Puglia is unlike any other part of Italy.
In contrast to the lush, green, rolling vineyards of Piedmont and Tuscany, Puglia's dry, arid plains of red dirt and grey-green olive groves, give way to sun drenched, sandy beaches and whitewashed hilltop villages. In some ways, it is a region more reminiscent of Greece than anything I've clapped eyes on before in bella Italia.
Puglia is posited right down in the south-east, in the heel of Italy's boot. While it seems to be the secret escape of Italians for their summer holidays, I heard no more than 2 pairs of tourists speak English over the course of our week long stay - and most restaurants don't have English speakers or English menus. Despite that, and our hopeless Italian, it's easy to get by and the almost primitive, non touristy feel of the area more than makes up for the occasional lunch order gone haywire.
(Pugliese traffic jam)
Olive oil is big here. Puglia produces 60% of Italy's olive oil, which is no surprise as you meander past acres and acres of endless, gnarly olive trees. The quality is excellent and you can taste it in virtually every dish.
Masserias are traditional walled farms, unique to Puglia, which have now been restored to cater for Italian tourists but many of them are still functioning farms which put on traditional meals at night. We stayed at Masseria Salamina, in the middle of nowhere but not far from Ostuni. We ate one fairly standard meal there on our first night, but it did give us an early insight into the local favours and provided an easy roll into bed after a smashing bottle of Primitivo Sud (Feudi di San Marzano). Although our room was nothing special, we were in it for the central location and and to recline by the mighty fine pool among the olive groves. There are plenty of private apartments, agriturismos and other masseria and relais options available in Puglia.
My favourite places to eat in Puglia:
(This pic does not adequately capture theglory - and portion sizes - at Osteria Perricci)
1. Osteria Perricci, Monopoli (1 via Orazio Comes 1, tel: +39 080 937 22008, near the port) - If you go to Monopoli, promise me you'll have lunch here. We discovered this bustling little place as we spent our final hours lounging on the beach on our way to the airport. If we had known about it earlier, we would have become regulars (and possibly bought a flat above it).
Over 100 years old, this osteria has no menu and no-one speaks English - and it's packed with happy, feasting hordes of people. We picked up the odd word like scampi and prawns as dish suggestions were prattled off to us in Italian, then settled the score by pointing around us to what we wanted with the odd key word thrown in, and lots of smiling and nodding. After rolling in from the Monopoli beach, we feasted on a large plate of fritti misti (including fish, sardines, prawns, scampi, octopus, squid - about 6 euro) and a huge platter of spaghetti with scampi and tomato sauce (meant for 1 but looked like a family meal - 6 euro). To start we were given 2 small, free bruschettas with tomato, garlic and olive oil - and it was quite easily the best I've ever tasted. With a large bottle of coke, slices of melon to finish, an espresso and the cover charge ("coperto"), the bill came to 22 euros for 2. Bargain. The atmosphere here is fantastic and there were so many fabulous looking pasta dishes on display, I would almost go back to Puglia to work my way through them all if nothing else - if you order the same pasta for 2 you get a gigantic serving bowl to share.
2. Ristorante "Spessite", Ostuni (pictured above - we were last to leave) - Simple, regional, rustic cooking by a husband and wife team in this small restaurant built into the face of the cliff. Mama is super friendly, and although she doesn't speak a syllable of English (and there's no menu) she's happy to use hand motions and slow talking Italian to walk you through your options. There's antipasti, a couple of choices of pasta, seafood and dolce. Asking for a macchiato at the end was met with a firm no - they do "only normale" (espresso).
I had 3 plates of antipasti - a nice selection of 2 mozzarella type cheeses, salami and prosciutto, and an array of antipasti vegetables cooked in various ways and often stuffed and baked - including an olive (oddly) stuffed with meat and fried in breadcrumbs. TPG eased back with a bowl of orrechiette with fresh tomato, basil and olive oil - cooked perfectly, this was simplicity itself. A 500ml jug of the local wine cost 3 euros. We also had a cassata and our normale coffee - all for 20 Euros. The atmosphere and the Mama are as much a part of why this place rocks as the food itself.
