Oh, how they love to eat in Puglia. Think big, beautiful burrata cheese, braised octopus, and huge slabs of focaccia covered in gorgeous globs of mozzarella and fresh vine tomatoes.
It’s a wonder they’re not all plodding along on the brink of obesity.
Puglia pretty much covers the entire stiletto heel of Italy, stretching from the Gargano Peninsula, right down to Santa Maria di Leuca. A hard dry landscape dominated by large open plains, combined with over 500km of coast, has encouraged a diet based on fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and rather splendid cheese. Oh, and Olive Oil.
Meals here are slow and hearty affairs, based on age-old recipes rooted in the cucina povera (poor kitchen) tradition. It's the perfect destination for savvy souls in search of the ultimate food pilgrimage.
Antipasti: In theory, small morsels of food designed to demonstrate the best produce the region has to offer and to ‘open up’ your appetite. In reality, plates definitely larger than morsel size which will likely result in a food hangover before you’ve even begun your meal.
Much like the rest of Italy, you’ll find two types of antipasti here: Antipasti di Mare and Antipasti di Terra.
Antipasti di Mare (seafood antipasti) is served according to taste (usually grilled, fried or crudo). Popular components include alicette (anchovies), i calamaretti (calamari) le seppioline (cuttlefish) le polpette arricciati (octopus balls) and plenty of vongole (clams) and cozze (mussels). Cozze Gratinate (mussels stuffed with Parmigiano, breadcrumbs and lemon) and Cozze Impepata (mussels sauteed with pepper) are a particularly popular methods of preparation. The Pugliese are also particularly partial to Ricci di Mare (sea urchins), and Porto Badisco (near Otranto) claim to have the best; eaten raw, of course.
Antipasti di Terra comprises all things vegetable, meat, and cheese. Typical antipasti include a slab of burrata, mozzarella served with fresh tomatoes and basil, Cacia Ricotta cheese and regional cured meats. Roasted zucchini, melanzane (aubergine) and pepperone (peppers) will also likely make an appearance, usually grilled or served ripienne (stuffed).
Patatine con polpettine is another popular house antipasti dish here. It is essentially a small plate of chips and small meatballs, sometimes served with some mini-calzone. A sure way to please small children but quite shocking to the non-Italian observer. ‘Do you think its something the Americans brought over?’ whispered my friend at the dinner table. After extensive research and interrogation, I haven’t been able to get to the root of this tradition. Just go with it.
Pasta in Puglia is rarely made with eggs. A long history of poverty, and the highest production levels of Durum Wheat in the country made eggs redundant in the pasta making process, and today, pasta is still prepared with just flour and water.
Le Orecchiette is the undisputed queen of pasta here, though you might find it called by a different name in each province; recchie in Bari, stacchjodde in Brindisi and chjangaredde in Taranto. These are small, circular pasta pieces, so called because they look like little ears. Head to Bari to watch old women hand-make it on the streets or to Cicsternino in August for an entire festival (Sagra delle Orecchiette) dedicated to the stuff. You’ll find it served with sugo di pomororo con ricotta forte (tomato sauce with ricotta) or with ragu del macellaio (ragu with pieces of horse meat), though orecchiette con le cime da rapa (turnip heads) is the most iconic combination.
Skinny pasta like Spaghetti, Linguine and Vermicelli is well suited to lighter, seafood based sauces, like sugo di vongole (clam sauce), sugo di pesce fuggito and sugo di cozze alle marinara (marinated mussels).
Puglia is a sad place for the lactose intolerant tourist. Plentiful sheep, cows and goats makes for lots of excellent cheeses; I wish for no-one to have to pass up on the chance to try Buratta, a large slab of mozzarella type cheese filled with lashings of gooey cream. Ricotta is popular here too, and you’ll find it in multiple forms, from hard lumps of ricotta forte (best served on orecchiette) to il cacia ricotta, which usually features as an antipasti. Puglia is also responsible for creating the mother of all mozarellas, Fior di Latte, usually consumed fresh with vine tomatoes, olive oil and basil. Head to Foggia and Bari for Canestrato cheese, where it’s eaten with broad beans or to Gargano for Caciocavallo, a semi-hard cheese which is shaped into a rather charming pear shape package.
Beef, no, horse, yes. You’ll be hard pressed to find a traditional bovine dish in Puglia. Whilst the consumption of horse is in decline, there are still numerous specialised butchers (Maccerlleria di Cavallo) and restaurants serving up traditional dishes including Braciola all Barese (rolls of horse meat stuffed with parsley, garlic and pecorino cheese), Le polpette di Cavallo (horse meatballs) or Pezzetti di Cavallo (a slow cooked casserole). Agnello (lamb) is popular here too, try it Gnummarieddi (lamb rolled with offal) if you can.
Surprisingly, you can get along pretty well in Puglia as a vegetarian. Vegetables are really the cornerstone of Pugliese cuisine. A famous dish, served all across the region, is Puree di Fave con Chicoria, pureed fave beans served with boiled chicory. Pure comfort food, the sort of Pugliese equivalent of Sausage and Mash. Parmigiana di Melanzane (aubergine covered in tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil) is another veggie staple, though you might find all sorts of vegetables prepared parmigiana, peppers and zucchini and so forth. Head to the Salento region for Zucchini Scapece, slices of courgette marinated in vinegar, breaded and fried.
For breakfast, try a Pasticciotto, an infinitely more exciting alternative to porridge. These small crumbly pastries filled with a custard are the sole cause of my rapidly decreasing wardrobe (only the baggiest attire has made the cut). Try Rustico Leccese in Lecce; hot parcels of pastry filled with mozzarella and tomato, and sometimes a little prosciutto to please the more gluttonous amongst us. For something a little more substantial try Friselle, which look a bit like biscuits, but are made mostly of grains. You’ll need to soak them in water for around thirty seconds (unless you wish to lose a tooth), douse them in olive oil and top them off with tomato and oregano. Focaccia here is thick, more similar to a pizza, and usually served with a mozzarella and tomato base, with a variety of additional toppings. If sandwiches are your calling, try a Puccia, most commonly found in Taranto and Salento. Circular bread rolls, often made with olives and usually stuffed with cold cuts and cheeses. It’s a popular street food here which was traditionally eaten by farmers after a long day. In fact, they love them so much in Salento that Lecce hosts a three-day festival (Festa Te La Uliata) which celebrates these little loaves and culminates in a race to see who can spit an olive pip out the furthest (La Gara della Sputo del Nocciolo).
See, food is fun here too.