I’ve been lucky enough to experience the beautiful scenes of Puglia for the last 38 years of my life. My pops made sure that my brother and I had a strong connection with our Southern Italian heritage by bringing us on annual summer holidays where we integrated with our Italian family, the culture, which included eating the local cuisine.
Over the last few years, since starting The Tiny Italian, I have really embraced Puglian cooking and it heavily inspires my recipe creations. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent researching recipes and recreating them in my Peckham kitchen. I would like to think that my Nonna Gina would be proud that her London ‘nipotina‘ had fully adopted her Italian food roots. Don’t get me wrong, I am a lover of all all Italian regional cooking, but the honesty and simplicity of Puglian dishes will always hold a special place in my heart.
Puglia and food
If some of you don’t know, Puglia is the most southern eastern region in Italy, facing the adriatic coast and is generally flat in comparison to the other Italian mountainous areas . It’s brimming with olive groves, fields of durum wheat and grape vines, forming the holy trinity of southern Italian food – Olive oil, pasta/bread and wine. Renowned for being a farmers region, vegetables and pulses are the centre of Puglia’s cucina povera with meat playing a smaller part. Fish and seafood are enjoyed along the coastline especially in Salento (where my family are from), which borders with both the Ionic and Adriatic coastline.
Travelling around, its common to come across a Masseria – a traditional Puglian farmhouses. Some have opened their doors to the public, making it possible to not only lodge there but also feast on local dishes created solely with the produce harvested and reared on their land.
First hand experience
I always try to explain and describe to people how good the food is in Puglia. Even though I recreate many a dish at home, its not always that simple as the quality of ingredients in London are not always as good as those sourced in the southern Italian region. Most fresh food is naturally organic and easily available which automatically changes the depth of flavour. So to understand what you’re missing you will need to travel over and try for yourself.
To experience the best Puglian food experience, there are a few foods and dishes I recommend you try. These are a handful of the options that are available to you and I may have only scratched the surface. However, I believe its a great starting point for you and includes great vegetarian and vegan options.
Burrata is one of the most popular Puglian cheeses now found in the western world. Over the last few years, its been common to find featured in most Italian or european restaurant menus in the UK. You may have already tried it yourself, but how many of you already knew that it came from this southern Italian region?
Burrata – which means buttery, has the outer case of a mozzarella, but filled with cream and stracciatella (small shreds of buffalo milk cheese). Slicing one in the middle is one of the most sexiest things you could ever do. You can find it freshly sold in most local supermarkets from the deli counter. It’s not as heavily featured at restaurants as it is here. Usually found at masseria’s if they specialise in cheese. Served with just a drizzle of olive oil and maybe some rocket.
You’re probably thinking what is this frisella. So let me explain. The frisella is a large biscuit of durum wheat (also can be made with barley or a combination of both). It’s cooked in the oven, cut in half horizontally and baked again in the oven. Its rock hard. You couldn’t eat it as is. You would lose a tooth or choke on it as it’s so dry. So what do you do with it?
Many, many moons ago, I remember my Nonna G would make us a frisella as part of our evening snack. I would be fascinated how she would prepare them. She would grab a frisella and dunk it into a blue plastic bowl of cold water for a few seconds. She would then plate it. Next, she would slice a tomato in half, and squeeze out the tomato seeds before using the tomato skin to spread them across the surface. She would then chop the remainder of the tomato and place it on top. Repeat with the other half. Drizzle over extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle dry oregano and season with salt. That is one way of eating it.
You can enjoy it with so many other toppings; tuna and tomato, roasted peppers, left over veg and the list goes on. Such a versatile food. I can guarantee that 99% of Puglians have frisella in their cupboards.
You can find them prepared at small casual eating spots or at a sagra (a food festival where the town celebrate a local food or drink). Or head to local supermarket, where you can buy them in bulk and prepare them yourself at home.
Sagne or orecchiette & macaroni with fresh tomato sauce and cacio ricotta
As some of you may know, pasta is a very important part of Italian food heritage. Each region has its own shapes and sauces that it prides it self on and Puglia is no different. Unlike the north of Italy, pasta is eggless in the south and made with durum wheat or semolina or a combination of both with just water. So vegans, this is the place for you if you want some great home made pasta.
There are 3 pasta shapes that are popular down these ends.
Sagne – Its cut into thick flat ribbons and then twisted.
Orecchiette – known as little ears.
Maccheroni– Thin small tubes. Both orecchiette and maccheroni are usually served together in Puglia.
There are many different sauces that go with these pasta shapes. But in my opinion, pasta served with a fresh tomato home made sauce with grated cacio ricotta is one of the best. Puglian tomatoes are the most outstanding that I have ever tasted. They taste what tomatoes should taste like, so juicy and sweet. There is no other place on this earth where you will find tomato sauce like this. Finish off the dish with grated cacio ricotta. It’s a mix of sheep and goats milk, a hybrid of cheese (cacio) and ricotta, hence the name. Its a creamy cheese with a slightly firm texture.