(Fish baked in paper at Tempo del Perso)
3. Tempo del Perso, Ostuni (via G Tanzarella Vitale, 42, ph +39 0831 304819 - hard to find, but ask someone) - This one is fairly positively covered by the travel press at the FeedetGastro blog. Built into the cliff, the cave like room has a great atmosphere and the food is elegant and of top quality. Things got off to a good start with a free glass of prosecco each, a fried potato amuse bouche and a warm basket of thick, hearty olive bread. By now, I was already smiling. But then we didn't like the bottle of wine that was opened for us - it wasn't corked, we just didn't like it (we had said we wanted a nice Primitivo for around 20 euros without being given a chance to describe further). No problem, our waiter simply changed it without a worry in the world, and we switched to a smooth Negroamaro Malvasia.
TPG's orrechiette con le cimi di rapa (turnip tops) with anchovies and bread crumbs (a Pugliese signature dish) was excellent, but not as good as the one I will describe below at Cattedrale. My choice of ragu of donkey meatballs was sold out but I wasn't disappointed by my baked straccetti with smoked cheese, eggplant and tomato. TPG's seabase baked in paper and topped with frutti del mare, cherry tomatoes and olive oil was a small touch of heaven (pictured above). My thick slab of steak (a little overcooked at medium) came with the local rucola and parmiagana. Complimentary mango and berry icecreams on sticks were presented, and finished with an oaked grappa - utterly divine. This was one of our more expensive meals at 83 euros for 2, including wine and service. Food was similar in style to that at Cattedrale below, but the atmosphere was much more lively here - and just down the narrow lane, wedged between white buildings, are some of the best bars and night action around.
(Orrechiette con le cime di rapa at Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale)
4. Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale, Ostuni (via Arridiacono Trinchera, 7 tel: 0831/335026) - The atmosphere was quiet and the small, elegant room looked formal, but service was friendly and helpful, and the atmosphere was relaxed - there was even a bit of a singalong for a guitar player singing Italian ballads at one point. The food is more refined than at the average Puglian restaurant and it's a cut above many places. I had the best bowl of pasta of the trip here - the orrechiette con le cime di rapa (turnip tops), anchovies and breadcrumbs (see above). Here this classic Pugliese dish was at its finest. TPG's squid ink orrechiette with fresh tomatoes, chickpeas, squid and parsley was lovely in all its summery, salty glory. TPG followed up with the best beef dish of the trip - slices of rare steak with a plain salad - while my very lamby lamb cutlets with a colourful, finely chopped medley of vegetables was also lovely. We accompanied it all with a bottle of Negroamara for 20 euros, and finished with a crème anglaise and pastry with caramel sauce. The meal was around 75 euros for two including wine and service (good value). The food was terrific, but the lack of ambience lets this place down slightly.
(Trattoria Nona Maria)
5. Trattoria Nona Maria, Monopoli (piazza Garibaldi, 5, tel: 080/9301997, pictured above) - We sat in the piazza under the clock tower, some religious murals and pink bougainvilleas spilling down from the tree tops. We arrived late (at 10pm) but didn't eat a bite (apart from some complimentary olives) until 11pm - however, the painfully slow service was our only complaint about this place. Plates of grilled seafood, octopus and large prawns (all simply grilled with olive oil and lemon), salad and superb fries (we didn't order them, but couldn't seem to get that message across) were terrific and the atmosphere was fun. We spent around 40 euros for two including a bottle of local Canoncino Negroamaro for 10 euros. (Bowls of pasta range from 5 - 8 euros).
(All at Masseria Il Frantoio)
6. Masseria Il Frantoio, just outside Montalbano (ss. 16, km 874; tel: 0831.330276) - This is a working farm (masseria) which puts on an 8 course meal on most nights. Only here did we hear an American accent - don't go if you want to avoid the touristy feel. Otherwise, book ahead and turn up at 8pm for a tour and explanation of the history and workings of a Pugliese masseria, including a close up gander a the giant stone olive presses. By 9, we were seated for puffed up pillows of fried bread pasta, with a side of a sweet, rich tomato sauce for dipping. These were so glorious I hardly knew what to do with myself - probably the simplest dish of the night, but also the highlight.
