When one goes to Italy, how well one eats is never one’s concern. In fact, I think when people travel to Italy, it’s often as much for the food as anything else.
In recent years, there has been a new destination enticing visitors, especially Americans looking to go beyond the well trodden locales: the region of Puglia, at the heel of the boot of Italy. And let me tell you, when it comes to food, Puglia does not disappoint. Here are my top five picks of what to eat there.
POLPETTE DI PANE
On one of my first trips to Puglia, to meet my new husband’s family, he bragged about the wonderful bread meatballs that his mother makes. Bread meatballs? Seriously? Considering everything that can be turned into a meatball, bread seemed like an odd choice.
Oh my gosh. I can’t tell you how life changing this most simple food was.
Bread meatballs were born as cucina povera, or poor people’s food. Families always had bread on hand, whereas meat was much more costly. Plus, stale bread then need not be wasted.
Bread Meatballs are essentially made with bread that has been soaked in water and squeezed until almost dry. Grated pecorino or parmigiana, parsley, eggs and garlic are added. The balls are shaped, fried and then served in a sweet fresh tomato sauce. They are fluffy, soft, light clouds of fried, cheesy bread. This is a dish not to be missed. The combination of the bread and cheese with the velvety center and crusty exterior, floating in the sweet tomato sauce, is honestly one of the most intoxicating dishes I have ever eaten.
If you can’t make it to my mother-in-law’s house to try hers (and, er, why would you? That would be weird), I suggest a trip to Gli Ulivi in Alberobello. The Bread Meatballs can be ordered as a second course or they come with the amazing Antipasti plate. Life’s too short — order both.
You know about burrata now, it was once an exotic novelty in the best Italian restaurants in America a few decades ago. Have you ever wondered what it would be like if mozzarella and cream had a baby? No? Moving on. Well, the answer would be burrata.
Burrata, meaning “buttered”, is a cheese lover’s dream. The outer shell is firm mozzarella, filled with stracciatella (imagine the most glorious fresh string cheese you can) and cream. You cut the firm outer layer to get to the creamy middle. Once the knife makes that first little cut, a slow, steady pool of cream will emerge. Fully sliced open, the beautiful white cream and soft, string curd flow. For a cheese lover, this is the definition of decadence.
I have seen restaurants throughout Puglia try to reinvent burrata. Maybe they will serve it with a pesto, over a bed of spinach puree or tossed with vegetables. But I have to tell you, to me, burrata is best served on its own. It wants for nothing. The only thing I would suggest eating it with is a good slice of fresh bread to soak up all that delicious creamy goodness.
PUREE DI FAVE CON CICORIA
Here is a dish you probably don’t know much about: Fava Bean Puree with Chicory.
This is another dish owing it’s inspiration to cucina povera. Dehydrated white fava beans are soaked, cooked, mashed, pureed and seasoned with salt and pepper and served with wild chicory. This is a dish vegans dreams of. That’s right. if prepared traditionally, this is a perfect vegan dish to enjoy on your travels, and back home.
Creamy, soft, silky puree of fava beans. I know. Fava beans — cue Hannibal Lecter joke here. Once again, as with many Italian specialities, what makes this dish so special is its simplicity. The beans are pureed and served as is, or you can add a potato, onions, garlic or carrots for a little extra kick. The puree is served with wilted cicoria dressed with olive oil. Cicoria — chickory in English — is quite strong, and it’s much more flavorful in Italy than the stuff we get in the States. The combination between the light smooth bean puree and bitter greens works beautifully.
You will find this on many menus in Puglia. Many go traditional, some add their own touch. Either way, if prepared well with the right quality ingredients, it’s delicious. I recently enjoyed a version at Piazza Antica, one of my favorite restaurants in Noci, which really stood out to me. The Fava Bean Puree was served with chicory bathed in olive oil, blistered friggitelli peppers, (a sweet Italian chili pepper) and crunchy fried red onions. With a drizzle of olio con peperoncino or spicy oil, this dish is complete.
If you like pizza and calzones, have I got a dish for you! Panzerotti is a savory turnover that resembles a calzone. Traditionally, they are deep fried, (though you can find them baked as well) and stuffed with creamy mozzarella and tomato sauce. This a classic street food in Puglia. They’re quick, inexpensive and can be eaten with one hand. What more could you want?
Panzerotti comes from the Italian word for stomach (pancia). They are easy to come across on pretty much any corner in Puglia, so you need to be careful. Though a Pugliese dish, it is not always easy to find a really good Panzerotti. Just like with pizza, if the dough is not perfect, you are left with a bready, heavy stone. The dough for Panzerotti is more like a rich, flaky pie crust. If it’s not fried in the right oil at the right temperature, you’re eating a greasy hockey puck. Nobody wants to eat a greasy hockey puck.
The shell is fried to a beautiful light golden brown and when made properly the dough should be light and airy with perfect little air bubbles. The Panzerotti are then stuffed with cheese and tomato sauce. If you want to be a rebel, it’s easy to find Panzerotti with other tempting treats inside, such as capers, prosciutto and mushrooms. I prefer to keep it classic.
When eaten fresh, there is nothing better. With the crispy fried dough, oozing hot mozzarella and sweet tomato sauce, that first bite says it all. I dare you not to lick your fingers after every morsel.
ORECCHIETTE CON CIME DI RAPE
This is probably the most recognized dish from Puglia. Orecchiette with Cime di Rape (pronounced rah-pey), or broccoli rabe as we know it.
Orecchiette, meaning little ears, is a pasta that originated in Puglia and is traditionally made by hand. It has always been one of my favorite pasta shapes. It has the perfect “bite” and holds up to certain sauces beautifully. But my absolute favorite way to enjoy orecchiette is with cime di rape, a member of the turnip family, resembling broccoli while sprouting a head with edible light yellow flowers. It is quite bitter, especially if not cooked properly.
The classic way to serve this dish is tossing your orecchiette with lots of sautéed garlic, good extra virgin olive oil, blanched broccoli rabe and a dash of peperoncino, hot pepper flakes. Quite honestly, it is a dish so simply prepared, yet so easy to mess up. Why? Because the simplest dishes are often the most difficult to prepare, usually due to lack of quality ingredients and a good hand. Italians have perfected the art of making a dish so simple yet spectacularly delicious.
Fresh orecchiette, cooked perfectly al dente, bathed in olive oil, served with perfectly bitter broccoli rabe and that kick of garlic makes for an unbelievable dish. Go to pretty much any restaurant in the whole of Puglia and you will find this on the menu. I’ll leave it to you to find the best version, consider it a treasure hunt.
These five treats are just the beginning. I didn’t mention beautiful fluffy fresh focaccia stuffed with caramelized onions, sweet buttery cookies made with almond paste, or crunchy fresh taralli, a sort of sweet or savory cracker, with fennel seeds. The list of deliciousness is endless.
Have fun eating your way through Puglia… I know I do!