Eating in Puglia
Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot that stretches along the Adriatic, is one long swath of olive trees– beautiful, noble, silvery, gnarled ones, mere babies at 50 years old. It’s not uncommon to see olive trees with enormous hollow sinuous trunks that are centuries old and still producing olives.
The Puglians are long lived too and I credit their diet. The northerners call it cucina povera because it’s based on such humble ingredients: dried fava beans and chickpeas, fifteen varieties of chicories and wild greens, pasta, bread and bread crumbs, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, fresh cheese, tiny amounts of meat and fish mostly preserved or cured, red wine, and gallons of olive oil. These ingredients in the hands of good Puglian cooks turn out to be as satisfying as meat and potatoes, and a lot more interesting
Besides, in Puglia a visitor really has no other choice than this traditional diet, unchanged for about 500 years. Food is directly connected to the land, the season, the occasion. People sit around the dinner table to honor, remember, celebrate. Days of the week have special dishes–pasta with meat on Thursday; fish on Friday; sweets on Sunday; vegetables and grains on the rest. The year begins in November with planting, when people eat seeds and nuts–grapes, pomegranates, walnuts. In the spring, the sprouting seeds are reborn, like Christ at Easter. August 15, a time of bounty, marks the Fest of the Virgin Mary. Food not only sustains but becomes ritual in Puglia.
I happened to be staying in a small town on the coast of Puglia just north of Bari. On the first night of my stay, locals on the street steered us to the sweet little Il Gatto e la Volpe a pizzeria with a wood burning oven where we had a delightfully tasty, iconic, Pugliese meal that would be repeated over and over again with varying degrees of finesse and elaboration.
The Puglian restaurant meal always starts with lots of small dishes, in this case pickled wild hyacinth bulbs with a bitter edge; thin slices of pickled eggplant; balls of just-made mozzarella with a delicacy and sweetness we rarely find here; dried fava bean puree beaten with olive oil and smothered with dark greens braised in olive oil; a bowl of cima di rape, slightly if excitingly bitter broccoli; hunks of mild salt cod cooked in a terracotta casserole in the wood buring oven with peppers and onions; wood oven baked flat breads dotted with intensely flavorful whole cherry tomatoes and olive oil; and for dessert, amaro liqueur drizzled on an ice cream ball. Only dessert was modern. With newly fermented Puglian red wine, call nuovo, the tab came to $15 a person.
One day a pal and I walked three miles up the coast to the town of Trani famous for an austerely rennovated Norman cathedral and a pretty port, where we were sent to another simple, local place by a shop owner. In the tiny open kitchen of Aqua e Farina we watched a sole woman chef she was cooking and then chose–a bowl of mussels steamed in olive oil and garlic; a plate of tiny fish fried in extra virgin olive oil; a salad of radicchio and arugula; tiny scrolls of fresh pasta with clams and baby shrimp; and skinny spiedini, skewers of juicy grilled pork and sausage. This was a veritable feast but all portions were small and manageable. The cooking was clean and light and the cost with a bottle of house red wine, which was all that was offered, $20. It couldn’t have been nicer.
But there are destination restaurants in Puglia. In the jewel-like,white washed hill town of Ostuni, about an hour south of Bari, at miniscule Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale, pixie-ish chef Marilea Santoro produces fabulous meals starting with a series of small plates: tiny polpettone, meatballs, fried in olive oil; puffy vegetable and cheese fritters scented with mint; olive oil fried wild artichoke beignets; juicy, fresh-tasting, hunks of just soaked salt cod on a tangle of wild chicory with the width of spaghetti; white eggplant custard; a crispy crepe-thin cup filled with cauliflower puree; wild cardoons, light green strands that evoke artichokes, self-seasoned with natural mineral salt; the most amazing pasta I have ever tasted made with wild cardoon and cardoncelli, a mild, moist, wild mushroom that grows in the same place as the cardoon; orechiette, tiny ear-shaped pasta with donkey (yes, that’s right) and tomato sauce (the lean, thinly sliced then rolled up meat tasted like young, grassfed beef), and then three sophisticated desserts: almond-shot ricotta puffs drizzled with caramel; a warm chocolate pear cake oozing in the center; and a rich crumbly crusted chocolate tart with almonds and hazelnuts.