A range of very well executed regional dishes followed - zucchini flowers filled with cheese and fried, fava bean pure with little tomatoes and green peppers (another favourite), pickled octopus with tomato and a zucchini cream, a tremendous summer vegetable soup with uneven, rough cut pasta which remained al dente despite sitting in the broth, a gratatina (giant meatballs) of veal with Negroamaro wine sauce with potatoes and thyme, a mixed salad with almonds and a cakey dolce with an olive liqueur and disgusting sweet olives.
We were provided with a bottle of white and then red to ourselves (no choice, but both good). Our bill came to a rather hefty 115 euros, but we certainly had an excellent overview of the local fare, the setting is gorgeous (big tables were set up in the courtyard) and the food and wine of good quality. Probably one you only need to do once. And it does get a bit annoying that the owner, Armand, makes the rounds to each table after each course repeating the same spiel about the dish - for example, regarding the dessert "it is like the sigh-a at the end of the meal-a, when the sigh-a is met by an olive". Yeah, we weren't so sure either. But otherwise, all good.
My favourite towns to visit:
Many of Puglia's towns are like ghost towns in the middle of the day when everything closes for siesta - although this can be a great time to explore. Just make sure you get any necessary shopping done early in the morning, or wait until after 5pm. But then, townships come alive at night - you'll wonder where everyone has sprung from.
1. Ostuni - Gorgeous white hilltop town, which at night is a lively, bustling metropolis of Italians - young and old. Don't miss the alley where Tempo Del Corso is located at night - it's littered with excellent pizzerias (one with a view of the sunset) and is a hive of activity with bars lining the narrow stair cases. (Pictured above and below)
2. Monopoli (pictured below)- A whitewashed town, right on the coast with a lovely beach clear blue waters and sandy shore looking up onto the edge of the city. It also has a small port filled with colourful fishing boats. A lovely place to wander the maze of streets seeking solace in the shade and some great places to eat.
3. Alberobello (pictured below)- The incredible sea of limestone trulli huts with conical roofs comprising this Smurf town make it a must-visit (despite the fact it’s easily the most touristy, souvenir shop infested place on the Puglian map). It's a UNESCO World Heritage site. Reach it via a drive through the Valley D'Itria which is a long stretch of farmland scattered with trulli huts and olive trees.
4. Polignano a Mare (pictured below)- We first saw this town at night, when I think it is at its glimmering best. White buildings and restaurants are built into the cliff face, overlooking a small, pebbly beach. Crazy holiday goers jump from the cliffs to the chants of the crowd during the day. There's a great take away Focacceria on the main street, and I can personally vouch for the gelatos in this town (it seems to be known for them).
5. Lecce (pics below) - Baroque architecture, huge empty piazzas, ornate churches and unearthed Roman ruins make this a worthwhile day trip. I had a sensational watermelon granita here made from fresh watermelon - perfection.
My favourite beaches:
Anywhere on the coast between Lecce and Monopoli. Monopoli is a lovely one to visit as it's right on the edge of town where you can stop at my favourite place for lunch. However, drive south along the coast from there and you'll see lots of sandy beaches which are more excluded. About 20 minutes north of Lecce was my favourite beach with white sand, beautiful clear blue waters, and a little beach club nearby with people dancing in a big circle in the water dancing to cheesy music - but who knows what it was called?
Wines to look out for:
First tip. Don't drive all the way to Cantine Due Palme (maker of award winning local wines) without triple checking your tasting reservation or they won't let you do it - even if they're all standing around staring at the walls. Our masseria had made a reservation for us, but it somehow went through to the keeper. That was 120 minutes we could have spent reclining by the pool. We've brought home a bottle of their Selvarossa Riserva which came highly recommended and I can't wait to try.
Anyhoo...Puglia is the home of Primitivo, Negroamaro and Malvasia grapes. Cheap and cheerful reds and dry whites are plentiful, but there's also some big, gorgeous Chardonnays and a Primitivo Sud which is so smooth and velvety it will almost bring a tear to the eye...