The Best Italian Food You’ve Never Heard Of

If you mention you’re traveling to Puglia, the responses are either “where?” or “why?” The answer to both questions is the same: Puglia has the best food you’ve never heard of.

Mario Batali likes it too, “I must admit, I am very high on Puglia. In my opinion this is the “next Tuscany” for the American traveler; it is exotic, yet accessible, its people are poets and thinkers and workers, and when all mixed together, it works and is user-friendly.” All of this, and it’s dirt cheap, too.

I stayed in Brindisi, which I only knew from my time as a travel agent as a jumping-off point for the ferries to Greece and Croatia.  I found it to be a charming, user-friendly town… small enough to easily walk across but large enough to have a good variety of restaurants and food stores.  A nice farmer’s market a few blocks from my flat was a bonus (although somewhat limited in choice in early March).

I never had a bad meal in Puglia, and even places that featured pizza and gelato had hidden depths in their menus and quality in their kitchens. One of the unique offerings in area restaurants was the house appetizer assortment…. five different appetizers, each as large as a regular individual appetizer! At that point, I’m ready for coffee, not a first and second course!

This area, while one of the least-touristed in Italy today, was a crossroads throughout history.  The Greeks colonized here before the Romans did, reflected today in the fact that the hill towns look more like Athens than Assisi.  During the Crusades, this was the port from which the Crusaders sailed to the Holy Land.  In fact, Richard the Lionheart came here to meet his future wife (Berengaria of Navarre, who traveled with Eleanor of Aquitaine, her future mother-in-law), and escort her to their wedding in Cyprus.  St. Francis of Assisi sailed from here to convert the ‘infidels’ of Egypt.

 

If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve probably seen the other end of this road… this ancient column marks the end of the Appian Way

 

 

Many of the now-traditional Apulian ingredients and recipes reached here via these trade routes, including frisella (from Crete and other Greek islands). This is a twice-baked bread, which results in a sort of hardtack, a dried bread that can keep over long sea voyages. Soaked in water, it can form a base for bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and basil (see photos below).

The other two major influences on this region’s foods are the land and economics. This is a very rural area with a landscape that’s primarily flat and dry. Historically, agriculture here was dominated by large estates, so workers were day laborers, unable to own their own land or better their status.

Even though this system ended after World War I, agriculture remained a major part of the area’s economy. They export massive amounts of olive oil, wheat, and tomato. Some sources say it produces 40-50% of Italy’s olive oil, but that’s now in danger due to unusual weather this winter and a Xylella infestation that is killing ancient olive groves.

The food of this area is frequently called ‘cucina povera’ – peasant cooking or poor people’s food – which I think is misleading because there’s nothing ‘poor’ about the food. I prefer to think of it as cucina fresca, as there’s an emphasis on seasonal fruits and vegetables and fresh fish.  (And minimizes the luxuries of butter, eggs, and meat.)

There’s also a history of carefully using every bit of edible food and finding ways to keep food edible longer.  If ricotta cheese starts as a byproduct of mozzarella production, ricotta forte is the product of fermentation done to keep the ricotta usable long past the usual shelf-life of fresh cheese.  (see last photo below)

Harvesting wild edible plants, like arugula, is something that’s still done today, as people in the cities and towns head into the countryside on summer weekends to gather the “tastier” wild variety.


While I really enjoyed exploring Brindisi itself, I did two excursions that turned out to be fun and delicious. The first was a street food walking tour of Lecce (pronounced ‘lechay’) with Pink Umbrella Tours, and the second was an independent visit to Bari.

I lucked out with the tour guide in Lecce, Antonella Calavita. Not only was I the only person booked on the tour, she and I were having such a good time that she let the tour extend over the scheduled time. She was enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge of the foods and history of Lecce and the Salento (this portion of Puglia) and had a great sense of humor (which means she laughed at my jokes).

Before the tour, I got a sneak preview of one of the treats I had in store when I filled some time at the Astoria Caffe and had a pasticciotto, a shortcrust pastry filled with lemon cream (there’s also a version filled with ricotta).

Stops:
Il Salumaio – La Massaia – to sample frisella
Friselli can be made of wheat or barley flour. Friselli and pasta made with barley flour is darker than that made with durum wheat. Barley flour products are high in fiber and low in gluten (they don’t rise as much), but they are nutritionally dense. If they’re made of barley they’re harder and need to be soaked a little bit longer in the water before eating.

The frisella soaking in water

Valentina “Golosità del Salento” – to sample cheese, Primitivo wine, taralli (like circular bread sticks, which can be sweet or savory, including flavors like olive [the darker ones in the photo below, right]).

I also bought some snacks for later, including the cartellate and some turmeric tarallini.

Bar Paisiello – to sample rustico (a soft puff pastry stuffed with tomato, bechamel, mozzarella and pepper)

Bar Prato – to sample pasticciotto, short pastry stuffed with lemon curd (no photo of this, as by this time I was simply eating and enjoying, rather than balancing food and phone)

Pasticceria Natale – to sample gelato (as one does, when in Italy…)


On another day, I took the train to Bari.  I’d been considering staying here instead of Brindisi, but the old town had some mixed comments on TripAdvisor, so I decided to stay in Brindisi.  Bari had some interesting parts, but overall it seemed larger, busier and less charming than Brindisi, so I was happy with my choice.

I wandered from the train station to Vecchio Bari (Old Bari), where I found what I was looking for… the streets where the local housewives make and sell pasta and other local products outside their homes.

The women sit outside their houses in the morning, making the pasta and then setting it to dry on screens.  The pasta they make is mostly orecchiette (“little ears”), made with flour and water, no eggs.

One of the guidebooks says that if you look interested, they’ll invite you into their house and make you a pasta lunch (for a charge, of course).  I arrived too late to do that… the streets were deserted and everyone was inside.

 

After lunch, however, the women and their goods came back out and the area came back to life.  Including what was apparently home-delivery of a cup of espresso by a waiter from a nearby cafe!

 

 

I bought some of the orchiette, which I made for dinner that night along with a sauce made from ricotta forte.  I mixed the thick paste with butter and some of the pasta water, but it’s still very, very pungent.  Come to think of it, it’s a pretty good metaphor for Puglia… simple but strong, not to everyone’s taste but rewarding for those who try it!  

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