and serve it as a side, or cut into small squares as nibbles with drinks.
  • Keep drinks as simple as you can. More often than not, guests will bring a bottle of wine which you can share at the table. Otherwise, serve beer in glass bottles with a slice of lime wedged into the neck, or bulk out prosecco with fruit juice for a fancy but not too pricey cocktail.
  • In terms of dessert, meringues and Victoria sponge cake are my go-to for simple dinners.
Photo by Skye McAlpine

A few cheap and cheerful dishes that you can dress up for the fanciest of dinner parties:

  1. Make Spaghetti alla Carbonara with a crisp green salad. Then use the leftover egg whites to make Cocoa-Dusted Meringues.
  2. Serve a Baked Onion and Walnut Frittata with a kale salad, followed by freshly baked madeleines with Salted Caramel Custard.
  3. Follow Butternut Squash Risotto with Ginger Poached Pears. 
Photo by Skye McAlpine

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • rachiti
  • Kathy Jones
    Kathy Jones
  • Smaug
Writer & home cook living la dolce vita in Venice


rachiti January 17, 2016
Kathy - I didn't realize how much difference it would make in my baking until I tried it. My husband is British and most British recipes use grams so that's honestly why I started using it - because I got sick of trying to convert the recipes to weight only to find out it was 3/8 of a cup of this or 1 and 1/8 cup that. Another reason why I love it is because you can adjust recipes easily. When I made a custard recipe, for example, and my husband said he preferred it less sweet...I just marked down to use 30 grams less sugar the next time...and 10 less the next until I got it where we both liked it. With cups it might have been too sweet at 1/2 cup but not sweet enough at 1/4 cup. I admit I still use measuring spoons for small dry amounts like baking soda most of the time. I have my liquid measures written down both ways and use whichever suits me better at the time. When I get a recipe measured by volume I immediately go here http://www.kingarthurflour.com/learn/ingredient-weight-chart.html and convert my large quantities of dry ingredients like flour, sugar, chocolate chips etc. I usually convert them to ounces but my scale switches between pounds, ounces, and grams with the touch of a button so if I come across a recipe already in grams...I'm not scrambling to switch everything over. I leave both the volume and weight measurements written on the page so I have them for reference. It really helps if I'm scaling up a recipe like cookies in order to freeze some of the dough for later use or to pre-measure out multiple batches of dry ingredients for my waffle or pancake recipe. I agree it's a mindset but it makes baking and cooking so much easier. Another example - when I'm making homemade hamburgers with chopped onions...I'll weigh each hamburger portion before I form it so they're all the same weight - it really helps when they're on the grill to ensure they're all cooking at the same rate without needing to tend them constantly. I even save money by buying my juice with green tea in it in bulk bottles instead of individual cans. I measure out by ounces whenever I want a glass so I know how much caffeine I'm getting on a daily basis. One last example - when I'm baking bread I put my bread machine pan on the scale and zero it out...add my honey straight from the jar (no messy spoon to clean afterwards) ...zero it out...shake in my white flour straight from it's large storage jar...zero it out...add my wheat flour from its storage jar then switch to measuring spoons for my yeast and vital wheat gluten. It cuts the time it takes me to prep a batch of dough almost in half. If I was making a double batch for my stand mixer it would save even more time since I'm not scooping cup after cup. Again, just so many ways to increase consistency once you can do things by weight. I wish you luck whenever you do decide to switch, and I hope the weights/measures chart will help in the interim.
Kathy J. January 17, 2016
Thanks, Rachiti, it's a mind set and a habit I need to change. Then what do you do with a recipe that comes with volume measurements like most seem to do? Thank you, K
rachiti January 17, 2016
Kathy- accuracy suffers when volume measurements are used for dry ingredients like flour. It is also much more time consuming to measure out three cups of this and 3/4 cup of that. A quality digital scale turns almost any recipe into a "dump" recipe when you pour straight into your mixing bowl. Your results will be so much more consistent too. My digital scale lives on my counter despite limited counter space, and it sees daily use.
Smaug January 14, 2016
Accustomed as we have become in this country to prefab food and decadent restaurant cooking, Cucina Povera is actually how the world works.
Kathy J. January 13, 2016
It would be so helpful to provide the ingredients into cups and spoonfuls rather than weight. Thank you!