This whole meal came out of a kitchen the size of a closet, really too small for two cooks. This is traditional Puglian cooking at its best. You don’t order. The family-style plates just appear. Our one choice was the pasta. Yet every night, the parade of antipasti and pastas change at this two year old restaurant, though the raw materials remain the same.
Ristorante da Tuccino, twenty minutes south of Bari is perched on a grotto above the sea. After you are seated in a comfortable but utilitarian dining room with tile floors, bright lighting but lovely thick pale yellow linen on the tables, the owner asks you to step back outside onto a patio with a tiled fish counter filled with ice and a sparkling array of sea animals to pick out what you will eat. He pointed to a small octopus for crudo–to eat raw. We were dubious. He pulled off a leg and handed it to me to taste. I gulped and took a bite. The flesh unexpectedly gave way and tasted briny, just like a bite of the sea. It was exhilarating. So we went wild, picking out not only baby ocotpus but creamy white cuttlefish, shrimp, langoustines, ridged clams and a slab of red tuna to eat as carpaccio over toasts, plus three different small fish each about six inches long, two of which had bright red skins–a mullet, a red sea bream and a scorpian fish. A gilt head bream completed the platter. The fish and shell fish were dressed with a few drops of Puglian extra virgin olive oil and lemon, and a few grains of sea salt. All the fish were skillfully split down the back, de-boned and the flesh sliced, but the scorpion fish was dressed with microscopic bits of caper and chive as well. When we had our fill of raw animals, the remains were whisked away and returned barely cooked, dusted in flour and gently fried in hot olive oil. The little clams were bread crumbed and broiled. The shrimp and langoustines were salted and grilled. But frankly, no langoustine or shrimp has tasted sweeter than the ones I ate raw. As cookbook writer and teacher Susan Hermann Loomis said as we finally left the table, “This was a holy experience.”
We paid $125 a person for it, with crisp yet fruity, local white wine from nearby Locorotondo. This experience would have cost $500 in Tokyo or Rome, if it even could be duplicated. And of course, the da Tuccino meal was a Pugliese anomaly–all fish and no vegetables save for some refreshing raw fennel, radishes, cucumbers and celery and carrots strewn with shaved ice, served at the end. Only in Puglia would a plate of raw vegetables constitute dessert.
Il Frantoio in Puglia
A mile from Ostuni off a lane lined wth olive trees, you will find the Masseria Il Frantoio, a working farm and olive plantation with eight guest rooms in a 19th century building lovingly restored by chef/owner Rosalba Ciannamea and her soulful, olive oil producing husband, Armando Balestrazzi. She cooks multi-course meals provisioned by the organic gardens of the farm, each dish created to show off one Il Frantoio’s five olive oils. He plies guests with his herb and fruit infused rosoli or liqueurs. Oranges from courtyard citrus trees are plucked for breakfast and every cookie and biscuit is baked in house. Flowers bloom profusely. Peacocks strut. Horses graze lazily in a nearby field, waiting to be saddled. The couple have created a bucolic paradise with the comforts and amenities of a well kept home. Rooms run $220 a night and include breakfast. Be sure to plan an evening around one of Rosalba’s famous meals.
Azienda Agrituristica Il Frantoio, SS 16, km 874, Ostuni www.masseriailfrantoio.it tel. & fax 0831.33 02 76
Il Gatto e la Volpe, via M. Storelli, 20, Bisceglie, tel. 0803 95 33 02
Aqua e Farina, via La Galante, 14, TraniIl Frantoio, Azienda Agrituristica Il Frantoio, SS 16, km 874, Ostuni www.masseriailfrantoio.it tel. & fax 0831.33 02 76
Ristorante da Tuccino, via S. Caterina 9/F, Polignano a Mare, 0804 24 15 60
Al Fornello da Ricci, contrada Montevicoli, just outside Ceglie Messapica 0831 37 71 04 A Michelin one star now run by the second generation of chefs in the family, locals still go for rustic, wood oven roasted lamb with arugula and radicchio salad plus an imaginative array of small plates still rooted in traditional ingredients.