Pure di fave e cicorielle and Muersi fritti
The next two dishes for me go hand and hand and really represent the term ‘cucina povera‘. These go way back in time and represent the type of dishes people use to eat back in the day when eating meat was not an option.
Pure di fave e cicorielle – dry broad bean puree served with sautéed cicorie (which is an edible wild plant found in these ends, actually part of the dandelion family- cool fact huh?!) served with bread.
Muersi fritti or Panecotto – fried stale bread (nothing would get wasted) cooked in olive oil with broccoli rabe and cannelloni beans. To be honest, this dish can be made with anything. Whatever vegetable or pulses were available at the time
These two recipes are extremely honest and reflect some of the tougher times in the south. However, these are still embraced by the locals and never forgotten, appreciating the better times now.
These dishes are usually found at a local masseria or a sagra.
When it comes to cakes and pastries, the Pugliese know what they are doing. The ‘pasticceria‘ – bakery/pastry shops are unreal. Breakfast is the best and you can get a wide selection of baked goodies. However, for me one of the most iconic pastries of all is the pasticiotto. There are many versions of this all over Italy. However, the real fact is that these originated from Galatina, in Salento. So if you want the real thing, you must try them in Puglia. Short crust pastry tarts filled with custard which has a hint of lemon, baked in the oven and usually served warm.
Warning: these get very addictive and before you know it, you’ve put on three stone. But if you’re happy. Got for it!
As mentioned before, meat plays a small part in the local cuisine. However, if there is a meat dish you have to try, hunt down Bombette. These are fantastic meat rolls. Originally from the Bari area, these are the ultimate Puglian street food. Originally made with thin slices of pork (capocollo, neck fillet) filled with caciocavallo cheese (strong aged cows milk cheese), parsley, salt and pepper. Usually served roasted or chargrilled.
They originated from the fact that the Pugliese couldn’t afford to eat meat especially during and after the war. So they created these bad boys with any scraps of meat they could find. Little did they know that their poverty created an incredible delicacy for us to enjoy. Grazie mille!!!
You can find all different versions of bombette. I had some with speck and smoked mozzarella, pancetta, others wrapped in courgette. However the original version to me is the go to bombette.
Another popular street food that you can grab and eat it on the go is the focaccia barese. The best way to describe it is the puglian version of a pizza. Thick doughy bread topped or filled with a number of different toppings.
Toppings include, tomato, olives and capers, or tomato sauce with sautéed rabe, peppers and capers or even stuffed with salami and mozzarella. To be honest, the list of options could be as long as my arm and leg put together. The perfect snack to have while chilling on the beach or in the evening.
Tiella di riso, cozze e patate
As mentioned previously, a lot of fresh fish and seafood is eaten along the coastline. There are so many beautiful dishes that you can try. However tiella di riso, cozze e patate from Bari is a fantastic and super original dish. Baked rice dish with mussels and potato. Flavoured with onions, tomatoes and courgette. It may not be the prettiest of dishes but, god-dammit it taste so friggin-fabulous. You can find it at local seafood restaurants or ‘friggetoria‘ – an Italian version of a fish and chips. There, you will find a wide range of fish and seafood to choose from, which you then get prepared in front of you the way you wish.
Finally all the fresh food and vegetables are incredible. You can find stalls everywhere you go. When you do find one, please go, touch, smell, buy, eat etc etc. You will never view vegetables the same way ever again.
Apart from these fantastic food recommendations, there are a few other travel tips I would love to give you.
- Avoid August, especially the second and third week of the month. Its in the middle of Ferragosto – an Italian bank holiday. It gets crazy busy and hectic.
- Please hire a car. Its so hard to get around without one. Public transport is so limited and doesn’t reach all places. So you will better off relying on yourself to get around.
- Arm yourself with a few words and phrases in Italian. This part of the country is not like some of the other touristy parts of Italy. Though a lot of the younger generation can speak basic english, the older generation, is fair to say, have zero knowledge. However, the people are very proud and protective of their region. If you show an effort to try and speak the language, it will get you far. People in Puglia are so kind and helpful and your experience could completely change if you create a friendship with a local.
- If you would like to take part in an amazing food tour, then check out Salento food porn for greatly priced tours and food experience. Ill be sharing a blog post very soon.
- Try and find out about the local festa or sagra during your stay (local food festival) where you will get a true experience of the people, the culture, the music and of course the food.
6. The beaches are incredible and they call them the Italian Caribbean. Apart from the beaches, there are some amazing natural pools and bays where you can swim in the clearest blue of waters. My faves are Grotta della Poesia in Roca and Porto Badisco.
My mouth has just been watering non stop from writing all this up for you. Some of my best food memories all come from Puglia. I hope this list will help you get the best food experience when you go and visit this magnificent part of Italy. I have been going for 38 years and never have I ever got tired or bored of it. Be ready to embrace something magical.